The House with Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) is a little weird. Old-fashioned, in a sense: in the second half of the seventies, the giallo was in decline, wandering into the dustbin of obsolescence just like the Gothic horror genre it had replaced. The trend towards outré gory exploitation was already clear, even if most of the zombie and cannibal films that would exemplify this tendency hadn't been released yet.
In comes The House with Laughing Windows, and it's at once a throwback to chaster times - no series of elaborate murders here - and a weirdly experimental thing: a post-giallo, perhaps, both chronologically and thematically. It's a coincidence - Avati could hardly know that the time he finally moved from his earlier Gothic horror-comedies to the giallo would be an age of transition - but it's an interesting one. It's an exercise in deconstruction: Avati explores the spaces between the traditional beats of the giallo and discovers new loci of terror.
The film is set in a small marshland town in Emilia-Romagna. Struggling artist Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) has been commissioned by the diminutive mayor, Solmi (Bob Tonnelli), to restore a fresco of St Sebastian by an infamously morbid, long-dead artist that's recently been discovered at the parish church. Stefano also rents a room at the villa of a bed-ridden old woman, Laura (Pina Borione), begins a relationship with a young teacher, Francesca (Francesca Marciano), and is increasingly freaked out by the painting and the town's many strange residents.
That's really it. There's a death early in the film, but where in most gialli that would trigger Stefano's investigation (with the requisite crucial bit of detail buried in his memory), it mostly sets off an hour of thickening atmosphere here. It's a broody mood piece, largely free of outrageous murders and, to the shock of every giallo aficionado, entirely bereft of trenchcoat-wearing black-gloved killers. Instead of progressive plot movement, we get foreboding galore and a sudden rush towards a final twist that doesn't win any sense-making competitions.
Not that The House with Laughing Windows is tastefully free of violence. The film opens with the dead artist Legnani's insane, bloodthirsty ramblings playing over footage of a murder, and the ending is in a similar vein. For all that the giallo is violent, it tends not to reduce the human body to meat to the extent that The House with Laughing Windows does in crucial sequences; despite being extraordinarily invested in Italian particularity in every other respect, here the film feels like the horror films coming out of the United States at the same time, or indeed the cannibal film that was about to consume the Italian horror industry. What I'm saying, I guess, is that Avati's uncredited work on the screenplay of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) doesn't seem entirely out of character.
The film boasts a strong cast, beginning with a compelling central performance by Capolicchio. A classic giallo protagonist in the sense of being an outsider having to navigate an alien place and community, Capolicchio nevertheless remains opaque himself instead of being an easy audience stand-in. And this is the right choice: by only allowing us a loose and tentative anchor, Avati increases the sense of unease. Marciano is similarly great; but if I had to nominate a best-in-show it would be Borione's wonderful, unsettling weirdness.
The connection between sexual transgression and murderous violence is well-established in the giallo, even if it never became codified into the rigid sex-equals-death moralism of the slasher film. Avati takes those lingering shots of lacerated flesh and pushes them further, into a film that connects, spoiler, wickedness to gender-bending. Its sexual politics is now more obviously problematic, but hasn't lost all the potency it held in the seventies. And that goes for The House with Laughing Windows as a whole: in deviating from the conventional structure of the giallo, it's perhaps the most chilling film in the genre this side of Bava or Argento.