The Painter of Agonies

Pupi Avati Making a Movie
Above: Pupi Avati

At this time of the year it seems like every film critic suddenly becomes an expert on horror films and starts publishing their quickly put together “Top 10 Scary Movie Moments” or “Best Films to Watch on Halloween.” These lists are often compiled by people who’ve seen a limited amount of films and their horror selections are often tired and stale. Does anyone really still need to be told that a Criterion DVD release like Carnival of Souls is worth watching? Or horror classics like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are “must see” movies? With that complaint out of the way, I’d like to bring your attention to the name of one director who really deserves a lot more attention, and that is Pupi Avati.

Unfortunately the name Pupi Avati tends to elicit chuckles instead of respect, which is a shame. Avati created some of the most fascinating and chilling horror films to ever come out of Italy during the seventies and eighties, and he’s worked with many well-known Italian filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lucio Fulci and Lamberto Bava.

As a director Avati has never stuck to one film genre. Besides horror films he’s made musicals, comedies and romances. I’m sure that’s one reason why his films are often overlooked by horror fans, who tend to favor directors that work almost exclusively in the horror genre. Another reason Avati is probably not as well-known or respected as other Italian genre directors is due to the fact that so many of his films are impossible to find and most of them have never been released in America until recently.

The director has made at least 3 or 4 horror or fantasy films that I’m aware of, and I’ve only been able to see two of them myself (The House with Laughing Windows and Zeder) since they were released as part of the Image Euroshock DVD collection in the U.S. Even though I’ve only seen a few of his films, I find Avati to be one of the most fascinating filmmakers I’ve ever come across. His horror films are deliberately paced and extremely thoughtful. They explore esoteric themes and interesting concepts about life and death, but unlike many of his contemporaries, his films lack gore and effects. They also tend to lack nudity and sex which some critics find bothersome, since his perceived prudishness could be seen as conflicting with the sexual themes in his films.

The absence of excessive gore and nudity in Avati’s films is probably the final and most obvious reason why his movies have so often been overlooked by horror fans who tend to be male and often prefer their horror films with plenty of violence and bare breasts. That’s not to say that The House with Laughing Windows (1976) and Zeder (1983) don’t contain any violence or nudity, but compared to most Italian directors from the same period such as Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Avati’s films could be seen as much less visceral. They tend to generate their scares and evocative mood more from what the audience doesn’t see, instead of what’s put before them on screen. I personally find Avati’s style of filmmaking extremely smart and sophisticated. He seems to mix the best aspects of classic gothic Italian horror films with the most interesting aspects of modern Italian horror films, and this gives his work a very personal look and feel that is all his own.

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The House with Laughing Windows is the earliest Avati film that I’ve seen and it’s easily one of the best Italian thrillers made in the ’70s. According to the video interview with the director and his crew that accompanies the DVD, the script was written five or six years before the film was made, but it was re-written right before filming began. I suspect that the changes might have been somewhat inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was made in 1973 since both films share a few similarities, but that’s impossible to confirm since The House with Laughing Windows was supposedly written years earlier. Fans of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man might also see some similarities between Avati’s movie and that British thriller. One thing seems certain; the script clearly has some references to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975) in it. Avati contributed to Pier Pasolini’s original script for Salo right before making The House with Laughing Windows and it’s easy to make a connection between the two movies since they both explore ideas about torture and sadism.

The House with Laughing Windows opens with a brutal scene involving a mysterious man being tortured and stabbed. It’s creatively shot with muted tones and quick cuts that take away a bit of the shock it elicits, but some viewers will immediately be reminded of Pasolini’s Salo. Avati has said that his Catholic upbringing deeply effects his filmmaking and that becames apparent while watching the opening minutes of The House with Laughing Windows. Throughout the course of the film, Avati will evoke Catholic imagery and iconography over and over again in some subtle and very unsubtle ways.

After the film’s somewhat graphic opening minutes, we’re introduced to the movie’s main protagonist, a man named Stephano (Lino Capolicchio) who has come to a small and beautiful Italian village to restore a decaying fresco painting on the wall of an old church that vividly depicts the slaughter of St. Sebastian. We’re immediately made aware that this small town is a bit odd simply due to its unusual inhabitants which include dwarves, ghost-like women, depraved altar boys and raving drunks, among others.

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Stephano finds the fresco in the church extremely lifelike and as the film progresses we follow him on a quest to learn more about the mysterious artist who created it known as “The Painter of Agonies.” Along the way Stephano is plagued by threatening phone calls and he receives unusual clues from the town’s odd inhabitants, which often lead to murder. As the bodies start to pile up, questions surrounding the fresco’s artist become more and more complex, and Stephano realizes he’s uncovering clues to a disturbing mystery that no one in the town wants solved. The House with Laughing Windows isn’t a typical giallo film and I hesitate to use the term here, but it does have plenty of giallo-style flourishes that should appeal to fans of the genre.

Avati manages to create an unsettling mood and sustain it throughout the entire duration of the film until it’s unforgettable climax. The director makes full use of shadows and the lovely local scenery. Avati also takes every opportunity available to him to shoot his characters out of windows and doors, or looking through and at windows and doorways. Windows and doors are impressively used as a visual motif over and over again throughout the film, which helps to beautifully highlight the movie’s primary themes.

Avati made The House with Laughing Windows with a crew of 12 and a budget that wouldn’t pay for the catering bill of most Hollywood productions. The movie is an excellent example of the creativity and ingenuity of European directors making genre films during the seventies, and I really can’t recommend it enough. Once you see The House with Laughing Windows it’s impossible to forget it.

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Avati’s 1983 thriller Zeder is just as good, if not better than The House with the Laughing Windows, and it’s also well worth seeking out if you’re interested in seeing more of the directors work, or just want to watch a incredibly effective horror film.

As I mentioned above, The House with Laughing Windows is available on DVD from Image as part of their terrific Euroshock Collection and it was originally released in 2002. The film is presented in widescreen with English subtitles and the print is excellent. The DVD also comes with a really nice documentary about the making of the film, which features Pupi Avati, as well as many cast and crew members. Other extras include a Lobby Card Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer.

Avati is currently 69 years old and working on a new thriller called The Hideout, which should be completed this year. His latest film was shot in America and it features an international cast that includes Burt Young, Treat Williams, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Yvonne Sciò, Laura Morante and Michael Cornelison. I have no idea of Avati’s latest film will be released in the America, but since it’s an international production I hope it gets a wide release.

If you’d like to see more images from Pupi Avati’s film, please see my House with Laughing Windows Flick Gallery.

16 thoughts on “The Painter of Agonies

  1. Jonathan Lapper says:

    I’ll try not to accidentally bold this entire comment like I did before.

    Foreign horror films are one area where I am sorely lacking in knowledge. But the whole idea of less is more appeals to me greatly and Avati sounds just like that the way you describe him. It’s one of the reasons I have a little fondness for movies of today where even period dramas like the second Elizabeth are weighed down with cgi. No one seems to know how to just make it simple anymore. My queue is so filled up that these will take a while to get to me but The Demon is finally coming in my next batch and that’s one I never would have even known about without you.

    Who knows, within a year or so I might be able to comment on the actual films instead of just what I’ve read from you. Thanks for the continuing education Kimberly.

  2. Mike says:

    I’m not the biggest fan of House With the Laughing Windows (there were elements I liked a lot), but I do find Avati to be pretty fascinating and plan on watching Zeder sometime soon. There’s a pretty great article on Avati in the fabulous Eyeball Compendium from FAB Press. I’m especially curious about his 1996 The Arcane Enchanter, as I always like comparing a directors work from the hyper-creative 70s and the (closer to) present.

  3. cinebeats says:

    Jonathan – I’m not sue what you’ll think of Avati’s films if you get a chance to see them, but if you do. I’d be curious to see what you have to say about them. I also hope you’ll find The Demon interesting. I’m glad you enjoy my random movie rambles. I hope to write about a few more of the films on my “31 Films That Give Me the Willies List” soon.

    Mike – I seem to be in the minority when it comes to my admiration for Avati and I really can’t understand why, since I find his films fascinating and extremely effective. I don’t own The Eyeball Compendium, but I obviously should. Hopefully Avati’s latest film will get a wide release. Due to the current popularity of horror films in the U.S. at the moment I assume it has a good chance of getting released here.

  4. Keith says:

    Great blog, Kimberly. I’ve actually never seen any of his films. I’ve heard mixed reaction about Avati and his films. Personally I’d like to see some of his work. This blog definitely inspired me to try to watch what I can. Thanks for such a wonderful article, enlightening me about about this filmmaker.

  5. dave s says:

    It’s a conincidence that you’ve just posted about Pupi Avati since I’ve just ordered a DVD copy of “The House With Laughing Windows”. I’ve never seen any of his films, but when I saw the trailer for “House” on the Bloody Blood website, I as impressed. The trailer gave me the creeps with its unusual camera set ups and what looks like a quietly scary atmosphere. I’m really looking forward to checking this movie out when it arrives.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Keith – As I mentioned above (and my previous post), I think a lot of people just haven’t seen his films and his work obviously gets mixed reactions, which frankly really surprises me actually since I find his films so interesting and effective. I hope you’ll enjoy Avati’s movies if you ever decide to give them a look.

    Dave – I think (or at least hope) that you’ll really be surprised and impressed with the film. I noticed you mentioned Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man in your list of “31 flicks that give you the willes” so I’m pretty sure you’ll find some things to enjoy about House with the Laughing Windows once you see it.

  7. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for sharing your link to the piece about Avati’s Incantato, Peter! It sounds interesting and I should give it a look.

    The Avati film I really want to see is Thomas and the Bewitched, but I’ve been looking for it for 5 years with no luck so far.

  8. steve Langton says:

    Really nice to read such a good piece on Avati. I was introduced to his work via a bootleg tape of ZEDER quite a few years ago, and purchased the Italian DVD of HOUSE which I rate highly. I’d love to see a DVD of THE ARCANE ENCHANTER.I was lucky enough to see this at a film festival in London and it contains some remarkable visuals.

  9. Daniel Hui says:

    The House with Laughing Windows is one of the most hilarious films I’ve ever seen. The opening sequence with the fevered and delirious commentary about syphilis and blood is absolute comic gold. You have to watch it with a sense of humor, I think.

  10. cinebeats says:

    Steve – Thanks! It’s nice to come across someone else who can appreciate Avati’s films. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see The Arcane Enchanter soon.

    Daniel – I personally don’t find the film very funny at all. Obviously we’ve got very different senses of humor. “Campy” isn’t a word I associate with Avati at all. I obviously make a point of not adding spoilers to my reviews, especially when I’m writing about a suspense film so I removed yours. For the record, you had the ending wrong anyway.

  11. Daniel Hui says:

    The ending had such a memorable image stuck in my mind that I doubt I could’ve gotten it wrong. In any case it has been a few years since I’ve seen it.

    Probably we do have a different sense of humor, though. I really couldn’t stop myself from wildly laughing from the moment I sat down, and the audience couldn’t control themselves by the film’s end too. But as much as I love Italian horror, I must confess that I can’t take them with a straight face. Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, for example, must simply be watched with your sensibilities turned off.

    Pupi Avati has made some good dramatic films too. His recent The Heart is Elsewhere is very charming.

  12. Will E. says:

    I quite enjoyed House of Laughing Windows and found it to be very well-made and structured, with a gorgeous soundtrack that actually heightened eerie sequences and a lovely color palette. I’m a sucker for films about deranged artists and bloodlust, so I was hooked right away with that opening monologue–which I didn’t find funny, just awesome. Definitely up there with Deep Red for me–which I wasn’t expecting, as I was disappointed with Zeder, mainly because it seemed meandering, not as tightly controlled as House, but also because the dubbing and picture on the DVD were atrocious. Cool story, though, decent finale.

  13. adrien says:

    Finally got around to watching House with the Laughing Windows and found it to be one of the better Italian thrillers of the 70s. I liked the similarity to The Wicker Man in terms of a protagonist who, in his search for the truth, is slowly getting himself into more trouble than he can handle. And it terms of eeriness it’s just about up there with Deep Red. I thought Lino Capolicchio did a great job, and although Francesca Marciano was not exceptional in terms of acting, she has a face that’s pure poetry.
    I can see how Daniel may have found the reveal at the end unintentionally funny, but it quickly turns chilly when we realize what it means for Stefano. I also didn’t realize that we are hearing actual police sirens at the end, they blended in with the soundtrack music (which is excellent) rather too well.
    One question: was there significance to the monogrammed (with the painter’s initials) gold lighter Francesca had or was a red herring?

  14. cinebeats says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed House with the Laughing Windows, Adrien! As for the lighter, my mind is drawing a blank at the moment. I’m afraid I’d have to watch the film a third time to focus in on what it might mean. One thing I love about the two Avati films I’ve seen, is all the layers they seem to have. I’ve watched both House with Laughing Windows and Zeder twice, and each time I caught something new.

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