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.
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.
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.
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.