The story takes us to a small Italian village dominated by a dwarf, Solmi, who took the lead in rebuilding after the German occupation during World War II. The SS used the village's San Sebastian church as a headquarters and reportedly executed prisoners there. This fact is mentioned, but that promising angle is never developed in the film. In any event, a restoration project is under way that has revealed a fresco portraying the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, painted by the village's most famous son (for all we know), Buono Legnani. The priest would rather cover up the violent scene, but Solmi thinks that a proper restoration would make the town a tourist attraction. He brings Stefano, an art restorer (Lino Capolicchio) in to do the work, but Stefano's project brings back bad memories and wild rumors about Legnani from some people, along with vague hints about a "house with laughing windows." We know Legnani was messed up because we hear a monologue of his over the opening credits, in which he talks about his colors flowing through his veins, to purify death and be purified by death, while we see a man being stabbed repeatedly and howling in agony. As it happens, Legnani is known as a "painter of agony." Was that him we saw stabbed? Could it have been him stabbing the victim? It's too soon to tell.
Stefano's curiosity begins to go beyond the St. Sebastian painting when a friend suffers a suspicious "suicide" just before he was to tell our hero about the house with laughing windows. Despite getting evicted from his hotel room on a spurious pretext, he presses on while staying at an old woman's house deeper in the countryside. He hooks up with the village schoolteacher, and later hooks up with her considerably younger replacement, Francesca (Francesca Marciano, later the screenwriter of a fine 2003 film, I'm Not Scared). An alcoholic handyman, Coppola (co-write Gianni Cavina), spooks him with stories of the evil painter and his more evil sisters. He finally leads Stefano to the H.L.W., where the Legnanis supposedly buried the bodies of their victims -- models who were killed to inspire Buono's paintings. While Buono himself apparently died long ago after setting himself on fire -- no body was found, however, -- Stefano grows certain that the sisters, whom Buono painted as the tormentors of St. Sebastian, are still alive, and possibly still killing people under the influence of some obscure Brazilian cult. It's a hard sell for most of the village, especially since one of his primary sources is one of the most disreputable men in town. But as he delves deeper, and as he and Coppola actually find bodies buried, people suddenly start disappearing fast....
That passing remark about the SS early in the picture hints at a subtext to The House With Laughing Windows, something to do with a community's complicity with atrocity. The Legnanis themselves weren't collaborators, Buono having burnt himself up in 1931 and the sisters disappearing not long after, but it becomes terribly obvious by the end of the movie that the town has in some way, passively or otherwise, collaborated with its own homegrown evil, maybe for no other reason than to protect the reputation of a famous artist. For most of it, I was willing to believe that the mad artist himself might still be at work, though the truth of the matter proves at least as appalling as that possibility. In any event, the painter isn't the monster of the story. The fundamental horror of it ties into the stranger's fear of strangers, the isolation of a visitor in some location where he feels unwelcome or excluded, a primal sensation that everyone is against you. A horror film is where you can have such fears confirmed without having to confess them yourself.
As mad painter Buono Legnani, Tonino Corazzari burns with an unwholesome artistic passion. Actually, in this shot he just burns with ignited alcohol.
Without many of the usual sensationalistic or exploitative elements (the actresses don't even do nude scenes, and the one revelation of a woman's breast comes at the worst possible moment for our hero), Avati's film may strike some horror fans as slow. But it's an atmospheric piece even though the location isn't particularly picturesque, and it's paced carefully to ensure that you will be shocked when Avati is ready. You get the sepiatone stabbing over the credits, then one modestly bloody death early on, and then it's all exposition and character development until an out-of-nowhere scene in which Lidio, an irreverent imbecile of an altar boy (who boasts to Stefano that he threw a live animal into his friend's coffin) rapes Francesca.
Pietro Brambilla as Lidio tries to have his way with Francesca Marciano. See the next photo for his comeuppance.
From that point the film escalates its brutality while pushing Stefano deeper into paranoia as his enemy proves maddeningly omnipotent and he ends up looking like a fool (if not a suspect) to the authorities. The big revelation scene that shows who's been doing what and why is as nasty and nutty as you could want, and it may be a bigger jolt than it otherwise would be had Avati not kept things at a pretty mundane level for most of the movie.
This is an atypical Italian horror because it requires and rewards patience, and while some might say that it's more culturally Italian because of the rural village setting, a properly-dubbed presentation of it might actually prove more accessible to global audiences because it lacks some of the genre elements that may confuse or turn off non-Italian audiences. But I think that even genre connoisseurs will find something to appreciate in Avati's movie.
And here's the Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by sneakybaxter: