From the half of the Sixties till the end of the Seventies, the Italian Cinema Industry was one of the most powerful and prolific on the whole planet: side by side with masters such as Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti and Pasolini, a bunch of brave, inventive “B” directors and producers invaded the screens of the whole world with thousand of genre titles. During the Seventies a lot of these titles were the so called “Italian Thriller” and La casa dalle finestre che ridono is, without doubt, one of the most morbid, scary and skilfully shot thriller of the decade. But, to understand the real meaning –social, economical and communicative - of these kind of movies, it’s better start from the beginning. After the end of the Second World War, Italy faces decades of huge social changes: poverty, reconstruction, the economic boom of the Sixties with the first white goods seen as status symbols, the great migration from South Italy to North searching for a work, the sexual revolution connected with the 68’ and the bloody terrorist’s movements of the Seventies. During this “transformation trip”, cinema and society are strictly connected, with the former witnessing the various and understandable anxieties and fears growing in the latter. The great season of the Italian genre cinema begins in 1965 thanks to the Government’s law 1213/1965 (called “Legge Corona”): this law, invented to develop the “Author’s Cinema”, rewarded also another important characteristic in the industry: the marketability of a movie. In this way, many little producers have the possibility to receive financial contributes in order to create any kind of movie to sell all over the world.
The competitiveness is great and the result is an incredible escalation in the representation of violence and sexuality (most of all after the 68’s political movements) which explode, during the Seventies, with all their anarchical power. In Italy more than anywhere in the world, the “extreme” cinema arrives, during the 70’s, to its radical “point of no return”; these narrative and stylistic coordinates – focused in the representation of what should be “not performable” – connect the Genre Cinema with Author’s Cinema, as we can more than clearly see (if you dare!) in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò. Sex and violence have always been present (and very important) in the Italian Horror Cinema, but under the surface. Now the society has changed and so the nightmares (not the symbolical but the real ones) can be unleashed, in the full daylight. The Italian fantastic cinema, especially in the Gothic genre – initiated by Riccardo Freda with I vampiri in 1956 – has always given the woman a pivotal role. Heroines, vampires, victims or cruel witches, the woman in the Italian Fantastic films is the major figure upon which the masters of the genre like Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti centered their wonderful works. The “realism” in The Italian Gothic Horror focuses the attention on a depiction of Evil that isn’t inhabited by stereotyped monsters – as in the Hammer movies – but by creepy “creatures” – i.e. people –, psychologically and physically devastated by profound internal conflicts. Barbara Steele is definitely the actress that perfectly represents the woman in the Italian Gothic cinema, the face on which we can see the major themes of the genre: the dichotomy between Sin and Redemption, the woman seen as a source of evil – sometimes embodied by her sexual power – and the Doppelganger theme. But it’s the sex, or better still its dark and repressed side, that becomes the basic element of the Italian gothic, the source of real terror and threat. Riccardo Freda and Camillo Mastrocinque treat very strong subjects as necrophilia (L’orribile segreto del dottor Hitchcock, 1963) and lesbianism (Un angelo per Satana,1965), while Antonio Margheriti in Danza macabra (1963) represents death as our only chance to fulfil our desire for love.
In the 70’s the old castles and the cemeteries make way for more realistic and contemporary settings as the estranging and claustrophobic metropolis (Macchie solari, 1975) or the little country town (La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976). L’uccello dale piume di cristallo, directed by Dario Argento in 1969, “sets free – to use the words of John Carpenter about Night of the Living Dead, while talking of the American horror –, the Italian horror from the Gothic’s deadly embrace”, paving the way for harsh and shocking stories where the violence is more and more graphic and there’s no space for subtlety. What remains unchanged is the accent put by the Italian directors on sexuality and its deviations, both physical and psychological – as a source of sheer terror. The sub-genres that in this period flourish in the Italian exploitation cinema make possible to explore this subject in the most sensational and graphic way: cannibal movies like Ultimo mondo cannibale (1977), Nazi-erotic ones like La bestia in calore (1977), “nunsploitations” like Suor omicidi (1978), Rape & Revenge movies like L’ultimo treno della notte (1975), up to the police movies such as Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare (1974), are the fertile soil for the worst sexual nightmares. But it is the “Argento’s giallo” the genre which obtains the biggest success and so, a large number of producers (anxious to conquest the International market) start to produce countless Argento’s rips of. In few years the screens are invaded by shining knifes, black gloves, killed women, heavily breathing psycho-killers, subjective shots and childhood’s traumas. Amongst the Argento’s imitators (Lenzi, Martino, Cavara, Bianchi, Bido) a few directors create a personal and original way in the development of the genre: Lucio Fulci (Una sull’altra, Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, Non si sevizia un paperino), Francesco Barilli (Il profumo della signora in nero), Armando Crispino (Macchie Solari) and Pupi Avati. Since 1968, Avati had been made grotesque and social satires -Balsamus, l’uomo di Satana (68), Thomas (69), La mazurka della santa, del barone e del fico fiorone (74), Bordella (74) – which didn’t gross so much at the box office.
Right after the big failure of the very expensive Bordella Pupi and his brother Antonio Avati convinced themselves to try with a low budget horror movie to shoot in few days and without casting real stars. The idea is already on the way: an horror story (written by the two brothers in 1970 and then revisited together with Gianni Cavina and Maurizio Costanzo) based on an ancient fairy tale / true story and set in the beloved region of the Emilia Romagna. Shot in 10 days with the extremely low budget of 150 millions Liras (the crew was composed of just 12 people and Antonio Avati had to be producer, art director and also costume designer!) La casa dalle finestre che ridono (but the original title should have been Blood Relations) hits the theatres in 1976 and becomes Avati’s biggest audience and critic success (at least since then). The movie opens with a really creepy and disturbing sequence which immediately put the audience in the right mood: a man, suspended in the air by his wrists, is stabbed continuously by two disguised characters; in the meantime a distorted and sick voice (Legnani’s voice is played by Gianni Cavina) punctuated by screams and creepy organ music, performs a nonsense litany. After this intro Avati stylistically shifts straightaway and, with the help of a sweet melody (the music is composed by Amedeo Tommasi) and a sunny rural landscape, introduces the main character: an art expert called Stefano (Lino Capolicchio). Stefano arrives in this rural village to work on the restoration of a fresco in the local church. The fresco depicts the slaughter of San Sebastian in graphic fashion, showing several large knives imbedded in his chest and stomach while blood flows down his torso. The fresco is by the local artist Buono Legnani – known by the local folks as “the painter of agony” – who disappeared some years before. Rumors suggests that the artist worked from real life models provided by her two sisters. Almost immediately after his arrival, strange things begin to happen to Stefano: he receives phone calls at his hotel with a spooky voice telling him “don’t touch that painting, he doesn’t want!”. His friend Stefano tries to advise him that the fresco has an horrible story behind it, but he died before ending his story. So Stefano becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind the fresco creation, leading him on a spiralling path towards his own destruction.
La casa dalle finestre che ridono is an atypical movie in the contemporary Italian Horror landscape: far from the stylish and claustrophobic Argento’s urban nightmares, from the visionary gore excesses of Lucio Fulci or from Mario Bava’s baroque styling and irony, Avati’s movie is a black fairy tale with a terrifying boogeyman but without –that’s the real difference from the usual fairy tale’s pattern - any kind of “moral”. The only lesson you can learn from Avati’s creepy storytelling could be “Mind your own business or you’ll die painfully”; the aim of the director is “to scare the hell out of the audience” in the same way the old farmers, sitting in front of the fire, did with the young Pupi Avati during the long, cold nights of his childhood, spent in the country of the Emilia Romagna. The story behind the movie keeps its roots deeply into reality: in 1915, in the little country town of Sasso Marconi, people found out that the bones resting in the old priest’s grave were actually female’s bones and so they realized that she had spent his whole life lying and pretending to be a man. This story, which obsessed Pupi Avati’s childhood, together with his severe catholic education have been the base for La casa dalle finestre che ridono’s script. Even if the country setting for a thriller was not a complete innovation (Fulci’s masterpiece Non si sevizia un paperino is from 1972), Avati’s “sunny” countryside (beautifully shot by the cinematographer Pasquale Rachini) assumes a particular and important meaning, most of all in a cultural perspective. During the years Italian audience learned from Literature and Cinema that the little towns of the Po Valley (such as Brescello, where the Italian writer Guareschi set the saga of Don Camillo and Peppone) are quiet and peaceful places where anything bad ever happens; Avati, on the contrary, depicts a weird little town (in the area of Ferrara) where the atmosphere is heavy and sombre and where the people (the dwarf, the whore, the drunken driver, the dumb of the village) seems the parody of a typical Italian comedy’s cast. Avati’s intrusion of the fantastic in the normal daily routine reminds the works of H.P. Lovecraft, where quiet and beautiful little towns gave birth to the most unthinkable nightmares. Stefano (and with him the audience) can’t trust anybody in the village because everybody are the guardians of unspeakable secrets: very explicative the sequence at the restaurant where Coppola, sent away by the cop, screams: “Leave me alone!…you all know that if I talk…you know that if I want…”. Avati is not interested in scaring his audience with cheap thrills each 15 minutes, but he gradually builds a suffocating atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia carrying the exhausted viewers to one of the most shocking and brilliant climax ever shot (comparable only with the endings of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t look now and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game). In La casa dalle finestre che ridono, everything is shown in full light from the beginning and every detail the director disseminates throughout the movie is essential to complete the final puzzle of terror: and so, once the mystery is revealed, the real fear derives from the awareness that our eyes betrayed us. As in the cinema of John Carpenter, anything really is as it appears to be; Avati, like Antonioni in Blow Up or Takashi Shimizu in the recent Marebito, wants to teach his audience another way of “vision”. Together with his clear critical approach to the Catholic education (embodied by the woman’s priest), La casa dalle finestre che ridono joins the contemporary American horror films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, It’s Alive, The Last House on the Left) in the criticism and denouncement of the collapse and failure of the classical nuclear patriarchal family.
In Italy, in 1960, a great not horror film like Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e I suoi fratelli depicted the crisis of a cultural model that, for generations, had characterized the country: the patriarchal family. The incestuous Legnani’s family portrayed by Avati represents the point of no return, the death of the family institution as we used to know it: and that was really scary. Essential in the movie is also the character of Buono Legnani, one of the scariest boogeyman of the whole Italian Horror cinema: Legnani is the perfect embodiment of the “maudit artist” and the panting assumes pathological meanings (the creepy pictures attributed to him in the movie have been made by the Italian photographer Michelangelo Giuliani). This aspect is deeply connected with the artistic movement of the “Surrealism of the Po Valley” which took place in Emilia Romagna from 1915 (Giorgio De Chirico) till 1986 (Gustavo Foppiani): in the middle a lot of “primitive artists” were not slaves of the mere visual perception of reality but they painted their world using imagination, instinct and dreams. Amongst these painters, Ligabue (1899 – 1965) seems to have been the model for Buono Legnani’s character: in and out from the mental asylum, this mad and extremely talented man (physically similar to Legnani as we can see in the flashbacks) spent his life in the little town of Gualtieri (Reggio Emilia) using his panting with cathartic and therapeutic purposes. Probably inspired by this Art Movement, Italian critic used the expression “Gothic of the Po Valley” do describe Pupi Avati’s genre films: La casa dalle finestre che ridono, Zeder (1983) and L’arcano incantatore (1996). Nowadays, Avati seems unfortunately intentioned not to continue this cinematic tradition which brought us his best pictures, but the fans could find the same gothic mood and atmosphere in the wonderful novels of the writer Eraldo Baldini (Gotico Rurale; Malaria; Bambini, Ragni e altri Predatori). As I’m writing these words the Italian genre cinema continues to lie in its irreversible coma; the golden age of psychos, boogeymen, cowboys and monsters is just a faded memory and it’s funny to think that this slow death began right in 1976, the same year La casa dalle finestre che ridono has being released. In that year, a law approved by the Constitutional Court liberalized the private televisions: it was the beginning of the end for the B movies.
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