Film theory

‘How can a house have laughing windows?’

Grotesque Hallucinations and the Giallo Genre

Dr Laura Scalabrella Spada delves into a little known Italian thriller and explores themes of inversion, femininity and abjection.

The horror genre and the house always went hand in hand. From Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher to Parasite, houses are sites of danger, mystery, and death. Houses hide secrets, curses, outsiders; they can be colonised by evil spirits; they can be ransacked by dangerous individuals.

Many feminist scholars have pointed out that the house represents a site of fears and vulnerability for women in particular. Houses can embody physical manifestations of the oppression and violence they underwent.

But sometimes this dynamic is upended. A little know Italian film, La casa dalle finestre che ridono (House of the laughing windows) by Pupi Avati (1976) provides a unique take. This film is associated with the Italian giallo, a cinematic term which combines thriller, horror and mystery genres.

Original poster for La casa dalle finestre che ridono, dir. Pupi Avati, 1976. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to A.M.A. Film.

In the movie (spoilers!), conservator Stefano is hired by the mayor of a lethargic, isolated village near Ferrara to work on a fresco in the local church. The fresco was made by the painter Buono Legnani, who died with his sisters in mysterious circumstances. Rumours about their madness and the strange, perverted rituals they engaged with circulate in the village, spread, among others, by the local priest. Legnani, Stefano learns, used to live in seclusion in a house with disturbing open mouths painted on the windows, in which he killed and then painted his victims. Soon, the situation precipitates: the painter’s killings have resumed, and Stefano must fight for his life. He scrambles to the church in search of safety, but here he finds, in an unprecedented twist, that the friendly priest had always been one of Legnani’s sisters – and she is ready to kill.

La casa dalle finestre che ridono is a movie structured on grotesque inversions and oppositions. The painter Legnani projects his murders onto (frankly ugly) religious artworks, such as the fresco of Saint Sebastian Stefano is hired to restore. Why would the local church commission and subsequently display disturbing paintings by the village madman is unclear. In a different movie, perhaps, these paintings would assume the role of narrative simulacra, and offer a philosophical take on the nature of images as signifiers of death – arresting the possibilities of life, turning motion into stillness. In this movie, however, they are to be taken at face value: Legnani’s Saint Sebastian is a childish mass of flesh and blood. And perhaps precisely because of this almost farcical forwardness, it appears to us as harbinger of a tangible sort of abjection.

The grotesque is, by definition, that which remains at the margins. In pre-modern scholarship, it is associated with the unrestrained, troublesome powers of creativity. The grotesque exemplified, for influential theorists of aesthetics such as Horace, Vitruvius and Vasari the threat posed by the profane, the alien, the feminine and the wild. Today, writers tend to emphasise its lack of definite forms. We call grotesque that which exists in between categories, what remains at the margin of consciousness, simultaneously known and unknown, perceived and unperceived. A sense of grotesque arises even more forcefully with the perception that something might surreptitiously exist within something else.

This idea of illegitimate presence is, in my opinion, the narrative thread that binds the movie together. One of its many sites of such tension is the hostility between Stefano and the village itself, in which inhabitants are custodians of local, dangerous secrets – a well-loved trope in the giallo genre. This theme emerges in other contexts too: why is Legnani’s house painted with smiling mouths? The combination of architectural and organic is a hallucinatory vision that has nothing to do with pareidolic perception. The laughing windows instill an embodied fear, one that even more forcefully presents itself upon the realisation that they offer no ulterior meanings. They laugh, it seems, at the viewer who desperately tries to make sense of them.

The final twist blurs perceived assumptions of gender and societal roles, and produce a defamiliarisation that would have been much more intense in the deeply religious catholic Italy of the 1970s. The ‘female priest’, director Pupi Avati recalls in an interview, was a folklore bogeyman his mother would use to frighten him into good behaviour. The fantasy of a female, murderous priest was unheard of and particularly disturbing, and not simply because religious figures are inherently associated with the divine. Women are excluded from priesthood, out of place in catholic power dynamics.

The clandestine presence of the feminine becomes in this context a slippage in established knowledge: traditional modes of interacting and understanding are destabilised. If the sense of grotesque emerges when things should not be where they are, the disruptive self-insertion of a woman in the hierarchical structures of organised religion produces a kind of undoing that is not simply psychoanalytical or societal. In La casa dalle finestre che ridono, bodily annihilation is very much in the picture.

Further readings:

  • Baschiera, Stefano, and Russ Hunter, eds. Italian Horror Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
  • Connelly, Frances. The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture – the Image at Play. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. ‘A Brutal Nobility: Painting Death in The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)’. Bright Lights Film Journal, 2014.