Pupi Avati is one of the least known (internationally at least), yet most influential of modern Italian directors.
He started his career with a couple of low key films exploring religious themes with a leaning towards the macabre, Balsamas, L'Uomo di Satana (BALSAMUS, THE DEVIL'S MAN, aka BLOOD RELATIONS, 1968) and Thomas e gli Indemoniati (THOMAS THE POSSESSED, 1969). He also worked as an assistant director on Piero Vivarelli's SATANIK (1967). The IMDb credits him with a 1974 film called La Mazurka del Baron, della Santa e del Fico Fiorone, about which I know nothing. Next came a sex film called BORDELLA (1975) then, seemingly out of the blue, LA CASA DALLE FINESTRE CHE RIDONO (variously translated as THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS, THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS or THE HOUSE WITH WINDOWS THAT LAUGH, 1976), a masterpiece of both the horror genre and Italian cinema itself. The film was the first to be produced by Avati's AMA company, formed in partnership with his brother Antonio (still Avati's producer to this day).
Avati followed up this masterpiece with a black comedy Tutti Defunti
Tranne i Morti (1977), an improvisational, experimental film called Le Strelle nel Fosso (1979), and a couple of little seen efforts, Aiutami a Sognare (aka HELP ME DREAM, 1981) and Dancing Paradise (1982). 1983 saw a return to the horror genre with ZEDER – VOICES FROM BEYOND, another masterful and original film. Avati has gone on to make many more films, the best known being 1984's Noi Tre (WE THREE), 1989's Storia di Ragazzi e di Rigazze (STORY OF BOYS AND GIRLS), 1991's jazz biopic Bix, 1994's Dichiarazioni d'Amore (DECLARATIONS OF LOVE) and 1998's Il Testimone dello Sposo (THE BEST MAN). He also made two Arthurian films, Magnificat (1993) and I Cavalieri che Fecero l'Impresa (KNIGHTS OF THE QUEST, 2001), a borderline genre effort (1994's L'Amico d'Infanzia (CHILDHOOD FRIEND)) and one other great horror film, 1996's L'ARCANO INCANTATORE. Avati's other credits include writing almost all of his own films, plus co-writing such films as Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamous SALO – THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975, uncredited), Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece PROFONDO ROSSO (1975, uncredited), Lucio Fulci's horror comedy DRACULA IN THE PROVENCES (1975), Lamberto Bava's directorial debut MACABRE (1980) and Maurizio Zaccaro's Dove Comincia la Notte (WHERE THE NIGHT BEGINS, 1991). He also co-wrote and co-produced a loose English language remake of LA CASA DALLE FINESTRE CHE RIDONO in 1994: La Stanza Accanto (THE ROOM NEXT DOOR / BITTER CHAMBER), directed by Fabrizio Laurenti. Avati has expressed an interest several times over the years in remaking LA CASA
himself in English, but nothing has yet come of it.
Avati chose to film LA CASA
in the obscure dialect of the 'Emilia Romagna' region of Italy (he was born there), not a wise decision in terms of international distribution (he later filmed ZEDER in English, but reverted to Italian once more for L'ARCANO INCANATORE). LA CASA
was not commercially successful upon its release but has since been recognised as one of the key films in Italy's prolific horror cinema.
Avati has been reticent about discussing his horror films over the years, and even reportedly went so far as to describe himself as being "embarrassed" by them, but this seemingly came to an end when he decided to return to the genre with L'ARCANO INCANTATORE. Not long after that film's release he gave an interview to the Dark Side magazine in which he told Loris Curci that "I am really looking forward to sharing my thoughts on those films of mine which the media don't give a shit about". It seems bizarre that anyone could be ashamed of LA CASA
or ZEDER, but Avati has enjoyed much international critical acclaim for his art films and perhaps felt compelled to fall in with the commonly held opinion that the horror genre is somehow disreputable (the irony being that Avati's films are exactly the type that give the lie to this belief). It's a great shame that he hasn't worked more widely in the genre, but at least now his efforts are finally being recognised and perhaps he will eventually get round to that long-promised LA CASA
The film opens with a haunting montage of images – a man hangs strung up by his hands, naked except for his underpants. A knife plunges into him again and again as he screams. Two small hooded figures are revealed to be his tormentors, whilst a fetishistic voiceover talks of painting death. Stefano (Lino Capolicchio, a fairly prolific actor whose other main genre credit was a role in Antonio Bido's giallo THE BLOOD-STAINED SHADOW (1978)) arrives by boat at a small rural town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. He is met by the mayor, a dwarf called Solmi (Bob Tonelli, an Avati regular who also made an unforgettable appearance in ZEDER as "Mr Big"). It turns out that he has come to the town to restore a fresco depicting the torture of St Sebastian at the local church. This was painted by a local artist called Legnani, whom the mayor describes as suffering "from a dark soul". Legnani was also known as "The Painter of Agony". The painting was never completed as Legnani disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Stefano checks into a local inn where he receives a phone call warning him to stay away from the painting and to leave the town. He bumps into a doctor called Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani, another Avati regular), an old associate who is in the town "researching". Antonio acts strangely but wants to tell Stefano about something strange involving a "house with odd windows". Stefano meets the local teacher, who he has a brief fling with. Antonio contacts him and asks him to come and meet him so he can tell him what's been bothering him. Stefano arrives just in time to see Antonio fall from a window, apparently having being pushed. He is then evicted from his hotel and is taken to a dilapidated house in the countryside by one of the priests at the church, a retard. The house is inhabited by a sickly bed-ridden old woman. Stefano finds a tape recorder in the attic of the building, on which is a recording (the one we heard at the beginning of the film) of Legnani. The teacher is mysteriously replaced by a girl called Francesca (Francesca Marciano, yet another Avati regular), who Stefano begins a passionate affair with. Stefano begins to delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding Legnani and his two sisters, aided by a drunk and Francesca
To say any more would be to spoil a great denouement, but suffice to say that the titular house makes an appearance, and all is not what it seems in the village. The film takes in a whole range of influences and styles, from classic giallo plot devices to Argento-style musical cues, much paranoia and inbred yokels, mixing them all into an extremely satisfying whole. Avati has a slight obsession with what might be termed 'houses of the damned' (cf. Argento's 'Three Mothers' films), and the theme pops up again and again in his work, both in his own films and in the plots of those he was involved with. Avati also brings a very real sense and understanding of rural Italy to bear in his films – both this film and L'ARCANO INCANTATORE are based partly on real-life events from his childhood, whilst ZEDER was loosely inspired by the case of a mysterious real-life alchemist (Fulcanelli, also the inspiration for Argento's INFERNO (1980)).
The rather neat central theme of the film involves what are effectively 'snuff paintings' – surely a first, but with strong echoes of the H P Lovecraft story Pickman's Model (1926). What really works most strongly in the film though is the way in which Avati gradually builds a suffocating atmosphere of decay, dread, claustrophobia and paranoia. He does this just as effectively in ZEDER, as does Aldo Lado in his THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (1972), but it's otherwise fairly unique in Italian genre cinema, not usually known for its restraint or careful plotting (Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW (1973) could also be included here, dependent upon whether one considers it a 'true' Italian film or not). Early on in the film there's a clue as to the film's twist involving a painting, whilst the ending is suitably ambiguous - keep an eye on the far right of the screen during the final shot and try to make up your mind what it signifies
Surprisingly, the only widespread video distribution that LA CASA
enjoyed for most of the 80's and 90's was in France, where it was released dubbed into French. In Italy, copies of the film were given away free with a magazine called 'L'Unita'. It was eventually released domestically by 'CVC Video' in the mid-90's, but had to wait until 2003 for an English language release (the same is true of L'ARCANO INCANTATORE sadly; to date the only way to see the film subtitled is on a very poor quality screener. ZEDER has enjoyed comparatively widespread distribution (the most commonly seen version being that released in Holland up until Image's US DVD release) but suffered the ignominy of being retitled 'Revenge of the Dead' for US markets, whilst being marketed as standard zombie fare).
Several different bootlegs of LA CASA... have been available over the years, but these all suffered from three common flaws: they were taken from the French release meaning that the original soundtrack was lost, the framing was wonky and several character names were mistranslated. Also, the quality was poor even for bootlegs. In 2001 a much better quality subtitled bootleg surfaced, reportedly from within Avati's own production company (at the time Image had expressed an interest in releasing the film on DVD. The tape was apparently prepared to show to US DVD companies but Image later pulled out, supposedly due to the criticism they received for their way below par DVD release of ZEDER. Of course, Image did eventually get it released). This restored the original Italian soundtrack and correct framing, plus it had the benefit of correctly translated subtitles and much better image quality, but it only served to whet the appetites of fans even more, and many despaired of the film ever getting a proper, official release. Finally, the wait is over but was it worth it? The answer can only be a resounding YES!
The film is available on two essentially identical DVD's - one is an Italian release from March 2002 (through 20th Century Fox), whilst the other is the recent (March 2003) American release, through Image's 'Euroshock Collection'. The DVD's feature a stunning new widescreen transfer of the film. The opening montage (shot in sepia tones) still looks fairly grainy and rough, but this is obviously low Avati intended it to look. The rest of the film looks fantastic, especially given the film's rarity and history. The transfer isn't perfect; there are a few grainy scenes, plus the colours look a little muted and soft at times, but it seemed like a miracle to finally have this DVD in my hands! There are two featurettes (both are in Italian only on the Italian DVD, and only the longer one is included on the US DVD), and there is no trailer on the Italian DVD (the trailer was finally unearthed after it was released and included on the Italian ZEDER DVD). The optional English subtitles are very clear and readable, though suffer from a few minor errors. Both the original mono soundtrack and a new 5.1 remix are present, with the remix being more than acceptable (no tinkering obvious here and it adds nicely to the film's atmosphere, which is quite reliant on sound). The Italian '25th Anniversary Edition' DVD comes nicely packaged with a cardboard slipcase over the DVD case itself. It has to be said that the Italian disc looks better sat on my shelf than the US DVD with its clumsy English translation!
Undoubtedly this is one of the most sought after and least seen of Italian genre films (Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972) is the only other 'important' Italian genre film I can think of to have had a comparably tortuous release history) and with this status comes a problem – the film has such a strong reputation and has been so hyped over the years that undoubtedly some viewers (especially newer initiates to the scene) are going to find it wanting. Be warned that this isn't your typical horror film, nor most certainly is it your typical Italian horror film. Avati takes his time building the plot and tension, and there's very little gore, though that only makes what is on offer all the more startling (the effects come courtesy of Giovanni Corridori, one of the Corridori Brothers, whose names are as synonymous with gory Italian horror cinema as that of Gianetto de Rossi). Above all, this is an intelligent, refreshingly original horror film that has stood the test of time very well, directed by a master craftsman of the cinema. Highly recommended.