31 (More) Days of Fright: Blood and Black Lace

There’s always room for giallo.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the Italian giallo film that launched a thousand slashers, Blood and Black Lace (1968), directed by Mario Bava (Danger: Diabolik, Black Sunday). I viewed Blood and Black Lace via YouTube.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Violence against women, suicide.

What happens:

Blood and Black Lace is often considered one of the first of a category of Italian horror films called giallo: essentially, very stylish detective stories that feature gruesome murder set pieces (often of beautiful women) at their centre. Bava’s film set the tone, with a technically dazzling series of murders set within fashion salon. The film’s introduction cleverly introduces the actors in brilliant Technicolour (even the mannequins are a bright red) over a hot jazz soundtrack.

The most pathetic of fallacies.

’Twas a dark and stormy night at the estate of Christian Haute Couture – so stormy, the sign blows down. Franco Scala (Dante DiPaolo), a fine antiques dealer, skulks the estate grounds and beckons Nicole (Ariana Gorini), a model with the fashion line, to see him. They obliquely discuss scoring some drug and fret about not alerting fellow Isabella to their relationship. Franco leaves and another employee of the fashion salon, Marco (Massimo Righi) attempts to repair the sign to no avail. The aforementioned Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) arrives soon enough, in a red vinyl jacket. She travels down the stairs and through the corridors of trees, stalked by a masked man in a trench coat and fedora. He wears a beige stocking over his face, making him look like The Blank in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy film.

The masked killer leaps from behind a tree and violently strangles Isabella. The scene is rough to watch, with Isabella scratching her face on the tree. Once he’s killed her, the murderer drags her body away. Inside the estate, the team is preparing for a fashion show. Marco, looking haunted, pulls at his collar like Rodney Dangerfield in a sauna and finds a private place to pop some pills. Countess Cristiana (Eva Bartok), matriarch of the company, complains about Isabella’s lateness to Massimo Morachi (Cameron Mitchell), the managing director. Cristiana, we learn, inherited her late husband’s company after his death. The Countess opens an armoire and finds a ghastly surprise inside: the dead body of Isabella!

Police, led by Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner), arrive and question Morachi. Morachi says he’ll need to speak with “the girls” and introduces him to Cristiana, but they’ve already met. The Inspector and she spoke when her husband had his tragic car accident. The inspector begins to speak to some of the other models when the cops suddenly drag in a man who was prowling the grounds. Greta (Lea Lander), one of the models, identifies him as her fiancée, Riccardo Novelli (Franco Ressell). He was coming to pick her up. Isabella, we learn, lived with her model colleagues Peggy (Mary Arden) and Tao-Li (Claude Dantes). Just as Silvestri begins to interrogate them, the fashion designer, Cesare Lazzarini (Luciano Pigozzi), a real Peter Lorre type, says that the cops should speak to Isabella’s lover, antiques dealer Franco Scala.

Like most inspectors in gialli, this one is about as effective as a toothless saw.

The police pay a visit to Scala’s shop. They break the bad news to him about Isabella – he doesn’t seem overly upset – and then dangle a packet of cocaine in front of his bloodshot eyeballs, knowing Scala is a user. They say it was found at Isabella’s, but if Franco Scala knows something about her death, he doesn’t let it slip. The fashion show happens shortly thereafter, and the salon encounters a dilemma: who should wear the clothes that Isabella was to wear? No one particularly wants to do it, but Nicole agrees to make the sacrifice. Marco scurries around a corner to take some more pills and Nicole returns, positively stunning in Isabella’s haute couture. But she needs a brooch to complete the look. Everyone goes through a number of boxes on the table to find it, and discover a red diary – presumably Isabella’s.

Nicole immediately begins to recite the lurid details within, but the Countess reminds her they have a fashion show to wrap. Nicole stops and says she’ll deliver the diary to the police as evidence following the show. But during a break, she calls Franco and tells him that (a) she’s scored some coke, and (b) she found Isabella’s diary. The downside is that everyone now knows the diary exists. During this phone call, a shadow is seen eavesdropping in the background. Franco says he’ll come right over. Yet moments later, Franco calls back to say he’s too ill, and that Nicole should come to him at the store.

Nicole asks to borrow Peggy’s car and she agrees, giving her a quick lesson on how to deactivate the car alarm. Nicole leaves the fashion show partway through and drives over to the antiques shop, lit in vivid reds and purples. The place is completely dark, and Nicole can see no sign of her clandestine lover, Franco. Then dressers and other pieces of heavy furniture begin to plummet from the floor below. Realizing someone is trying to kill her, Nicole runs from the unseen enemy. But the killer (in his mask and fedora) grab her, ripping off her top. She manages to break free, but struggles with the lock on the front door. The killer then topples a suit of armor onto her, and tackles her from behind. Seizing an inexplicably clawed gauntlet from the armor, he drives the spikes into her face, killing Nicole.

Looks like one of the Pod-People from Invasion of the Body Snatchers doing his best Bogart.

Our murderer frantically searches through Nicole’s purse, but can find no sign of the diary. In his failure, he steals the car keys and drives away. (Notably, he is able to disable the alarm in just a couple seconds.) A gas station attendant sees the car racing away and jots down the licence plate. Peggy, meanwhile, has been dropped off at her apartment by her roommate, Tao-Li, who continues on to an evening engagement. As soon as Tao-Li’s ride departs, Marco appears and asks to (really insists) accompany Peggy to her apartment. She acquiesces, but seems exhausted by Marco. They greet the house servant, Clarice (Harriet Medin), who has started a roaring fire. Once she departs for the night, Marco (again) confesses his love for Peggy. He can’t understand why she doesn’t care about him; it makes him ill. Luckily, Peggy puts Marco’s whining to a stop when she asks him to leave. Her night is then interrupted by a call from the police: Peggy’s car has been found abandoned, with Nicole nowhere in sight!

Peggy then opens her handbag and reveals that she has stolen Isabella’s diary. She flips through it to find the pages that concern her: apparently Peggy had been stealing money from Isabella to help her abort an unwanted pregnancy – a real scandal! She tears out the offending pages and throws them into the fire, then decides to toss the whole thing upon the flames.

The doorbell rings and Peggy responds, but she’s ambushed on her front step by the fedora killer. He drags Peggy back inside the apartment. When she bites his hand, he backhands her, sending her sprawling into a book case. Then, in an impressive feat of strength and coordination, the killer strangles Peggy while managing to remove a leather notepad from his pocket and write – all with one hand! – a note in German: “Where is the diary?”

Peggy screams that she burned it, so the masked man drags her over to the fireplace for a closer look. While he pokes about in the ashes, Peggy leaps over the couch to grab her telephone. Well, the killer doesn’t like that one bit, and knocks her around the room as punishment. A police siren sounds outside, and the killer drags Peggy out of her apartment and up the stairs. When the Inspector arrives, he finds an abandoned woman’s shoe and the signs of a struggle all over. But no sign of Peggy.

Our faceless killer torches the diary that won’t stop burning.

On the edge of town, Franco arrives at the house of Riccardo and Greta and tells them horrible news: he’s found Nicole’s body in his shop. But he can’t tell the police without an alibi: he and Nicole were having an affair, and suspicion will naturally fall upon him. He insists that Riccardo and he say they were in each other’s presence – they can each provide an alibi for the other. Riccardo doesn’t know why he’d agree to do such a thing, so Franco reveals that Riccardo was flat broke and owed Nicole a ton of money: yet another good motive for murder. They agree to vouch for one another.

Meanwhile, in a secret location, Peggy has been blindfolded and bound to a chair beside a hot stove. (This doesn’t bode well.) Fedora Man approaches her in this dungeon-like hideout and removes her blindfold. Peggy insists that the diary has been burned, but the killer just slaps her around some more, then escalates, forcing her hand onto the hot stove. The result is a gruesome burn. In the ensuing struggle, Peggy pulls off the killer’s mask, catching a glimpse of his face. To maintain his secret identity, the killer grabs Peggy’s head and forces her face onto the stove. (You’d never catch Clark Kent doing that.)

Inspector Silvestri returns to the shop to interrogate Franco literally over Nicole’s dead body. He knows the two shared a drug habit and knows Franco was cheating on Isabella with Nicole, but Franco protests that it doesn’t make him a murderer. The Inspector agrees, and questions the gas attendant outside, who tells him the driver of the getaway car wore a mask and seemed to know how to easily deactivate the car alarm. Silvestri hauls the usual suspects into the police station – and by “usual suspects,” he brings in literally every man connected to the fashion salon. He then brings in Peggy’s maid, Clarice, to ask which of the assembled men had driven in Peggy’s car (and thus, would know where to find the alarm). Unfortunately, they all have.

The suspects begin to turn on one another. The twitchy Marco accuses Cesare of being impotent, and, thus, eager to kill all women. (Seems a stretch.) But Marco becomes so agitated that he experiences what appears 100% like a panic attack, but is revealed to be epilepsy. Riccardo and Franco point out they both have alibis, but the Inspector notes that Peggy is currently missing, and none of them have alibis for that. He decides to hold them all overnight for further questioning.

The fashion salon is so distraught, they can’t even bring themselves to find the light switch.

The surviving women of the fashion house sit in the estate’s large foyer (in the complete dark, for some reason) and some begin to panic. The Countess Cristiani receives a call on the room’s red Bat-Phone from Morachi who informs her that all the men have been detained. Three of the female employees head out to their apartment together, which leaves Greta to drive to her remote home alone, with her fiancee Riccardo in jail. She begs Tao-Li to stay with her, but Tao-Li refuses and returns to her apartment (which is currently an active crime scene!). Greta then asks Cristiana if she can stay at work, but the Countess isn’t having it: “Don’t be a baby!” She suggests Nicole and Isabella died because of their “dangerous lifestyle,” and she has nothing to worry about. (Talk about minimization of feelings!) So Greta must drive shome alone, and she’s not even that good a driver – she backs into a tree on her way out.

When Greta arrives, her servant – everyone in Italy has a servant, I guess – greets her and tells her what we already know: Riccardo has been detained. He leaves to fix her some tea and Greta makes a grim discovery: Peggy’s body was secreted in the boot of her car. Peggy’s burned face looks up at her with dead eyes. Instead of telling her servant, she drags Peggy’s body to her room and hides it poorly behind a folding screen to not arouse suspicion. She changes into her lingerie and we see Greta’s head – clearly visible beyond the screen’s border – slide out of view. When Greta returns to check on Peggy’s corpse, she’s surprised by the killer, who smothers her with a couch cushion.

Greta, displaying some of the titular black lace.

When the police arrive at Greta’s, they find two women’s bodies and realize they are dealing with a madman – a madman with a vendetta against beautiful women. However, all their suspects were in custody, so none of them could have killed Greta: back to square one. The suspects are released, but as Morachi is returned his personal effects, the camera lingers on his very distinctive notepad. A notepad we’ve seen used (very adeptly) before. When he returns to work, Tao-Li asks to take a vacation to Paris; with a sex maniac running around, she’d rather not stick around town. Morachi is happy to grant her the time off, but asks if she’s still living in the Countess’s house. She is. He notes he used to visit the Countess and Christian frequently when they were together (and alive).

Once Tao-Li leaves his office, Morachi opens a secret corridor behind his bookcase, Scooby-Doo-style, and descends into a dungeon. He begins to poke around a furnace until Cristiana, the Countess, arrives and tells him she incinerated it. (Though I’m unclear what, exactly, she burned.) The two then kiss, and their scheme is explained: Morachi and Cristiana were in cahoots. Morachi began the killings, and Cristiana picked up the slack while he was briefly imprisoned. See, Isabella had been blackmailing the two of them for years, since she witnessed them kill Cristiana’s husband, the founder of the company, and make it look like an accident. The killing would have stopped with her, had not her diary (with all its secrets – including the murder of the Countess’s husband) come to light.

Morachi, however, is not ready to chill just yet: he’s convinced the police won’t let four murders go unsolved. They need to find a patsy . Cristiana, he commands, must kill one more person and make it look like they were the culprit. Cristiana cries at the thought of murdering again, but Morachi (her lover) slaps her, and she agrees. Tao-Li will be their next victim.

There’s not much preamble to the next murder: it’s a smash cut to Cristiana (in her mask and fedora) drowning her former employee in a full tub. Once Tao-Li croaks, Cristiana takes off her mask and, with tears running down her face, takes a straight razor and slashes Tao-Li’s wrists to make it look like a suicide. That’s when someone rings the doorbell and begins to bang powerfully against the door.

Cristiana panics! Who would come looking for Tao-Li? The viewer knows, for the camera reveals it is her love and partner-in-crime, Morachi, at the door. Racked with anxiety, Cristina goes out the window and climbs alongside the building. But when she grabs onto a rusty drainpipe, it breaks from the wall and she plummets to her doom.

The camera pans around the beautiful colours of the empty fashion studio. Morachi is busy in the office, attempting to unlock a green box. He succeeds and begins to paw the precious necklaces inside. Then he hears a creak in the foyer, so leaves to investigate. When he returns, the necklaces have gone! From the shadows emerges Cristiana, a little worse for wear and bleeding profusely from her head, but alive. She survived the fall.

Our Countess realizes her lover set her up – he got her to dress up as the killer, then scared her so she’d go out the window and fall to her death. That’s why Morachi wanted to marry her in secret – and so quickly, too! To collect her riches after her death. Morachi tries to reason with her and pulls her into his embrace. Then two gunshots sound. The lovers part, and it’s clear Morachi has been killed. Cristiana collapses onto his dead body and, using the red Bat-Phone again, calls the police and asks for Inspector Silvestri. The final shot zooms in on the red phone swinging back and forth.

The phone: caught red-handled.

Takeaway points:

  • Blood and Black Lace, like many of the gialli that would follow, is a very beautiful case of style over substance. There is not much to this film: a bunch of women die in horrible ways. Yes, there’s a mystery, but if you didn’t know the Countess was involved from the get-go, I don’t know what to tell you. The reason to watch is the vibrant colours and the elaborate efforts put into the stalk-and-kill sequences. It’s fitting that this film takes place in the world of fashion. Because, here as there, style is everything.
  • Often, gialli – and their mutant American children, slasher films – are criticized for glamorizing and revelling in violence against women. Of course, most horror features violence against all genders, but the giallo features a particular type of sexualized violence: one that fetishizes death and eroticizes death, all black gloves and plunging necklines, even if the murders themselves (as in this film) have no sexual element. Yet even outside of the murders, violence against women is casual in the movie. The killer often slaps his female victims around before coming up with clever ways to kill them. Even male lovers are shown to hit women on a whim – there’s a lot of casual slapping in this film. Of course, there is the question of whether the film is misogynist or depicts a misogynist world, and that can really depend on the particular giallo and the characters and events within. With Blood and Black Lace, the imagery is so beautiful and the viewers (you and me) so complicit in the horrible deaths, Bava seems to be turning the tables on us. Am I a misogynist? What about YOU? You’re the one watching the film. And enjoying it. Well, I only half-enjoyed it, Mario.
  • One question that ran through my mind whenever model Tao-Li appeared on screen: is Tao-Li supposed to be Asian? Her name certainly reads as Asian, but Claude Dantes, no matter how they style her, is definitely not. Troubling.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Blood and Black Lace is not so much scary as it is grim. We just watch as woman after woman is violently killed, so while it’s undoubtedly disturbing, scares are few and far between. However, it’s worth watching for the incredible colour palette and compositions.

Does she wear black because she mourns her dead husband, or because it’s so versatile?

Best outfit: Given Blood and Black Lace concerns a fashion salon and the models and designers within, there’s a lot of high fashion on display. My favourite is the black sleeveless thing Cristiana wears to the fashion show: sort of a mourning cape.

Best line: “Perhaps female beauty makes him lose his head and kill.” – a police deputy, summing up, like, every giallo film ever.

Best kill: None of the murders in Blood and Black Lace have the fun feel of a good old-fashioned slasher. They’re kind of torture-ish and make you want to take a shower afterward. (This feeling is worsened when you view the film at one int he morning.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how the masked killer used a claw gauntlet from a suit of armor – something I can’t imagine really exists – to kill Nicole wasn’t both hideous and impressive.

Unexpected cameo: The gas station attendant is played by Enzo Cerusico, who was the star of the short-lived 1969 television series, My Friend, Tony

Unexpected lesson learned: Never trust someone who calls you a ‘baby’ for not wanting to be alone when a serial killer has murdered two of your co-workers in as many days. And never trust a man in a fedora, but that lesson seems obvious.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Wo ist den Tagebuch?

Next up: Inside (2007).

31 Days of Fright: The House with the Laughing Windows

Okay. The Sistine Chapel it ain't.

Okay. The Sistine Chapel it ain’t.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! I tackled the sole giallo film on my January list last night: The House with the Laughing Windows, directed by Pupi Avati (Giovanna’s Father, Revenge of the Dead). The film, like Deadly Blessing, was not a donor suggestion, but another use of a free movie space this month. After all, what is a horror movie marathon without at least one example of those style-over-substance violent Italian mysteries more popularly known as giallo films (or gialli)? The House with the Laughing Windows was rented from Queen Video.

What happens:

The House with the Laughing Windows, which is often considered to be one of the masterpieces of the genre, starts creepily enough: over sepia-toned images of a man, hanging by his arms, being stabbed over and cover, the credits run. A voice like that of an Italian Darth Vader rants about “my colours, my colours … they run hot in my veins.” I’m already scared. We’ll find out what all that’s about later, but first, art restorer Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who looks like Italian James McAvoy in a trench coat, stands on a ferry to the village in the Valli di Comacchio area of Italy. On the ferry, he locks eyes with a beautiful raven-haired woman, but is soon distracted by the real reason he arrived in this small village: work. The town’s mayor, a little person named Solmi (Bob Tonelli) greets him at the dock, and he and his driver, Coppola (Gianni Cavina) bring him into town.

Solmi goes over Stefano’s task: to restore a fresco in the church of Saint Sebastian, painted by local artist, Buono Legnani, who died twenty years ago. (Given the painting is only twenty years old, I’m not sure why it requires restoration, but maybe it’s that humid Mediterranean climate?) Legnani’s paintings are one of the key tourist attractions of the village, so Solmi, who has done much to bring unity and prosperity to the area, is keen to revive them. The other key attraction in the village? The silence. Stefano visits the church and meets the priest, who notes the church has been through a lot – even used by the S.S. during World War II. He believes the rumours that Legnani was insane and isn’t 100% excited about restoring the art. Stefano, however, is immediately impressed upon seeing the work: “What an artist, to illustrate death so well …. he understood everything.”

Stefano starts on the restoration at once, and quickly meets adult altar boy (?), Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), who is busy polishing a staff (which is, surprisingly, not a euphemism). Stefano is later brought to his hotel room and quickly meets a redheaded woman in the hallway, whom the porter unsubtly suggests is a sex worker. Before he can even open his suitcase, he receives a phone call. A crone-like voice warns him to go away and not touch the painting. Stefano cools down from that weirdness at the only trattoria in town, ordering his regular meal: a big block of cheese and a coffee. The presumed sex worker asks to join him, but is blocked by Stefano’s old friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani), who recommended him for the restoration job. Antonio had a nervous breakdown a while ago but assures Stefano he’s much better now.

He also gives Stefano the lowdown on the woman in his hotel: she’s a schoolteacher and she’s slept with nearly everyone in town. (Though he tells Stefano this in much, much crasser terms than this.) Antonio is alarmed Stefano went to see the painting on his own, and starts to tell him a strange story before Stefano stops him, worried this story is a symptom of his old mental health problems. Next we see Stefano, he’s already lounging on the teacher’s bed as she prepares him tea. He tells her she has a “sad face,” and she just about straddles him after that. (Stefano, you silver-tongued devil!) The next day, Antonio talks to Stefano by the shore, and says he’ll have to finish his story by taking him to the house with laughing windows. (Hey, that’s the title of this movie!) Legnani, he says, was called the “painter of agony.” When Solmi, however, finds out Antonio has been telling him spooky stories, warns him Antonio may not be entirely right in the head.

This is the face Stefano makes through 90% of the movie.

This is the face Stefano makes through 90% of the movie.

Stefano gets back to work on the fresco. Unfortunately, his work brings him into close proximity with the beyond-creepy Lidio, who entertains him by telling him stories about local molesters (and other such fun anecdotes). When Stefano sees flowers left by the painting, he asks Lidio who delivered them, and Lidio claims he didn’t see. Stefano’s dinner that night is interrupted by the valet, Coppola, quarrelling with the local police – a skirmish that spills into the town’s only restaurant. Mr. Poppi (Andrea Matteuzzi), the restaurant owner, intervenes and tells Coppola to go home, an order which the driver, clearly drunk, obeys. Poppi, a distinguished older man with a moustache, apologizes to Stefano, who he knows is in town to restore the painting. In a small village, he explains, everyone knows everything. He then shows Stefano his house, which features a number of Legnani originals. HIs wife, who now suffers from dementia, was a huge Legnani fan. She even posed for his first painting, though he also notes that Legnani never managed to find women as models, so he started to use himself. (Confusing!) Mrs. Poppi (Flavia Giorgi) now roams the streets on her own, day and night.

After his visit with Poppi, Stefano receives a panicked call from Antonio. He insists that he finish telling him the story about Legnani, so Antonio power-walks to his house, only to see his friend (or a fairly obvious dummy) fall to his death from the top of a building. When the police marshall (Ferdinando Orlandi) interviews Stefano the next morning, Stefano is sure that Antonio was pushed off the building, but the lack of motive or evidence leads the marshall to believe he jumped due to suicidal thoughts. When Stefano returns to his hotel room he receives another phone call – literally the only phone calls the hotel gets are for him – and it’s the same voice, warning him to keep away from the painting.

More bad news at the hotel: one of their best customers will soon be visiting, the manager says, so Stefano is being kicked out. Luckily, creepy Lidio has an idea of a place he can stay. He regales him with ways to prepare rats as meals on their bike ride to a hidden villa. Lidio says he can stay at this massive estate. When Stefano asks who it belongs to, Lidio leads him upstairs to where an old bedridden woman rests. The bedridden woman (Pina Borione) is paraplegic, and Lidio feeds and cares for her, though she quite clearly hates him. (Doesn’t everyone?) Lidio tells the woman that Stefano will be staying for a while, and she’s frankly happy to have the noise around the house. As Stefano checks out of his hotel, he asks the porter who the new guest is, and she says they haven’t had tourists in town for years. (The plot thickens!)

Stefano settles into the large old house. Even though he hears mysterious footsteps in the evening, it’s not so bad. He chats with the paraplegic woman for company, but realizes the flowers in the room are the same as those left near the painting. Arriving home from work late at night, Stefano discovers a secret room at the very top of the house – a large empty concrete room, seemingly decorated with a loose canvas by Legnani. He also finds, hidden under a cloth on a chair, a tape recorder. He takes it to his room and plugs it in, promptly setting the outlet on fire and extinguishing all the lights in the house. (Those darn European electrical outlets!) Nevertheless, the tape recorder begins to play, as if mystically, and the rant about colours from the opening credits returns.

Spooked by the disturbing recording, Stefano wanders the foggy streets and is startled when he nearly runs into Mrs. Poppi. When he returns to his old lover’s room at the hotel, he finds she’s no longer there, but the woman from the ferry is. Francesca (Francesca Marciano) is the new teacher, replacing the previous one at the school. For some reason she’s collected a whole bunch of snails to make escargot, but since she couldn’t bring herself to kill them, they’re slithering around her tub. (Okay then.) They part ways but make plans to meet again. The next day, Stefano’s restoration work is interrupted by the funeral of Antonio. Lidio pulls Stefano aside and says he put a live animal in Antonio’s coffin to keep him company. The small gathering assembled for Antonio’s funeral can hear the scratching from within the pine box.

Cool story, bro.

Cool story, bro.

The more Stefano works on the painting, the more he begins to understand Buono Legnani. “He didn’t want to paint the agony of a saint,” he says. “He depicted death.” Stefano asks the priest about the paraplegic woman in the house, and he confesses he doesn’t know much about her. Stefano asks if she was friends with Legnani and the priest is horrified by the thought. When Stefano returns home that night, he can hear the tape recording playing. Francesca is listening to the rant in the dark (as one does); she’s been waiting for him. Stefano makes her a romantic dinner, the only snag of which is when she lends him her lighter, which is engraved with the initials “B.L.” (Could it be Buono Legnani’s lighter?) Otherwise, things go pretty well. Stefano lays on the charm thick and they end up sleeping together. Then he asks her to move in literally after one night together. (Stefano moves fast, ladies and gentlemen.)

Stefano finds an abandoned house and begins to explore it. Before he can get too far, Coppola, the driver, interrupts him. Stefano asks if this was Legnani’s house, and Coppola – refusing to answer – instead offers him a drive into town. Coppola is such an irate drunk that he can no longer get served in town, so Stefano has to buy wine from the restaurant and sneak it out to the valet while he waits at the harbour. Over wine, Coppola tells him what he remembers of Legnani. The painter went to Brazil at some point with his mother and two sisters to find wealth. When the returned to Italy, they had saved up a lot of money, but the mother had died. They built that house Stefano was exploring earlier. Despite being fabulously wealthy, the sisters controlled the money, so Legnani lived in relative poverty, borrowing money from everyone in the village. Then Coppola drops a bomb: he met Legnani when he was about seven; the artist came to paint his dying mother. Stefano, thrilled, asks Coppola if he could recognize Legnani’s voice. Coppola, recalling Legnani’s machine-gun delivery, says his was “not the kind of voice you’d forget.”

He brings Coppola to his villa to play the recording, but the recording doesn’t work. The tape is now blank. Coppola blames Francesca for tampering with it: “This tape was important to me, bitch!” (Maybe you should reconsider moving in, Francesca.) After stewing for a while, he goes to check in on his girlfriend and finds her sleeping. When he returns to Coppola, he’s vanished. Stefano looks for him outside and stains his shoes with a weird white mud that sits outside his building. Stefano wakes Francesca up and apologizes for his temper, mansplaining that his fear is making him act irregularly. The next morning, he makes an amazing find: what seems to be the diary of Legnani, though its written in the third person, “like a researcher.” The diary suggests that his sisters provided him with victims so he could draw them in death. He calls on Francesca to look at the diary with him. Was Legnani trying to commune with the dead through his art?

Francesca is terrified by Legnani’s diary, and in frustration she tosses it across the room. A photograph of two women flutters out, “Rio de Janeiro” written on the reverse. This sparks an epiphany in Stefano and he quickly leaves for the church, instructing Francesca to not open the door for anyone. When he returns to the fresco, he compares the photo to the painting of Saint Sebastian’s tormenters: the killers are Legnani’s sisters! The priest is woken up by Stefano’s late arrival. The young restorer confesses he feels as if he’s being possessed by the painting, and the priest begs him to stop his strange crusade. That’s when Stefano notices the white mud staining the priest’s shoes. Was he at his villa? The priest explains the bedridden woman is close to death. He dropped by to perform last rites.

Francesca immediately starts to regret moving in with a guy after the first night.

Francesca immediately starts to regret moving in with a guy after the first night.

The next day, Mr. Poppi tells Stefano the story of Legnani’s death. He says Legnani and his sisters brought back a strange religion from Brazil. Legnani became so unstable, he doused his body in alcohol and lit himself on fire, then ran into the wilderness. His body was never found. This blows Stefano’s mind: could Legnani still be alive? He visits the village records department, where the clerk reveals Legnani was presumed dead in June 1931. (Which is over forty years before the events in the film, not twenty, math geniuses who wrote this movie.) Mayor Solmi arrives at the clerk’s office to ask Stefano if he completed work at the church, because the fresco is now completely destroyed. (Oops.) Stefano runs to see the mural and, indeed, it’s beyond repair. He interrogates Lidio about who did it, and Lidio – who looks like a deranged Matt Dillon – claims to know nothing about it. (He also starts laughing hysterically, so maybe he’s not being completely honest.) Stefano scrapes a sample from the fresco and returns home.

At home, the extremely resourceful Stefano runs some chemical tests on the substance from the painting. Francesca returns home, as well, and informs Stefano that she called her head office and resigned from her teaching job. She feels unsafe in this town and Stefano never seems to be around, leaving her alone in their big spooky house. Stefano, offended at first, says he understands and will leave town with her. There’s a 9 a.m. train they can be on. But the very next morning, he purposely lets Francesca sleep in so they miss the train. (The cad!) This gives him enough time to check on something in town. He asks the local chemist which customers he has recently sold muriatic acid to, as that was the substance that destroyed the mural. Just as he asks, Lidio walks in and – immediately – out, hearing what they’re discussing. The chemist, covering for Lidio, says many people in town use muriatic acid. He sells it to everyone.

Stefano hops into a car and – seeing someone else behind the wheel – realizes that Coppola has been fired from his job. He soon finds the driver, who claims to have been abused by everyone in town because they didn’t want him to talk about Legnani and his sisters. The alcohol-haunted Coppola downs what he claims will be his last drink and asserts that Legnani’s sisters are still alive and live in the village. And they’re just as horrible and sick as they ever were. He claims horrible things happened at the church, and his avoidance of church is the only reason he’s still alive today. Stefano wonders if this is why his friend Antonio (remember him?) died. Coppola isn’t sure, but wants to show Stefano something. Stefano hops into the sidecar of Coppola’s blood-red motorcycle and they drive to Legnani’s old house.

Once outside Legnani’s house, Coppola picks up a shovel (conveniently resting aside the abandoned house’s wall) and starts to dig. He claims all the missing people from the village are buried in this ground. He may have a point: they find bones in the dirt in no time. Meanwhile, Francesca, left in the big spooky house alone again, hears noises from downstairs. Suddenly she’s startled by Lidio, who makes lewd comments: “You take care of kids, don’t you? Take care of me!” He attacks her and begins to tear off her clothes. It looks like someone from behind the door is about to enter and intervene, but – sadly – never does. Back at Legnani’s old house, Stefano takes a look at the other side of the building and realizes Joker-like smiling mouths have been painted over the windows. So that’s what Antonio (and this movie title) meant by laughing windows!

This is why you always do an on-site visit before renting an apartment.

This is why you always do an on-site visit before signing a lease.

Stefano and Coppola take the motorcycle back to his place. Coppola waits with the motor running outside while Stefano runs in to retrieve his luggage and Francesca. But he can find no sign of her! He runs up to the paraplegic woman’s room and finds it empty. Then he runs upstairs to the secret room to find a wig on the stairs and something even more horrible than a bad wig in the room itself. Francesca is dead, hanging by her arms from a hook in the ceiling, her nightgown stained with blood. Stefano cries out over his repeatedly stabbed love. He runs outside to the front door, but Coppola is now gone, too. Only the motorcycle is left, so Stefano thieves it.

Stefano retrieves the police marshals and brings them to the murder room in his house. But it’s somehow completely empty and pristine. Not a drop of blood in the place. He figures Francesca’s body must be buried by the house with the laughing windows, so he leads the police there next. They dig a pretty substantial hole but find nothing – no Francesca, not even the bones Coppola dug up hours earlier. (However, the camera zooms in on a jawbone as they leave, so they’re not the most observant police officers.) Some police in gondolas discover Coppola drowned in the ravine by the church. He’s covered in scars that the police marshall attribute to his time in the war. The marshall insists that Stefano stay in town one more night and meet with him for an interview in the morning.

Stefano returns to the village hotel and gets a phone call – of course he does – again. But this time, it’s Francesca on the other line, asking him to come to the house. She’s scared. But isn’t Francesca dead? (A quick crosscut reveals that “Francesca” is really just a recording of the dead woman on the other end of the line.) But Stefano, with all he’s seen in the past couple days, has moved beyond logic. He hops onto Coppola’s motorbike and returns to his terrible, terrible house. Upon arrival, he hears a man screaming, so he races up the stairs to that secret death room. Inside, the two sisters are very graphically stabbing Lidio, who is hanging from the same hook Francesca did.

The one sister, the paraplegic woman who lived upstairs, explains that she and her sister (whose face we don’t see) have preserved their brother Legnani. She opens a cabinet and inside is a corpse, floating in a glass case filled with formaldehyde. The tape recorder rests beside the cabinet, preserving his voice. The sisters still regularly bring Legnani victims. However, Lidio raped and killed Francesca, ruining whatever dark plans they had for her, so he must be punished. (Hence, all the stabbing.) Just as the one sister is explaining their evil plot, the other sister stabs Stefano in the chest. He screams, chest spurting blood, and runs from the building. They chase him into the woods outside the villa, but he evades them in the dark.

The House with the Laughing Windows: host of many creative alternatives to the ho-hum burial.

The House with the Laughing Windows: host of many creative alternatives to the ho-hum burial.

When the coast is clear, the wounded Stefano hops on the motorcycle – good thing that motorcycle is blood red – and rides back into town. He bangs on several doors, seeking help, but none of the villagers will open the door for him – not Mr. Poppi, not even Mayor Solmi. The one villager who does maintain an open door policy is the priest. He lets him into the church and sits him down. Stefano breathily tells the priest that Legnani’s sisters are still alive and very stab-happy. He says one sister is the paraplegic woman from the villa, but he didn’t get a good look at the other one. The priest’s voice then changes – becomes more feminine – when he says, “That’s a nasty wound. It would make a beautiful painting.” The priest then removes his vestments, revealing a bloody smock and bare woman’s breast. The priest is the other Legnani sister. Stefano’s eyes bug in disbelief and the priest laughs hysterically.

Mothers, don't let your boys grow up to be art restorers.

Mothers, don’t let your boys grow up to be art restorers.

Takeaway points:

  • One thing that differentiates The House with the Laughing Windows from many other gialli is the constant reference to World War II, and Nazis having used the village as a staging area of sorts. This, combined with the hidden horrors that happened in the town, seem to implicitly link Italy with the horrors of the Third Reich in a way that few Italian horror movies do. (Unless you consider, say, The Conformist, a horror movie.) The church was used by the S.S. The hotel porter notes they haven’t seen tourists since the Nazis. The shadow of the war looms large over The House with the Laughing Windows and naturally acts as the subtext to the murders and torture the sisters commit: the jawbone in the dirt seems too glaring a symbol. The sisters even fled to Brazil at a certain point (as history suggests some principal Nazis did following the war). Most telling is the penultimate scene, when Stefano seeks help from the villagers, and they all pretend to suddenly fall deaf. “At first, they came for the fresco restorers …” That the Catholic church ends up being the final architect of his doom is no accident either. The House of Laughing Windows can easily be read as an allegory of Italian collaboration with the Third Reich.
  • When you don’t watch a giallo movie for a while, you forget just how rampant the causal misogyny is, from the implication that a teacher who enjoys casual sex is a sex worker to our hero Stefano’s abysmal treatment of his girlfriend. Lidio can’t even talk about a bicycle without being misogynist. “This bicycle is the son of a scooter and a whore,” he sings. It can become difficult to handle. Especially when you combine this causal misogyny with the much more explicit misogyny of the sexual assault and murder that frequently occurs in a giallo.
  • Saint Sebastian is more commonly depicted as being tied to a tree and shot to death with arrows. In Legnani’s fresco, Sebastian is being stabbed repeatedly with knives by two murderers in particular. Interestingly, he is the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro (!). (He is also the patron saint of athletes, but no one in the film – no offence – looks overly athletic.)
  • Please see the takeaway points from Deadly Blessing regarding slasher movies and transphobia, because it applies to The House with the Laughing Windows, as well. The priest, posing as a man, is in reality one of Legnani’s sisters. And the horrific reveal, to Stefano, is that this priest has a mammary gland. This is the mirror image of the same problematic message that runs under the reveal at the end of Deadly Blessing.
  • I don’t pretend to be a liturgical scholar, but I’m pretty sure that in 1976, people who committed suicide were denied Catholic funerals. So why does Antonio, who is believed to have jumped to his death, receive a funeral in the church? Or should this have been a warning sign for Stefano that the priest was not who he seemed?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pretty terrifying, if I’m being honest. I was unsettled. Most giallo are long stretches of boring exposition and dialogue that rivals softcore pornography for inanity, punctuated by inventive and visually explosive murders, but The House with the Laughing Windows is tenser than most. Rather than being dull, the sequences between the murders is often unbearably suspenseful, soaked with a slowly building dread. If I were Francesca, I wouldn’t have lasted as long in that house as she did. I’d have dumped Stefano after the first night.

Stefano has in-VEST-ed a lot of effort into this mystery by this point.

Stefano has in-VEST-ed a lot of effort into this mystery by this point.

Best outfit: Stefano brings with him to the village the most incredible collection of patterned vests. You can tell he studied art in school.

Best line: “There’s probably more alcohol than water in his body.” – the police, with some sensitive remarks, upon finding Coppola’s drowned body

Best kill: The stabbing is quite graphic and torture-porny, but I can’t pretend there wasn’t a nice sense of justice that accompanied seeing the monstrous Lidio being killed.

Unexpected cameo: After a very brief career as an actress, Francesca Marciano went on to a fairly successful career as a screenwriter, with dozens of film credits to her name, including a couple of American-language films, like the recent Benicio del Toro / Josh Hutcherson vehicle Escobar: Paradise Lost.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Take the early train. You’ll be tired, but you can sleep on the train.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Painters of Agony

Next up: Candyman (1992).