Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Abandoned

The Abandoned (2006)
Dir. Nacho Cereda
Written by Carlos Fernandez, Julio Fernandez
Starring Anastasia Hille, Karel Roden

    Another in that After Darks “8 Films to Die for” series, THE ABANDONED is a little classier and more psychological than some of its peers, although it still has a guy getting eaten to death by boars. Best of both worlds, amiright?

    The plot concerns Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille), Russian-born expat who returns to her native home when she’s informed that a Russian notary has located her parents and her ancestral abode. It’s pretty obviously evil straight from the get-go, but Marie is a plucky middle-aged blonde so she checks it out, and whaddaya know, she’s barely there for five minutes before she starts seeing creepy doppelgangers of herself. She also meets her creepy long-lost brother (Karl Roden, presumably popping horse tranquilizers like tic-tacs) who also has an evil doppelganger. Together, they wander around the house, have dreamy, bizarre conversations, and generally confirm, yup, it’s haunted all right.

Woah woah woah, we were supposed to be reacting to stuff we see?

    There’s a nice slow style, great location work, and some genuinely eerie ideas and images. But a major stumbling block here is the acting -- I don’t know if the problem is that it’s an English/Spanish co-production of Russian actors shot in Bulgaria and something got lost in the translation or what, but everyone seems weirdly nonplussed by all this. Maybe it’s actually an artistic decision, to give everything a dreamlike or familiar feel (since this one, like THE REEDS and seemingly every small-budget horror production these days, involves a vaguely-defined time travel element) but whatever the reason, it was a bad idea and makes the whole thing kind of uninvolving. Despite the lights turning on and off and the doppelgangers and so forth, this one isn’t surreal enough to be complemented by listless performances (like INFERNO or SILENT HILL are, for example) and most of the time Hille just comes off as prickly and unlikeable. Since we don’t care about the protagonists, it never seems like much is at stake here and eventually the film’s limited bag of tricks gets a little old.

    It has it’s high points, though. The final reveal of what’s actually going on is sort of unique (even if the mechanics of it are not), and the film has some occasionally legitimately unnerving images and ideas. It’s genuinely trying to evoke an atmospheric, unsettling vibe and overall succeeds handily, even mostly having the good manners to avoid the usual haunted house cliches in favor of a hodge-podge of other cliches. It’s polished and even beautiful at times, easily one of the most technically accomplished After Dark films -- it’s just too bad it’s also one of the hardest to get too excited about.

UPDATE 6/18/2013: Wow, I just realized Richard Stanley co-wrote this, whaaaa?


BOOBIES: Don't remember any.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Some pretty serious boar-related injury.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-high. Indie pic, but got a small theatrical release.
MONSTERS: Doppelgangers.
ZOMBIES: Doppelgangers? I don't know what counts anymore.
CURSES: Uh...  seems kind of curse-y, but it's not explicit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Die, Monster, Die!

Die, Monster, Die! aka Monster of Terror (1965)
Dir. Daniel Haller
Written by Jerry Sohl
Starring Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Freda Jackson, Suzan Farmer

No! That's German for "The Monster, The!"

    A good companion piece to the mildly decent DUNWICH HORROR (with the same director), this, too, is an Arkoff/Nicholson production of an H. P. Lovecraft story except five years earlier and hence not quite so weak to the lure of 70’s psychedelic silliness. No Corman on this one, either, so that might also explain it. The result is a slightly classier, better structured film, although one which also could probably do with a few cheaper thrills.

    Former “Twilight Zone” writer (and Charles Beaumont ghostwriter, if his iffy-sounding wikipedia page is to be believed) Jerry Sohl adapts Lovecraft’s “Colour out of Space” by changing it to a mystery, where a clueless young woman’s boyfriend comes into town and notices a few suspicious things about her Dad (for instance, he’s played by Boris Karloff) and the sprawling gothic estate (for instance, the maid fled the house and now lives in the woods as a knife-wielding black-veiled maniac). In what seems to be something of a trend in these English-set 60s movies, the girlfriend is maddeningly oblivious to her father’s shifty behavior, but she’s game to help boyfriend Nick Adams* investigate.

You kids get these lousy lawn ornaments off my castle grounds!

    The beginning of the film is all slow burn dread, implying something sinister but never quite letting us see exactly what’s going on. Surprisingly, it actually works pretty well when it’s being serious, finding some good horror images and generally maintaining suspense even before the action starts. Once we actually encounter the titular colour out of space, things turn a little more hokey with some iffy effects and not-so-convincing peril for our heroes. Lovecraft’s story is creepy because of the subtle way that the "colour" affects and gradually alters people and things. I’m betting he didn’t imagine it as a “zoo from hell!” as described in the dialogue and populated by what look to be three or four dour-faced snuffleupagus family members.

It's not easy being green.

    In the H.P. Lovecraft documentary FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN, John Carpenter opines that someone ought to make a movie of “The Colour Out of Space,” apparently unaware that someone already did under the silly title DIE, MONSTER, DIE. He notes, however, that he doesn’t know how they could because you’d have to depict the actual color, which Lovecraft describes as something “without a place among the known tints of Earth.” Well, here they solved that problem by making the color green. It’s that kind of movie. But even so, the generally serious treatment they give to the material gives this the dubious distinction of being one of the better Lovecraft adaptations. It ends up about as silly as the title suggests, but for the greater balance of the runtime it builds a convincingly creepy atmosphere and gets appropriate mileage out of it’s gothy sets and grumpy Boris Karloff power**. And hey, the poster isn’t lying, that ax does figure into the finale!

As usual, don't forget to check out Dan P's alternate take in ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FASTER, MONSTER, KILL, KILL: THE FINAL CROSSOVER! 

*Adams led what appears to be a very interesting life, going from pool hall hustler to possibly having gay sex with James Dean and Elvis and along the way coming perilously close to becoming a huge movie star before dying of a drug overdose that some regard as mighty suspicious. Of course, none of that can be confirmed in any meaningful way.

**Karloff, only four years from death at the time, is wheelchair-bound and looks tired (by the end of his life he had only one half of one lung left and required oxygen after each take) but gamely gives it his all. Way to be, Boris.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: Indeed, and vaguely recognizable as such, for once.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: No significant gore.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Karloff probably boosts its profile a little, in one of his last film roles (he died in 1969).
MONSTERS: A couple tentacles and so forth.
SATANISTS: Nah, although the grandfather in the story was known to invoke an old one or two.
ZOMBIES: No, mutants.
CURSES: There's discussion of a curse from their grandfather, but no evidence that it works.

Blood and Donuts

Blood and Donuts (1995)
Dir. Holly Dale
Written by Andrew Rai Berzens
Starring Gordon Currie, Justin Louis, Helene Clarkson, David Cronenberg

    BLOOD AND DONUTS is a well-meaning little Indie horror/comedy out of the 90s, which is pretty much shorthand for saying it’s ambitious but full of stilted, forced wannabe-Tarantino dialogue and filmmaking which ranges from adorably inept to unwatchable. As discussed previously, the 90’s were indie filmmaking’s awkward teenage years, as wannabe auteurs took inspiration from Tarantino and Kevin Smith, got together some local actors and a few hundred bucks, and made their ambitious dream projects that the studios would have laughed out of the room. They could be the next Tarantino or Smith! Of course, they wouldn't be, oh God, not at all, not even close. But no one had the heart to tell them that. So stuff like this got made.

    It’s not all bad in this case, though. It has a kind of nifty setup, even if it doesn’t do much with it. Seems a vampire named Boya (Gordon Currie), depressed with life, crawled into a burlap sack in 1969 and stayed there until awakened by an errant golf ball in 1995. The opening credits, where a golfer (Cronenberg? Looks like it might be) slices a bunch of (CG) balls at the screen makes it seem like it’s going to be A) a wacky comedy and B) in some way about golf, but neither is really true. Instead, the newly reanimated Boya wanders around, stays out of the sun, and gets involved in the lives of a idiot taxi driver named Earl (Justin Louis) and an I-guess-considered-hot-in-1995 24 hour donut retailer (Helene Clarkson). It’s mostly an indie drama with a few chuckles here and there, a bunch of self-conscious monologues (you know, like Tarantino would do!) and a vampire who doesn’t drink blood. No horror here whatsoever, except that it’s a vampire. So actually, it’s kind of a proto-TWILIGHT but with moderately attractive Canadians and some minor traces of a human soul. 

Jennifer Connolly called from 1987, she wants her eyebrows back.

    Currie is actually pretty good as Boya, coming across as endearing, sad, and appropriately idiosyncratic (the guy has spent 40 years in a bag, after all) but Louis, as cab driver Earl, is disastrously unfunny. There’s a running discussion on IMDB about what kind of accent he’s attempting: Bad Christopher Walken? Bad Robert De Niro from TAXI DRIVER? Bad Eastern European? Bad Quebecois? Hard to tell, but you’ll notice they all have something in common*. Earl is in a bad way with the local Toronto mob (wha?), and it’s up to Boya to save him, but Earl is such an annoying moron that you never feel very inclined to support Boya’s misguided quest to save this jackass. Especially since David Cronenberg, at his most monologue-indulgent, is the mob boss Earl owes money to. And unfortunately, that’s the crux of the drama, since even though Boya mildly romances the donut girl, there’s not really any conflict there. A more interesting subplot involves Boya’s ex, who’s been waiting for him for decades and, faced with the prospects of getting old, is not taking "no" for an answer. It seems like that one is going someplace interesting that might explore the basic sadness of it’s premise, but no, it just peters out so we can learn if Earl is OK.

The movie tries for some genuine drama, and Boya is good enough to almost sell it, but frankly the whole thing is narratively nonexistent and consequently any attempt at drama is mostly unearned and unsuccessful. Cronenberg (in one of his rare acting roles) has some fun with his kooky speeches about boots, but he’s only in a few scenes and turns out to be pretty unimportant to whatever plot ends up sneaking past all the hip monologues. Most damningly, the film is mostly set in a 24-hour coffee and donut shop which frankly is the single most unconvincing set I’ve ever seen in a movie. Maybe in Canada your donut shops look like enormous empty warehouse** soundstages with a tiny counter at one end, but here in America it would be ridiculous to pay that rent on a donuts-and-coffee budget. Especially if you’re gonna do it 24 hours. Where the fuck are they even baking these donuts, since there’s no kitchen or bakery to be seen? I was OK with tormented hundred-year old vampire and was even willing to tolerate the terrible Christopher Walken accent, but this crosses the line.  

*Fittingly, it seems like Justin Louis, so terrible in this, would go on to be the most successful actor in the cast, going on to appear (briefly) in THE DAWN OF THE DEAD REMAKE, Breaking Bad, and even SAW IV (Whoever “Art Blank” was, I can’t remember if he was important). Director Holly Dale wouldn’t do any more movies, but would go on to become a prolific TV director.

**I initially misspelled this as "werehouse", which suddenly gives me a great idea for a better horror movie.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, unless he wrote a vampire romantic comedy I'm unaware of.
BOOBIES: None. Although Boya is pretty ripped and spends quite a bit of time in the bathtub. Into melancholy hardbodied Canadian vampires? Christmas just came early.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Massive slaughter of rats, pigeons, bats. Not so much for humans.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-High, Indie Canadian 90's fare.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Sinister (2012)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Written by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert “Massawyrm” Cargill
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, Vincent D’Onofrio

    This ghostly flick from the director of HELLRAISER V: INFERNO and one of the reviewers from Ain’t it Cool News may not have the classiest pedigree in the world, but it does have something. It’s hard to describe what that actual something is, but I think it’s in there. Somewhere. When I take it apart and start thinking about the actual content, it seems very stupid and gimmicky, and not even a very good gimmick. But for some reason while I was watching this film, I was mostly into it. I don’t know that I could really call it a good movie, but somewhere, somehow, this one managed to get to me in spite of everything. I mean, there’s only one thing in this whole mess that I couldn’t straight-up predict, and even that was pretty obviously one possible way it could go. And there’s certainly nothing in here that you haven’t seen before, and a lot of it you’ve seen done before much better. But I dunno, man. Somethin’.

    Oh wait, I just realized I know exactly what. Ethan Hawke. There’s one and only one reason this unimaginative gloom-fest works, and it’s Ethan Hawke acting his scruffily handsome ass off trying to make us care about the gimmicky found-footage conceit here and succeeding handily. Derrickson and Cargill owe Mr. Hawke a minimum of a hundred blowjobs each for taking this movie up about a dozen notches, but maybe he at least owes them the honor of receiving them for providing him an opportunity to play an interesting, nuanced character in a genre movie that takes itself surprisingly seriously and genuinely wants you to leave horrified, not just scared.

    We know Derrickson has the capacity to make shit out of shinola (witness his lifeless and mind-numbing remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) so I’m hesitant to give him too much credit here. But I will say he’s obviously trying, laboring to make something genuinely dark and shocking even if he doesn’t always have the imagination to back it up. He asserts his intent from the very first frame, where we silently watch a super-8 video of a family of four, hung by their necks with bags over their head until the last kick. It’s horrifying and --crucially-- patient, lingering on the images of horror rather than just leaping out at us with them (although he’ll hilariously try the latter approach for the very last frame of the movie). Now, intending to shock is not always the same thing as legitimately shocking us. CHAOS, right? There’s a big difference between conjuring genuinely disturbing psychological unease and X-treme hardcore wannabe nonsense. As much as it grasps for the genuinely depraved, SINISTER is seldom imaginative enough to come up with anything truly upsetting. But fortunately that’s where Hawke takes over and carries the rest of the movie on his back, kicking and screaming, into somewhere in the realm of honest-to-good goodness.

Well, I guess I do owe [the Robot Devil] for this unholy... ACTING ABILITY!!

Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, (named after Harlan Ellison and Patton Oswalt, the same way that all those awful horror movies in the 90’s had characters named Carpenter and Romero and Ken Russell and so on) a nice guy with a cute cracker-y family who has fallen on hard times as a writer of true-crime type novels (which come to think about it, Patton Oswalt really ought to try that, I bet he’d be great). Unbeknownst to the family, he’s moved them into the house of the murder victims from the opening hanging scene, convinced it’s the inspiration he needs to write another great book. Unfortunately, his wife’s getting sick of their lives being shaken up so he can pursue his career, the local cops (not entirely unreasonably) think he’s a tabloid-chasing lowlife, he’s running out of money, and wouldn’t you know it, the house is haunted. You know, by ghosts.

The only reason any of this is interesting in the slightest is that Hawke plays Oswalt in a very unique way. He’s fundamentally a nice guy who genuinely loves his wife and kids and wants the best for them. But he’s also somewhat selfishly pursuing his own dreams of recaptured literary glory to the detriment of everyone else, rationalizing his own pride as an attempt to provide a better life for his family. Oswalt’s first book was a hugely acclaimed, influential work which helped bring justice to an unsolved case, but since then he’s become a bit of a hack, “making mistakes,” as the local cops put it, and generally pissing away his good name in a desperate effort to reach the kind of glory that mostly only comes as the result of being in the right place at the right time. So when he finds a mysterious box in the attic which includes gruesome super-8 footage of five murders across more than 50 years, he seriously considers turning it over to the police but can’t quite resist the temptation to be a hero again by solving the mystery himself. Which turns out to be kind of a mistake, if you’ll indulge me a moment of editorializing.

Yes, yes, you see dead people. Get to the point.

What works about the performance is that Hawke makes this guy’s desperation genuinely palpable. In fact, the tension comes more from how hard it is to watch Oswalt paint himself into a corner than from our fear of ghostly kids running around. As Oswalt (and the audience) work their way through the films (all of which have cutesy titles which relate to the murders, for instance the hanging family is called “Hangin’ Around ‘11”) you can tell he knows in his heart that this is a bad idea, and in fact bad for him both personally and psychologically... but he can’t stop himself. He wants to believe he can make this work. Even as the evidence that this is a terrible idea piles up, he can’t quite let go of his dream that this will be the thing that puts him back on top. We can’t always identify with the idea of being hunted by an ancient Babylonian demon that looks like if the Joker was a member of Insane Clown Posse (unless we saw EXORCIST PART II, and even then only the first part), but we can all identify with being the guy who just so desperately needs this one thing to work out that he at first ignores, and then rationalizes, and finally tries to live with all the horrible consequences that are piling up at the foot of his aspirations.

    The drama works like a charm, but the actual horror stuff can be pretty clunky. There are a whole lot of scenes of Hawke fearfully walking through his darkened house (and never turning on a light) which start off tense but eventually get repetitive, and get even worse when they’re accompanied by a bunch of cheesy looking ghostly kids running around. And the less said about the ultimate reveal of why this is happening, the better. But surprisingly, the central found footage gimmick actually works pretty well. Unlike most found footage clusterfucks these days, I don’t detect any kind of commentary about our society being obsessed with documenting reality or creating meaning through images and so forth. Nor do these found films attempt to “put you in the moment” like way something like V/H/S does -- they’re mostly set in the past, for one thing, and don’t have a lot of that stupid wobbling that most practitioners of this questionable art seem to think is necessary. They’re scary just because they’re showing you something pretty horrible, making you party to whatever sick mind would do these things. It’s silent, deliberate, slow, gruesome (although unfortunately unimaginative), and the grainy super-8 footage and clattering projector remind you that there’s nothing our hero can do, we’re completely helpless to save anyone here. Derrickson actually did some pretty good found footage stuff in his DTV HELLRAISER V as well, so maybe that’s his thing. One rookie error he makes, though, is occasionally putting the film’s (quite good) score over the found footage. Bad call, brother; you can either have fancy Hollywood manipulation tricks or you can have your raw, disturbing found footage. Can’t have both at the same time

Man, how have they not made a Half Life movie with Hawke as Gordon Freeman?

    Still, there’s some signs that some serious thought was put into this movie. Briefly and bafflingly, Vincent D’Onofrio appears as Professor Exposition on Oswalt’s computer, communicating with him via Skype. I assumed that it was another attempt at the raw video footage thing, but it’s awkward and uncinematic and distracting and I thought it was a bad idea. But then I realized there’s actually a good reason for it -- Oswalt never leaves the house for the whole movie. Never goes to a bar, never gets a haircut, never buys groceries. The house is his prison, and without realizing it the movie’s small scope makes it feel claustrophobic and tense. A trip out into the real world, away from all the ghosty hijinks, would defuse this tension, and I admire Derrickson for realizing that. He should have just thought of a reason for D’Onofrio to make a house call, though, because that shit with the computer is a nonstarter.

    Anyway, the combination of a serious tone, a serious actor, and serious ambition (if not always serious imagination) combine for an end result which is, if not seriously good, at least seriously something. There’s a boldness and a commitment to the movie that I respect, and --at least in part-- responded to. When it’s short on ideas, it’s usually got the filmmaking competence to go the distance anyway, and Hawke’s constantly riveting performance takes us the rest of the way there. Easily the better of the two movies about ancient Babylonian demons I saw this Chainsawnukah season, although to be fair this one doesn’t have James Earl Jones wearing a cool locust headdress and sitting on an ornate throne. That may not be saying much, but it’s saying something.

And don't forget to check out Dan P's take in ABBOT AND JASON MEET BEFORE SUNSET.


BOOBIES: Don't think so.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Hmm, tough one. There's not much out-and-out gore, but some pretty rough murders all the same. When the gore comes, it's usually implied rather than shown, so I guess I'll say no.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Well-advertised studio picture.
SLASHERS: A serial killer, sure.
CURSES: Definitely.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Awake and entertained.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lord of Illusions

Lord of Illusions (1995)
Dir. Clive Barker
Written by Clive Barker
Starring Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, Famke Janssen, Daniel Von Bargen

    Boy, I remember when this movie came out, can you believe that? I was in fifth grade at the time, and for some reason I got it in my head that this movie had to be the single scariest fucking thing in the history of the world. The ominous title, the special-effects-driven trailers, the association with something called “Hellraiser” which I didn’t know what the fuck it was but sure sounded depraved and scandalous. I begged my parents to let me watch it, and their flat refusal on the (correct) grounds that it was a terrible idea just furthered the mystique for me. This may actually be the only movie ever that my parents forbade me to see.

    Well, sorry Mom and Dad, it took me a little under twenty years but guess what, I finally did it, I saw LORD OF ILLUSIONS. And also, guess what, not the scariest fucking thing in the history of the world. In fact, not even the scariest fucking thing in the room I saw it in (there was a bottle of blue MD 20/20 on the table). But it is sort of interesting, mainly for Clive Barker’s interesting attempt to wed Noir conventions to his typically twisted horror tropes. I said interesting, not good. But it has it’s moments.

    Scott Bakula plays Harry D’Amour, private eye. He’s recently gotten off a weird case which may or may not have been supernatural in origin (actually, I just realized the film never does resolve that -- surprising restraint there) and is gradually drawn under the employ of Phillip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor in a rare role where he’s only kind of an asshole), a stage magician who may just be the real deal. Turns out Swann learned his tricks from a creepy cult leader named Nix (Daniel Von Bargen) who was abandoned and killed by his former pupil on account of being such a child-murdering psycho asshat, but who may not have stayed quite as dead as we all might have hoped.

Bakula rocks the man-tramp-stamp.

    Though nowhere near their technical equal, Barker’s penchant for imaginative, unique horror creations is the rival of luminaries like H. P. Lovecraft, David Cronenberg and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Few horror writers are as willing and able to craft complex, fresh scenarios to creep you out rather than relying on old standards like zombies, vampires, ghosts, etc. Unfortunately, Barker’s imagination typically outpaces his technical chops by a considerable distance (HELLRAISER being the only real exception) and as a result his nightmares are usually conceptually superior to their chintzy execution. Such is the case here; there’s some creepy stuff in here, but mostly it feels like the same old over-lit under-directed special effects laden cheeseball 90’s schlock that you’d probably expect. Nix is good and scary and O’Connor is pretty interesting as the morally ambiguous Swann, but Bakula overplays his Noir persona to a level bordering on parody, wasting his natural likeability and never coming across as remotely hardboiled. There’s some fun parts, including a witheringly snide Vincent Schiavelli as a rival magician and an attack by -- maaaagical colored polygons! Early CG effects are so cute.

    Really, though, the film is more Noir than horror, and suffers enormously from Barker’s slack storytelling and inability to conjure a convincing (or consistent) atmosphere of mystery. It’s convoluted but uneventful, meaning by the time we get to a decent horror scene or two, it’s already too late. It’s earnestness and 90’s nostalgia might earn it a little goodwill, but it’s a long, long way from being a good movie, let alone effective horror. Guess Mom and Dad were right after all. Still, there’s some promise in it’s fluid handling of two somewhat rigidly structured genres -- for a much better example, see Tommy Lee Jone’s 1998 Noir ghost story GOTHAM. Barker’s got a righteously sick mind, but he might need a little help getting it to work properly on the screen.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, Barker adapts his own work.
BOOBIES: Bakula and Janssen definitely get it on, but I think it's pretty tame.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Some pretty gnarly impalings.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-low. High profile 90's fare.
MONSTERS: There's one pretty cool (claymation?) brain/rock monster, but it turns out to be (guess what?) and illusion. I'll count it anyway, though.
SATANISTS: Cultists, but no Satan.
ZOMBIES: Nix definitely looks a little worse for ware, post-grave. But it seems iffy, and I already counted an imaginary monster.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The House With Laughing Windows

The House With Laughing Windows (1976) aka La casa dalle finestre che ridono
Dir. Pupi Avati
Written by Pupi Avati, Antonio Avati
Starring Lino Cappolichio, Francesca Marciano, Gianni Cavina

THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS is an extremely atypical Italian horror film from the 1970s, in that it includes almost none of the elements which basically define the genre. No crazy colorful stylization, no gimmicky deaths, no leering nudity, no ridiculous dubbing, no B-list American actors stuck starring with a bunch of flamboyantly mustached Italians...   It’s like if Kiyoshi Kurosawa made a jokey, fast-paced special-effects extravaganza. Oh wait, he did. And it was also about restoring a historic mural by a troubled artist which gradually reveals the secrets to a weird and tragic tale. And I watched them both on the same night. It was a weird night.

So HOUSE is basically an anti-giallo. Yes, there is a killer somewhere in here, but the film’s structure is much more of a mystery than a slasher. Art expert Sefano (Lino Cappolichio) arrives in a tiny Italian town to restore a decaying fresco in their local chapel. But in doing so, he gets involved in the mystery surrounding the tortured artist and his two cruel sisters. All three are long dead, so why does everyone in town seem to be harboring weird secrets and occasionally dying right before they divulge important information? The answers lie within the painting itself, as well as a couple other places, a bunch of dull conversations, and also some red herrings. 

The movie's true mystery is, who gives a shit about restoring this ugly-ass fresco? 

At 110 minutes, HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS is probably way too long for what it is, but I’m also kind of impressed by it’s ambition. Instead of the usual exploitation trappings, it’s definitely going for a kind of sustained, paranoid dread which graaaadually increases as more dark secrets are revealed. Most of it is pretty uneventful, unfortunately, and even though it’s technically superior to most other Italian films of it’s ilk, it’s also not quite well-made enough to hold our attention through endless expository conversations where almost nothing is revealed (especially since it consistently resists showy stylistic flourishes). Still, by the time it gets to the last twenty minutes and the threads of mystery start to come together, you can’t help but notice a palpable sense of something truly depraved lurking just below the mundane surface. This part, at least, is not unique to HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS; imaginative depravity is basically part of the Italian national artistic character. But here --set in a quiet, slow-moving real world instead of a gaudy giallo world--it takes on a particularly unsettling nature. There’s something genuinely upsetting and perverse about the whole production. While it’s not as stylish as most giallos, it abounds with creepy, decaying sets, weird ideas, and a sense of seriousness that adds to the quietly unsettling buildup. And when the final reveal comes, it’s even more twisted than you think. There’s an unusual first-person sequence during the big reveal, which surprisingly doesn’t feel gimmicky or distracting but actually does serve to allow the viewer to make the main character’s horrifying discoveries along with him.

HOUSE would be a much stronger film at about 20, and maybe even 30 minutes shorter. But if you’re the patient type, the film does have a certain dark magic that almost imperceptibly creeps up on you. For an Italian horror film that’s trying to do something radically different than most of it’s peers, it’s a surprisingly effective (if not quite revolutionary) effort. Director Pupi Avati would apparently go on to direct classier, more dramatic works, but he did make at least one other horror film, 1983’s ZEDER. At 98 minutes, let’s hope he was a little closer the second time.  

You should also check out my boy Dan P's take on it, even though he was not a huge fan.


BOOBIES: Barely, almost nothing for an Italian film.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Surprisingly not much gore, but I guess enough to count.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-high. Small cult following.
SLASHERS: A little slashing.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Yeah, I think pretty much.