Taken together, the above two cues underscore the opening 5 minutes of Pupi Avati's The House with the Laughing Windows (1976).
It’s a miracle that any movie would even have the guts to attempt an unironic shift between such irreconcilable emotional tones as these in under 30 seconds, but Avati's giallo sleeper classic is just that kind of miracle. The film's first cue accompanies the material perfectly. Visually, the opening title sequence is a punishingly blunt, unannounced salvo of graphic violence. Grainy, sepia-tinted, stuttering slo-mo photography obsesses over a bloodcurdling depiction of an aestheticized ritual torture. Though what else would you expect from Avati? He co-wrote Salò! Considering the intensity of these images, he was lucky to find a fittingly sadistic composer to compliment them. Amedeo Tommasi crafted a soundscape that is proportionally grisly to Avati’s titles, utilizing little more than a simple piano refrain, one repeatedly sampled scream, and a stream of deeply perverse Italian whisperings crudely recorded on a Dictaphone. In chorus, these elements begin to decay towards discord and become almost as unbearable to listen to as their accompanying imagery feels to watch.
Such breathless frontloading uncomfortably establishes the sights and sounds of a world where madness and murder rule, but then the film suddenly shifts from a climate of foreboding towards the entirely different experiences of a new character. Avati and Tommasi’s brutal pummeling of the audience’s senses in the title sequence is immediately lifted by a fade to black, then the cutting blare of a foghorn, and, as if waking from a nightmare, the film's proper action begins. Our protagonist Stefano enters by ferry, a young art restorer summoned to an isolated island village whose status as an ingenuous outsider will be confirmed by an entirely different cue.
Over the course of the full movie, there come to be enough warning signs to make even the most naïve protagonist have second thoughts (isolated island village; weirdo, yokel inhabitants; moldering, decadent mansion; crumbling, horrific fresco), but within only seconds of the opening, Stefano is already beyond dissuasion, and the audience understands this sonically. Before the boat has even docked, Stefano promptly exchanges glances with a beautiful disembarking passenger. All he can see is potential for a little island amore, and all he can hear is Tommasi’s love theme. Within the first 30 seconds of the movie’s action, the audience is directed musically by the didactic high schmaltz of the love theme to understand that Stefano is obviously twitterpated beyond the possibility of all rational escape.
And who can blame him? She is very beautiful, and he lacks the audience's privileged information about the dangers ahead: he couldn't see or hear the title sequence nor grasp its delight at the mortification of all flesh.
The House with the Laughing Windows plays in the Giallo Fever retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City tonight and Saturday, September 29.