H: The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

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So back a couple of years ago I reviewed Pupi Avati’s Zeder to close out Hubrisween and I was impressed enough to track down more of his work (so it took me two years. So what).

House opens impressively enough, with a man, strung up with arms overhead, being stabbed to death in slow-motion while we hear some crazed loon babble about the colors in his veins and paint running down his arms, all during the opening credits.

Then we meet Stefano (Lino Cappolicchio) (Avati had a thing for naming his protagonists Stefano), a professional restorationist who has been hired by the mayor (Bob Tonelli) of a small village to restore a fresco in the church. It’s a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by a local artist, Buono Legnani, known as “The Painter of Agony” because of his preference for painting and drawing only subjects near death.

Stefano was hired on the recommendation of his old friend, Dr. Mazza (Giuilio Pizzarani), who was researching Legnani. Mazza is always on the cusp of telling Stefano something important about Legnani and the village, but the arrival of someone local will make him nervous and interrupt his tale, until he asks Stefano to meet him at his hotel. Of course, when Stefano arrives, it’s just in time to see Mazza thrown out a window to his death.

In proper giallo style, Stefano investigates the mystery of Legnani himself, despite creepy anonymous phone calls commanding him to leave. He finds an old wire recorder, containing the utterances we heard during the opening. Legnani was obviously more than a little off-kilter, and was aided and abetted in his off-kilterness by his two sisters, who Stefano comes to realize (as more and more of the fresco is revealed) are the models for the two women joyously murdering Saint Sebastian – and an actual murder may have taken place to act as a model for the painting. Legnani reportedly doused himself with kerosene and ran blazing into the woods, his body never found; and Stefano begins to fear that Legnani is not truly dead, and he and his sisters may still be up to no good – and they seem to have some sort of horrible control over the village at large.

The House With Laughing Windows is the most un-giallo giallo you will ever see. Most movies in this genre will keep you occupied with multiple murders, even more red herrings, sex (usually as perverse as possible), or heightened, intense visuals. House has none of these, but does have the doom-laden atmosphere and the independent investigator in way, way over his head. Leave it to Avati to not travel the well-worn road.

The movie is 110 minutes long, too long in my estimation. The final fifteen minutes, though, are suitably nightmarish and horrifying, but it can be a chore to get to them. If you’re, say, a fan of slow burn horror directors like Ty West, this is going to be right up your alley, and you should seek it out. For me, though, it’s more of a case of Okay, now I’ve seen it, and going on to my next horror movie, which will hopefully be more to my liking.

(Spoiler: it will not be.)

A: Arcane Sorcerer (1996)

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Pupi Avati is a director largely known on these shores for a couple of offbeat genre films: Zeder (covered two years ago) and The House with Laughing Windows (which is going to have to wait for the letter H). With typical grace, I stumbled onto this particular movie, and was happy to slot it into the opener for this Hubrisween.

In what appears to be the early 18th century, Vigetti (Stefano Dionisi), a seminary student, makes the double error of seducing a woman, and, even worse, convincing her to abort the resulting child. On the run from Church Inquisitors, he desperately accepts a position acting as a clerk to an excommunicated priest known as the Monsignor, or “The Arcane Sorcerer” (Carlo Cecchi), who lives in seclusion at his ancestral home. The Monsignor was dabbling in forbidden texts, knowledge and rites far too much, but his family is old and powerful, so the Inquisition allows him to live in exile. Merely looking at him will get you excommunicated, too.

And his former clerk, Nerio, has apparently died under mysterious circumstances.

After burying the deceased clerk in unhallowed ground, Vigetti gets down to his duties, which come down to taking coded dictation from the Monsignor, delivering that letter to the nearby House of Lay Sisters (full of failed nuns who can’t go home), from whence it is delivered to some unknown personage – and then assisting Monsignor in some odd, dangerous rites to communicate at a distance with another sorcerer. However, Vigetti has found notes left by Nerio that seem to indicate what the Monsignor has been communicating with is actually a Prince of Hell – and that Nerio seemed to have a plan to magically return from the grave with the assistance of that same devil.

On top of all that, it seems that Nerio had something to do with the disappearance of two of the girls from the convent. Vigetti has a bunch of mysteries to unravel, none of which are made easier by the sudden appearance of an Inquisitor, Don Zanini (Andrea Scorzoni), who aims to use Vigetti’s indiscretion as leverage to discover what dark crimes the Monsignor might actually be committing.

Arcane Sorcerer is long on atmospherics and short on actual shocks – it could be considered possibly the oddest giallo ever. Avati gets a lot of mileage out of actual period locations, and the few studio sets – the cramped interior of the manor, where every wall is a bookshelf, filled to exploding with books, reaching up several stories – are impressive. If you’re looking for an actual horror movie, The Arcane Sorcerer may not fit the bill. But as a rumination on the nature and degrees of sin and forbidden knowledge – and as a weird mystery – it’s pretty good.

Z: Zeder (1983)

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Zeder has an odd, somewhat fractured reputation. It was released during the great VHS boom under the title Revenge of the Dead, which is a pretty accurate description, I suppose – but it was being sold as another gory Italian zombie flick – and it ain’t that.

You think it might be, with the opening – an elderly woman getting mangled by a shadowy figure outside an old mansion, “The third in two years!”, and a mysterious Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) forcing an obviously disturbed teenage psychic, Gabriella (Veronica Moriconi) to seek out a body buried in the cellar while all sorts of Amityville shit is going on upstairs. While Meyer brings the authorities downstairs, another shadowy figure mangles Gabriella’s leg. The body is dug up, a moldering skeleton – with Gabriella’s slipper in its bony hands.

Going over the few effects found with the bones, Meyers finds the skeleton’s wallet, with an ID card, revealing the corpse was once Dr. Paul Zeder. Meyer is astounded. “He found a K Zone!” he exclaims.

Enough about that, let’s go to the present day of 1983. (There aren’t a bunch of visual cues – at least to these American eyes – that reveal the opening was twenty or so years in the past, but we are also going to find that Zeder is that rare creature, a movie that expects its viewer to be smart enough to keep up with it) A young writer, Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) is given an anniversary present by his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas): a dinosaur of an electric typewriter she bought at an auction. Stefano sets to writing, but the ribbon runs out quickly, and upon trying to change it, he notices he can read what was written before, by the previous owner. Something about “K Zones”.

roftd4Sensing a story, Stefano begins to trace the previous owner, and find out exactly what a K Zone might be; he visits his old college where his former professor (John Stacy) reveals that it was the theory of a Dr. Paul Zeder, who mysteriously disappeared years before. He felt that there are certain areas of the Earth where time periodically comes unglued, as it were. opening up the possibility that the dead could be communicated with at these times, and even come back to life. Absurd, obviously! Oddly, the professor’s copy of the articles laying that out seem to have vanished…

And thus, Stefano becomes more and more obsessed with solving this mystery, and overcoming the many obstacles thrown in his path. The prior owner of the typewriter was a priest who left the order when he discovered he had terminal lung cancer. The priest’s crypt is empty… because he has been buried in the grounds of that mansion, in a coffin wired with television cameras and motion sensors by a group headed up by the now grey-haired Dr. Meyers and an adult Gabriella (Paola Tanziani). The K Zone, as it turns out, is quite real, and the dead do come back – though not quite the way you’d want.

zeder-1So, as mentioned before, what we have here is not truly a zombie movie (except that the dead have a tendency to tear off throats and enough body parts for video boxes to make false claims), but a mystery more in tune with a giallo than an actual horror movie. You have an amateur sleuth, his lovely wife involved against her better judgement, and at least one remorseless killer – all that’s missing is the black leather gloves. One piece of oddness I have difficulty overcoming is why the group investigating the K Zones feel that information is worth killing to conceal. A little more information or motivation would have been nice, but perhaps that’s meant to be just one more enigma to hash over after viewing.

zeder4Pupi Avati directed somewhere around 50 movies and TV shows, but his fame in these parts rests mainly on this movie and another, The House of Laughing Windows, giving him a reputation for thoughtful horror. Zeder, as I said, is arranged as a mystery, where we know more than Stefano, but we aren’t sure of the why of things. Stefano’s gradual peeling back of the layers around the K Zone mystery keeps the viewer engaged, until the final act when the K Zone busts out The Weirdness in all its glory. A lot of low-budget horror movies do this, saving all the money for the close (appropriately so), but in the case of Zeder, it actually feels like that is earned.

It’s hard to find, but if you’re in the mood for a giallo-inflected movie with more than a bit of the supernatural in the mix, Zeder/Revenge of the Dead is worth the effort.

Buy Zeder/Revenge of the Dead on Amazon