This review contains spoilers.
Mario Bava’s perversely beautiful and strange 1973 film “Lisa and the Devil” could perhaps best be understood as a kind of poetic cinematic odyssey – a metaphysical waking dream in which the viewer is gently guided by Italy’s foremost genre maestro on a personal tour of his own filmography. It’s a piece of work which acts very much as a vehicle for distilling a decade’s worth of the most potent images, moods and thematic obsessions from narrative ideas which are sometimes illogical, sometimes whimsical and often times playfully surreal -- but which are always relatable directly to some of the most significant re-occurring tropes from Bava’s best cinema. Certainly there are call backs aplenty here to images, props, locations and sometimes even specific incidents from other Bava films: such as a ghostly hand and face pressed to a windowpane from “Operazione paura” (“Kill Baby … Kill”) or a roomful of faceless mannequins from “Il rosso segno della follia” (Hatchet for the Honeymoon”); while one of the many striking sequences from the movie’s final act turns out to be another rehearsal of the unsettling denouement to the “A Drop of Water” segment from Bava’s classic 1963 anthology film “I tre volti della paura” (“Black Sabbath), in which a corpse appears to return to life and then slowly drifts eerily towards a by now hysterical protagonist, all the while bathed in the director’s trademark magenta hued lighting gels.
In setting his vision upon the screen in what could well be its purest form, Bava arranges and remoulds these familiar motifs into an intensely lyrical, psychosexual melodrama presented for the most part as though it were just another well-dressed, artfully arranged, otherworldly period romance -- when in fact the film is a quixotic meditation on the futility of life’s struggle against the forces of death and decay, a subject matter it pursues with subtle grace and visual dexterity, all the while filmed in a sumptuous Technicolor that always ensures the picture remains ravishing to look at, even though its ostensibly bracketed to be marketed as a horror film. Artistically, the film is clearly the crowning glory of Bava’s directorial career and a linchpin of the Cinéma Fantastique. The story may be languidly paced and only really reveals its brilliance after several viewings, but each shot is meticulously composed in order to advance the director’s melancholy themes -- which envisage the thin warp and weft of lived life as being but the mere dance of puppets towards a classically orchestrated, Gothic-tinged oblivion -- arranged by an impish string-puller who turns out to be diablo himself.
Unfortunately, by the early seventies, the game was up for this kind of delicately crafted cinematic elegance: the soft focus lighting of cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua, the sumptuous art direction of Nedo Azzini and lavish set decorations of Rafael Ferri belong to a very different, highly stylised artistic era to the one that the horror genre was heading towards by this time; it still belonged to a world complimented by the fragile, melodious lounge melodies of composer Carlo Savina, and graced by the tremulous vocals of Edda dell'Orso on the main theme. Divorced of its out dated context, the film now plays easily as an otherworldly spectacle of dark perverse fantasy; but in 1973, when even Hammer was finding itself having to turn to sexploitation titillation in order just to keep its Gothic formula alive, with titles like “The Vampire Lovers”, Bava’s work must have looked hopelessly out of place or even kitsch to many viewers. The new horror that was born with the debut feature of George A. Romero and with Michael Reeves’ “Witchfinder General” pointed out a direction that was to have a forceful impact on the prospects of Bava’s most personal work even getting recognised at all when the film’s producer Alfredo Leone came to try and sell the picture at Cannes in 1973 after already having turned down what he considered a derisory offer from AIP’s Samual Z Arkoff for the North American distribution rights.
“Lisa and the Devil” came about after Italian-American producer Leone ‘gifted’ Bava the opportunity of pursuing whatever personal project he most desired, as a ‘thank you’ for the recent success bestowed him by Bava’s “Baron Blood”. This had been the director’s last completed, low budget, modern-day Gothic horror film and had been shot in Austria, also with Leone’s money, and turned a healthy profit for the wily producer. Although filled with images that recall a childhood surrounded by the workshop mannequins of his father Eugenio (many of the dummies in the film were actually the same ones Bava grew up around, according to Leone speaking on the “House of Exorcism” audio commentary) and adorned with literary references and incidents from the work of some of Bava’s favourite authors, such Dostoevsky, Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft, the film actually appears to have begun life as a story idea submitted to the director by the writers of “Operazione paura” (Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale) titled “The House of the Devil” -- although neither writer is officially credited with their work on the finished screenplay. Bava was also reputedly interested in adapting for film an account by German-born, Prague educated psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, taken from his ground-breaking 19th century study of sexual deviancy entitled ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’, in which the activities of real-life necrophile Viktor Ardisson were catalogued and discussed by the professor as an example of deviant sexual behaviour. Commenting on the idea in a rare interview Bava sighed, ‘but how does one make a producer understand that it should be a picture full of romance and poetry?’
“Lisa and the Devil” evidently came to be that picture, and is indeed filled with lush romanticism set side by side with some extravagantly baroque instances of madness and hallucinogenic perversity. But this attractive backstory about the genesis of the movie and its themes has recently been complicated somewhat by the availability via German DVD of Antonio Margheriti’s 1964 movie “Contronatura” (“The Unnaturals”), which is credited as having been written by Margheriti himself, but which seems to possess a remarkably similar storyline to that of “Lisa and the Devil”, involving a varied cast whose car breaks down at night outside an ornate villa inhabited by an odd young man and his blind mother, and which plays around themes familiar from Margheriti’s “Danza Macabra”(aka “Castle of Blood”) in which the protagonists might actually be dead the whole time and inhabiting a strange purgatorial realm. Margheriti is known to have taken writing credit for a previous project part-written by Bava (with Tudor Gates!) so could something similar have happened here? Even more oddly, both films were scored by Savina and even feature at least one of their music cues in common!
Whatever the real story here, “Lisa and the Devil” continues to retain its enchanting dreamlike spell of beguilement. The opening animated title sequence, in which white cotton gloved hands manipulate and spread a deck of playing cards against a red baize cloth, each one subsequently levitating and turning to show an image of one of the principle cast members, suggests both the dexterous art of the conjuror’s trickery and the symbolism of the tarot, with all the latter’s implications for concepts such as fate, destiny and pre-destination somehow merged with equally disquieting notions of an unseen magician’s hand, orchestrating and guiding the fortunes of those unwittingly caught up in its contrivances. In this film, that unseen hand belongs to Telly Savalas, who makes the Devil a witty, mischievous figure. Always lurking in the background of events, but in fact controlling everything and everyone around him in his quiet role of butler to a blind Contessa and her secluded grown-up son, he's also someone with a deceptively offbeat passion for making mannequins and tinkering with quaint old music boxes.
Savalas plays the role of Leandro with an easy-going charm masking an element of the sinister, which only occasionally surfaces at first with a piercing look (‘very little escapes me - if you know what I mean!’) or a devilish smirk, frequently executed whilst he nonchalantly licks a lollipop (an idea Savalas soon after carried through as a character quirk for his TV role as Detective Kojak), his fondness for a secret cigarillo the only symbolic giveaway as to his true origins (‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’). These are origins which become more obvious later when Leandro is observed absently humming to himself as he breaks the legs of a corpse to better fit it into its coffin, or when measuring-up Lisa -- groggy while still recovering from an earlier fainting fit -- for her own mannequin likeness (symbolising, therefore, her entrapment in his ever re-occurring play).
Lisa Reiner, meanwhile -- this innocent woman who becomes embroiled in Leandro’s eternally reoccurring, labyrinthine game of perverted human compulsions and twisted passions -- is a person presented to us simply as an empty figure without a background or seemingly any real history of her own. Instead she’s defined by her pretty, doll-like appearance and by what that means to the other characters already unwittingly engaged in their forced enactment of the Devil’s plan. She becomes aware that she shares the doppelganger likeness of someone from the past called Elena, and memories and feelings of déjà vu gradually overcome her at key moments in the narrative, suggesting reincarnation as a symbol of the overbearing presence of history: a dark force that controls and shapes human lives as though they were its pawns.
During the opening moments of the film (shot against the stunning high Gothic main façade of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo in Spain) Lisa is seen stepping off the tourists’ bus with a crowd of sightseers and being led to a medieval fresco depicting the Devil carrying off the souls of the dead. A delicate music box melody draws her away from the other tourists and into a small cluttered antiques shop in a narrow back alley, where she encounters Leandro for the first time, overseeing the repair of a mannequin of a mustachioed man. The melody is revealed to be emanating from a music box mounted by a group of painted, wood-carved figures revolving on a clockwork platform. This becomes one of the central, defining motifs of the movie: throughout the remaining narrative’s play of events, the characters we will meet will be interchangeable with Leandro’s mannequins, and Bava will often swap back and forth within the same scene between real mannequins that look like the actors and the actual performers themselves made up to look like stiffened corpses or puppets, therefore reemphasising death as the one constant of life (and its ultimate destination), and also the idea that lives are the property of an unseen puller of strings, designed to execute plans of which they can know or understand nothing.
The tinkling music box theme (Rodrigo’s “Concerto d’Aranjuez” by Paul Mauriat) which first entrances Lisa and leads her into a labyrinth of back streets in Toledo (where the other people all seem to disappear after her first encounter with Leandro, and only the eerie sound of wind echoes around the empty, twisting, now-unfamiliar courtyards) becomes a recurrent leitmotif and takes on more and more of an emotional character as it becomes increasingly elaborately orchestrated throughout the rest of the picture. It is later heard in an delicate arrangement for classical guitar, as Leandro colourfully describers Lisa’s beauty for the blind Contessa (played by Alida Valli), and then later it appears as a fully orchestrated love theme when her deranged son Maximilian renounces his obsession with the dead Elena in favour of the still living Lisa who shares her image, by burning Elena’s scrapbook photograph. The viewer is therefore drawn into the dramas and passionate exchanges animating the characters, while being subtly reminded that their actions, desires and bizarre peccadilloes alike, are all being guided by an unseen force, and that they are merely like those figurines on a revolving music box, repeating the same actions again and again in a displaced temporal realm represented by the constant return to images of dead timepieces: smashed fob watches, clocks with missing hands or clock-faces with no hands at all – each representative of the fact that the characters’ conscious perceptual notions of time have no relationship with a reality which is always illusory and deceptive.
Bava often introduces or re-introduces characters with what turns out to be their reflected image – they appear like ghosts in numerous mirrors, or in the reflection from a shimmering pond at the bottom of a garden fountain, or in a small lake; lovers appear distorted in the lid of a cigarette case, or the transparent cabinet of a pendulum clock. Leandro’s role in leading the characters in a dance of death which rehearses the events of their doom in endlessly replayed variations, is symbolised by his own reflection -- cast grinning in a pool of spilt red wine (an image, incidentally, which bears more than a casual resemblance to the final image from Argento’s “Profondo Rosso”); it is an image that prefigures the many pools of blood that will be seen later on, when murder comes to claim the inhabitants of the house.
The controlled, processional, constantly revolving movements of the music box figures are often specifically alluded to in scenes where the trio which Lisa later falls in with after the group’s car breaks down outside the Contessa’s villa, are arranged in a similarly circular fashion as those seen on the aforementioned mechanical item (placed around the dining room table for instance, while shot from above with a wide-angle lens to produce a striking vertiginous image). They are also depicted moving slowly in single file (and always being led by Leandro himself), like clockwork ornaments, across a bridge on the grounds of the estate while they’re being taken to their rooms, and they repeat the passage of the music box figures again when they line up in an ellipse and are led around the edge of the fountain (an image seen by the viewer as a dim reflection in the disturbed water) and later around the circumference of a neo-classical gazebo, also on the grounds. At one point, after one of the party is brutally slain by an unknown assailant, Leandro once again heads the remaining group, this time in a sombre funeral cortege -- wheeling the corpse in a barrow cart to the villa’s chapel of rest, past the mansion’s numerous candelabras of guttering candles and a menagerie of taxidermy specimens, arranged to emphasise both the impermanence of life and the frozen eternity of death. The idea that the characters are all puppets trapped in time is suggested constantly in the lifeless rows of half-finished mannequins which line Leandro’s upstairs workshop, belonging to a section of the villa which appears neglected and unused, dilapidated and ancient; also, by the multitude of busts of unknown classical figures which peer down from all around the edges of both the interiors and exteriors of the house; and by the silent, crumbling lines of faux-Egyptian and -Hellenic statuary that lines the landscaped grounds, denoting the circumscribed configuration of the Contessa and Maximilian’s trapped, purgatorial existence.
Lisa is drawn into these events after stumbling around the deserted sun-dappled streets and alleys of Toledo until they get dark and become wreathed in other-worldly night mists. An old 1920s Packard luxury vehicle picks her up and, judging by their style of apparel, the inhabitants also seem to have driven here straight from the mid-1920s or ‘30s (compounding the film’s sense of being composed from a fractured mosaic of time-lines) and consist of an older businessman called Francis Lehar (Spanish actor Eduardo Fajardo) and his disgruntled younger wife Sophie (Sylva Koscina), both driven by a handsome young chauffeur called George (Gabriele Tinti). There is clearly a frisson of something between Sophie and George and an awareness of that fact on the part of the cuckolded Francis, which Lisa also picks up on during their journey. When they reach the villa, another love triangle is instigated when Lisa realises that the mysterious, impish Leandro from the antiques shop is also the family butler to the depleted household in residence, and she runs into Maximilian (Alessio Orano) while attempting to avoid his gaze.
The film’s art director Nedo Azzinio, a frequent collaborator of Visconti’s, designed the costumes as well as the Art Nouveau decor of the Rome-based villa in which most of the interiors were filmed (the exterior shots were filmed in and around the grounds of a castle in Madrid) and he supplies the olive-skinned Orano with a flamboyant appearance which gives the young actor the air of a Byronic, blue-eyed Oliver Reed blessed with the dress sense of Jason King at his most camp, thanks to him being often shown resplendent in a plush maroon smoking jacket and an extravagantly wide, wing-lapelled shirt. Max recognises his dead lover Elena’s likeness in Lisa, but matters are complicated by the fact that the Contessa’s missing husband (and Max’s step-father) Carlo (Espartaco Santoni) had apparently also been in love with the deceased Elena and had been conducting an affair with her behind everyone’s back. Carlo turns out to be the mustachioed man whose likeness had been borne by the broken mannequin seen in the antiques shop by Lisa earlier, and whose real-life counterpart had subsequently pursued her through Toledo’s empty back streets and courtyards. Her arrival at the house, and Max’s insistence that the group be allowed to stay despite the Contessa’s initial reluctance, seems to draw the long absent Carlo back to his former rooms in the upper storeys, and the house guests can even hear someone moving about in the Count’s supposedly empty study, situated in the now-abandoned upstairs section of the residence where a rocking chair begins to rock back and forth though untouched.
The ghostly presence of Carlo -- whose image appears as if from nowhere on several occasions to address Lisa as though she were Elena, and express his gratitude for her unexpected return -- facilitates feelings and memories in Lisa which seem to belong to a past life previously unrecognised. Flashbacks to romantic liaisons with Carlo in the grounds of the old villa, which are shot in dreamy soft focus and accompanied by Carlo Savina’s haunting main theme (and where the faded garden statuary we’d seen earlier here looks to be gleaming white and brand new) begin to conflate and confuse her two identities when Lisa is hypnotised by the music box melody (which can only be made to play when Leandro reveals it requires the addition of an amusingly out of place modern-day tape recorder, circa 1970, which confounds the 1920s period trappings so assiduously maintained by the rest of the film’s art direction). Past and present become further blurred for Lisa in an already fractured temporal puzzle box of associations, when the memories start to feel as though they are happening to her in the present, right now -- yet her lover might easily transmute in the blink of an eye from Carlo to Maximilian during her softly-lit rendezvous by the fireplace in the former’s room, which tellingly turns out to be the same room Leandro now uses for creating and restoring his many mannequins. In fact, Lisa is being drawn into the ‘game of life’ scripted by the Devil himself: the passions, joys, horrors and jealousies which lead to the mayhem of the second half of the film are just beginning, but have been already been played out many time before.
Lisa/Elena is situated at the apex of two torrid connecting romantic triangles which meld and merge through time to instigate murder and reveal madness and derangement and perversion. The Contessa’s unhealthy preoccupation with her pampered son; her husband’s love affair, and his plan to elope with his son’s lover, Elena; Max’s obsessive love for both Elena and his mother and the jealous rage his discovery of Elena’s relationship with his step-father induces in him – all combine to embroil Lisa in Max’s plan to escape his destiny by focusing his romantic inclinations on her instead of his continuing interest in his previous lover, whose preserved corpse is revealed to be kept upstairs in Elena’s secret room, behind a mirrored panel in one of the dilapidated sections of the villa, where she is surrounded by plate after plate of the chocolate cake he brings her each time the same events are made to play out again (a variant of the same idea also occurs in the Christopher Smith film “Triangle” when heaps of replica bodies are found piled up in a section of the ship in which a worm hole causes the same events to play out over and over again).
Unfortunately, Max turns out also to have a rather esoteric and unusual sexual problem which prevents him from successfully consummating his relationships, and which is probably what drove Elena into the arms of another man in the first place. He is a necrophile, whose past attempts to circumvent his predilection by requesting that Elena first submit to being drugged before allowing him to make love to her while she remained unconscious, were rejected (‘she wouldn’t do it, she wouldn’t let me.’). In one of Mario Bava’s most unsettling scenes, rendered all the more bizarre and surreal in tone for being presented, without affectation, as though it’s an enactment of a romantic ideal reduced to tragedy and bathos, Max chloroforms Lisa in Elena’s black draperied boudoir and attempts (unsuccessfully) to rape her, succeeding in only a fumbled molestation next to the calcified skeletal remains of his former love, who’s unearthly taunting cackles echo from beyond the grave as the plan fails and he continues to be trapped by a past Lisa is now inextricably also a part of, just as the Devil planned.
The part of Maximilian was originally offered to Anthony Perkins, who turned it down. This is probably to the film’s ultimate advantage, as Perkins would never have been able to play the role as the handsome, innocent, boyish romantic lead who then surprises us by turning out to be hopelessly deranged and murderous: that reveal would never have held the shock it does here; you’d always expect the creepy, gaunt version of Max as played by Perkins to be the mother-fixated necrophile he turns out to be as soon as the “Psycho” actor showed up on screen. It is Max who eventually turns out to be the killer, when the cast start getting picked off one by one, murdering the other guests to ensure Lisa stays at the villa and dispatching his step-father Carlo over and over again to preserve Elena’s brittle skeletal remains for his self. The murders are as vivid and elaborately arranged as any in Bava’s filmography; particularly graphic and striking is the death of Sylva Koscina’s character, which is as grisly and violent as anything in Bava’s proto slasher “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (aka “Bay of Blood”). As was the case in that film, the orgy of death ends with everyone being bloodily killed; only the Devil in the form of Leandro and the sleeping Lisa remain, while the rest of the cast are arranged in a mock wedding reception for the dead, mimicking the layout of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, complete with cockroaches in the wedding cake and the remains of Elena, placed at the centre of the group of corpses, in a bridal veil!
After this playfully shocking climax of mass murder, necrophilia and matricide, the film consolidates its other-worldly ambiance with a beautiful, eerie coda in which Lisa awakes the next morning and finds herself completely naked and the surrounding villa suddenly aged and decayed, its furnishings rotted, its roof fallen in, and the garden now intruding into the once luxurious interiors. Plant life and tangled vines are now growing out of and surrounding the twilight shaded rooms, while flapping birds are nesting amid the entwining foliage, and we realise that Lisa is back in 1970s Toledo. There is a Garden of Eden feel about the scene, suggesting Lisa as an Eve who has been reborn and cleansed of all past associations. Yet, as she moves among the crumbling statues in the overgrown grounds, Max’s rotted dummy calls out a plea of undying love and the last rose of the summer (presented to Lisa by Max earlier in the film) remains in bloom amid the tangle of vines in the neglected gardens. Indeed, as she emerges into the sunlit street, the past seems to have claimed her as its own and it is as if she has become as ghostly to the modern world as Carlo earlier seemed to her. A group of schoolchildren playing with a ball even run away when they see her come out of the gate, mistaking her for a ghost! The film’s ending, added at the suggestion of Alfredo Leone, sees Lisa flying home on a Pan Am 747 flight, only to find the cabin compartments of the plane eerily empty … apart from the corpses of the inhabitants of the villa, which have returned to take her home with them: for she is no longer Lisa … she has become Elena!
“Lisa and the Devil” is one of Mario Bava’s most handsomely mounted and gorgeous-looking films with Leone sparing no expense to bring the director’s surreal logic-defying vision to the screen in as sumptuously rendered form as possible. Ironically, Cecilio Paniagua’s cinematography is stylish but very unlike the work of Bava himself, who often photographed his own films and had an extremely distinctive baroque style. There is little of Bava’s trademark gel lighting work in this film for example, although when it does appear, even in sparing form, it makes an even more noticeable impact than it does usually. The mixture of Spanish and Italian settings also adds to the film’s distinctive and very compelling atmosphere. Since Bava was usually so unwilling to leave his native Italy, the Spanish locations help lend the film its particular uniqueness of flavour. The rabbit warren of narrow streets, courtyards and the imposing medieval architecture of Toledo provide images that are beautifully composed and edited by Carlo Reali to make the time-fractured, M.C. Escher-like maze of entrapment used to lead Lisa into the realm of supernatural purgatory which is to become her identity-shaping home for the rest of eternity. The exteriors of the villa were shot at a castle in Madrid, while its interiors belonged to another villa in Rome, dressed and designed by Nedo Azzini with a host of statuettes, ornate candelabras, and art nouveau décor. The staircase actually belonged to a convent and the upstairs section of the house, unfurnished and with rows of dimly-lit corridors decorated in elaborate though faded biblical frescoes, was shot at the same location used for “Operazione paura”.
Leone had $1,000,000 invested in the picture. He had every expectation that the film would be a much sort-after highlight when he took it to the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. During post-production, both Frederico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni had dropped in to see their friend Bava’s latest masterpiece and praised it effusively. However, there were no viable offers forthcoming at all at Cannes and Leone returned with the film still unsold. In fact, the only country in which “Lisa and the Devil” was ever theatrically exhibited was Spain. Leone had to recoup his investment somehow and Bava, having been given the chance to make his great masterpiece, felt an obligation to help him make the film saleable. This resulted in the shooting of about thirty minutes of additional material which provided a new framework for the story designed to take advantage of the recent phenomenal success of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”. Bava even flew to London and back home again on the same day to catch an afternoon screening of the film (which had yet to be released in Italy). Touchingly, Elke Sommer filmed the extra scenes without payment as a favour to Bava and Leone, both of whom she was thankful to for providing her with the opportunity to appear in a horror film, since it was a genre she was not usually given a chance to try her hand in.
It has to be said here, that if there is any artistic value to be gleaned from “House of Exorcism” at all, then most of its triumphs can be laid at the door of Elke Sommer, who really throws herself into the hilariously over-ripe Exorcist rip-off possession sequences (shot by a small crew in Italy with, ironically enough, Bava now acting as the cinematographer) -- swearing, hissing and spewing green slime and toads with abandon, even though such delights have clearly only been scripted with an eye on outdoing the blasphemy and shock tactics of Friedkin’s original. The film was released in 1975 and instantly (depressingly!) became a massive hit, easily recouping Leone’s original investment in “Lisa and the Devil”. It starts with a cheap-looking title sequence set to a section of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (the modernist composer had died only a few years earlier, in 1971) in which Bava’s director credit is attributed to someone called Micky Leon (the name of one of Alfredo Leone’s sons), since he was unhappy with some of the scripted blasphemous content and nudity in the picture and refused to be on set whenever those scenes needed to be shot (his sister was a Mother Superior in a convent and Bava was also superstitious about such things), leaving Leone to supervise proceedings during the filming of any sequence involving such contentious material. Later, after he saw the finished picture, Leone claims Bava was happy with the way things turned out after all, and was willing to have his own name restored to the credits, but by then the prints had already been distributed.
In this version of the story, Lisa’s initial encounter with Savalas in the antiques shop leads to her suddenly becoming possessed in the street when Leandro (played by a Telly Savalas lookalike in an extra scene shot in Leone’s office) touches a plaster cast of Elena's head, and she is carted off to hospital in the company of a nearby Catholic priest, Father Michael (Robert Alda) and her original traveling companion, played by Leone’s daughter Kathy, who only appeared in one brief scene during “Lisa and the Devil” but now gets a much expanded role here.
Alda does his best to look sombre and holy while the possessed Lisa Reiner spends the rest of the film alternating between vomiting green gunk on him, calling him ‘a prick!’ and hurling hilariously belligerent blasphemous abuse at him (‘Here’s your fucking daily bread, priest,’ says the demon after projectile vomiting green porridge into Father Michael’s face. ‘Eat it! Eat it like you used to eat those whores’ cunts!’) and trying to break his faith -- tempting him by assuming the naked likeness of his dead wife, who died a few years before in a car wreck which he was not able to pull her from before the vehicle exploded in a ball of flames. The wife of the good Father Michael turns out to have been an exotic brunette euro-babe possessing considerablebodily charms which are amply displayed (Leone shoots these sequences from exploitative angles, indulging in crotch shots galore that look even more out of place beside the sedate splendour of the original footage). She also eventually reveals that she is the spirit of Elena and that the real Lisa is now trapped in a hellish recapitulation of the same events which led to Elena’s original damnation. Father Michael attempts to get the demon to relate these events to him (which now allows sections of the original film to function as a series of flashbacks) so that he can discover the location of the villa in which they first occurred a hundred years ago. He then travels to the derelict site and performs an exorcism there to clear the place of its demonic baggage and free Lisa from her purgatory (although we never actually see her restored to normality).
The most depressing thing about all this is not the new exploitation footage itself, which displays Bava’s talents as well as anything else he ever shot, particularly in its special effects shots; it’s the fact that all the subtle dreamlike textures and visual rhymes which made the original so special get trampled on in order to stitch the two ungainly segments together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a film where it is always obvious that they’re the result of two completely different works made in different styles that have been jammed together. Thus, the image of Carlo’s broken pocket watch now merely acts as a join that cuts to a corresponding image of a doctor consulting his own watch in the hospital at the possessed Lisa’s bedside; and when someone flips an electric light switch in the present day Italy of Father Michael, it allows a transition cut to a lamp outside the villa becoming illuminated during the flashback section of the movie; when Leandro is reflected upside-down in a puddle of spilled red wine, the film crudely jumps to a corresponding puddle of green vomit at the side of Lisa’s hospital bed!
The final exorcism sequence, set inside the dilapidated sections of the old villa, in which Father Michael confronts the skeleton of Elena in her self-assembling bed, and has to endure knots of snakes being projected at him amid an indoor gale as he attempts to wield an exploding bible, is ridiculous and clumsy (yet oddly anticipates the finale to John Boreman’s “The Exorcist 2: The Heritic”), but obviously appealed to audiences at the time, given the box office success of the film. This success emphasises all the more that the heyday of the sort of romantic Gothic cinema at which Mario Bava excelled best was well and truly over by the mid-seventies. The film was even more classical in style than many of Bava’s own more recent works like “Five Dolls for an August Moon” and “Twitch of the Death Nerve”, with their crazy zoom lens work and jazzy scores, so it was perhaps no surprise that the dreamy, melancholy art deco edged romanticism of “Lisa and the Devil” lost out to the crude sensationalism of “House of Exorcism”. Bava died before his true masterpiece was rediscovered and became a hit with a new generation of fans hooked on the classic period of Italian golden age horror which he himself initiated back in 1960 with “La maschera del demonio”, but he would surely be delighted that his artisan’s eye for beauty and horror is perhaps even more appreciated now than it ever was in his lifetime, as devoted horror fans turn to his work as an escape from the bland mundanities of modern-day horror.
Arrow Video’s new deluxe dual-format special edition brings together both a 1080p Blu-ray high definition disc and two DVD standard editions of both films. “Lisa and the Devil” features both the English audio track and an Italian audio track with English subtitles (both in mono) while “House of Exorcism” features the English audio with English subtitles for the hard of hearing. “Lisa and the Devil” is the most variable of the two prints included here and in both cases what you’re getting is a slightly more detailed HD transfer of the same print used for the previous restored DVD release. “House of Exorcism” generally looks better, while “Lisa and the Devil” has a tendency to appear more varied, alternating between being quite comparable to HoE in terms of colour and detail, and seeming quite soft and grainy. There is improvement in both cases, but not that much.
Tim Lucas provides his usual thorough, well-researched and literate analysis of the film for the audio commentary on “Lisa and the Devil”, while Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer reminisce about Bava and the making of both versions of the film, as well as on the making of “Baron Blood” on the commentary track included with “HoE. There are some nice insights from both into the character of Mario Bava, although Leone sometimes falls into the habit of merely describing what is happening on screen during the film, or what is about to happen. All in all though, both tracks are worth a listen. The introductions for both films recorded by critic and Dario Argento biographer Alan Jones for Nucleus Films get another airing here and are brought together with a 25 minute documentary, “The Exorcism of Lisa”, on the making of both of the films that was shot for the Italian DVD release several years ago, featuring contributions from Lamberto and Roy Bava and un-credited screenplay writer Roberto Natale, along with comments by biographer Alberto Pezzotta. The deleted ‘erotic’ bedroom scene in which Gabriele Tinti and Sylva Koscina are doubled by actors in what amounts to a soft porn sequence and comes across like footage shot for a stag reel, is also included as an extra, spliced into the scene as it was shown in “House of Exorcism”. Trailers for both films round off the disc extras for a luxury set that also comes with a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Stephen Thrower, an interview with Bava from 1976, translated from the original Italian for the first time, and original stills and archive posters to illustrate the articles. The three-disc set (one BD and two DVDs) also comes with reversible sleeve with new artwork by Graham Humphreys and there is a Limited Edition slipbox version, available only from the Arrow Films website (www.Arrowfilms.co.uk), that has only 1000 copies of it produced, which features a 4-panel reversible sleeve.
“Lisa and the Devil” is the last hurrah of the classical Italian Gothic Horror film and Mario Bava’s surrealist masterpiece. This is the best version likely to become available and as such is a near essential purchase.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!