Upon approaching Mario Bava's 'Lisa and the Devil' with little knowledge of the man or his movies, this simply looks routine; another Italian horror of the 1970's, championed with colourful language by the few that have seen it, derided as neither artistic nor atrocious enough by naysayers, and ignored by the other 99% of film followers out there. However, if you have heard of Lisa and The Devil, you may think a softly-glowing gem awaits, your interest stoked by fans of the movie who romanticise about this 'lost' Bava classic, gushing between breaths about the dark artistry before spinning out anecdotes about how Telly Savalas' inadvertent bid to quit smoking resulted in his character's mouth memorably spouting a red lollipop throughout. Or in the case of one Timothy Burton, ensure people KNOW that you have seen and gorged on this film by being quite obviously influenced by it in such films as Sleepy Hollow and especially Edward Scissorhands (at one moment in particular, the word 'homage' will suddenly turn Jekyll and Hyde-like into the expression 'Rip-Off Artist'.)
For those of you who know Black Sabbath from Black Sunday, all the hallmarks of obscure Italian Horror are here: The notorious dodgy older version, butchered with new inserts and a dumbed-down title (in this case, The House of Exorcism, which is bad, but not 'Unsane' bad), Alida Valli in an odd and matriarchal role, a perturbing appearance by a well-known actor, artwork featuring doll-like actresses frozen attractively with fear, and eerie yet hunky Italians with strange clothes that have huge collars. However, sit down and watch and within five or ten minutes you'll realize this really is quite different material from what may have been expected. The film opens with Lisa (played with permanent wide-eyed confusion and repulsion by Elke Sommer) stumbling around lost in an emptied, oppressive Spanish village, until she bumps into Leandro, the afore-mentioned lollipop-sucking butler who carries life-size dummies around with him most of the time, and looks oddly like the fresco of the Devil we saw five minutes ago. Well, a little later, Lisa finds herself sheltering in a large, creepy mansion for the night, a den of escalating horrors, beginning with such minor distractions as a spooky whirling ornament depicting Death amongst other gargoyle-like figurines, and eventually spiraling into impassioned murder, necrophilia, conspiracies, extreme nepotism and a use of colour so strikingly morbid you could swear it was the work of a Cenobite or two (Bava, for all his faults, was a marvelous alchemists, and how he manages to create such a desperately grave resonance with a flood of fluorescent red or green is blackly magical, as if Bava had dropped some precious jewels he stole from a decrepit tomb into the photographic process.)
Actually, that description isn't entirely accurate, the film doesn't so much spiral out of control as lethargically spasm from one moment to another, connected by the most tenuous of motives and reasoning. What matters though, are those moments and how they build up to form a kind of nightmare manifesto, each one slumping melodramatically before your eyes, trying with quiet desperation to crawl over your sensibilities like some unholy spider voiced by Christopher Walken. This could have been great if Bava had managed to tie each macabre minute into something resembling a plot, which featured something resembling characters, who spoke something resembling real dialogue (or in the least the creepy premonition-heavy evilspeak of horror legend). Lisa and The Devil is no clearer example though of Bava's complete lack of storytelling skills, the only compelling element of this film is the look, and the feeling these images conjure. Why bother with the trivia of emotion and getting under an audience's skin, when you can baffle and alarm so skillfully? This appears to be Bava's way of thinking, methodology which would make one Hell of a gothic art installment, but unfortunately not a movie. The dream-gone-to-Hell quality, oddly emotional score from Carlos Savina, zooming fascination with the melodramatic, embossed-expressions acting, and so many other little wonders eventually add up to very little, because we're never actually there, smelling the corruption or walking through the frightening architecture. It's like watching an especially dazzling Penny Dreadful on a pier at midnight, or reading a ghoulish, sinister comic book (which the film feels like at times), it's filmmaking that, rather like Elke Sommer, potters around prettily, but never actually emotes, connects, chills or goes for the throat. Only that sense of placid, eerie beauty remains in my head, rather than what I would have wanted, which is the opposite of what a similarly confused character feels when she shrieks "I don't want to spend the rest of my life in this nightmare". Well, maybe not my lifetime, but an hour or two would have been special.
Having seen a few Bava films before, I feel this could be the litmus test: If you find your vacations in Bava Country inspirational and unconventionally beautiful, feel free to sprawl throughout the mausoleum stench of morbidity potently accompanied by the Evil Christmas Lights colour scheme. If you find his style more of a blindness than a vision though, I'd recommend staying at home. Newcomers on the other hand, get ready for one of those genuine love it, or have-it-mess-you-around-and-toss-you-outside-feeling-dissatisfied kind of films. So, is it beautiful or is it banal, has 'Lisa and the Devil' been lost (and quietly resurrected for that matter) for a good reason? To answer those two and a half questions, it's really a bit of both. Rewarding certainly, but my eyes were half dazzled, half sleepy throughout.
Kino Lorber conjures up Lisa and the Devil on Blu-ray as part of their Mario Bava Collection. Two cuts of the film are presented; the original theatrical version of Lisa and the Devil, as well as the poorly conceived The House of Exorcism; a blatant, post-Exorcist cash-grab featuring newly shot footage that robs Bava’s original film of all of its charm and mystery. The House of Exorcism’s inclusion here is a welcome treat for completists, and, while this version of the film looks very impressive, the bulk of viewers will want to focus on Bava’s intended cut, as that is the cut they will most likely revisit again and again.
Fans of both versions of the film who have owned either the Image or Anchor Bay releases (both offering fine transfers for their time and medium) will immediately notice a much brighter, exceptionally more vibrant image. Detail is also much improved over previous standard definition releases, with more definition evident in close-ups of faces and fabrics. While Anchor Bay’s release of the Lisa and the Devil (as part of its Mario Bava boxed set) offered one of the cleanest versions of the film I’ve seen, Kino Lorber’s offering is even more so, with only a handful of artifacts and flecks marring what is an otherwise outstanding transfer. The accompanying LPCM 2.0 Mono track is the perfect complement, offering a crisp and clear audio track that is virtually free of the distortion that usually plagues films of this era, and possesses a nicely retro/organic quality that’s in keeping with the film’s vintage.
Supplements include an all-new mini featurette entitled Bava on Bava, which features Lamberto Bava offering reminisces of his father and his approach to his work, as well as his father’s mentorship and their subsequent collaborations. Also included is a pair of previously released commentary tracks, one for each version of the film presented. The track for Lisa and the Devil features Bava authority, Tim Lucas, while the second track features producer Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer. Rounding out the bonus features are vintage trailers for both versions of the film, as well as previews for the other releases in the Bava series, including Hatchet for the Honeymoon, the aforementioned gothic masterpiece, Black Sunday, and Baron Blood. Not show is a trailer for the excellent Lamberto Bava/Mario Bava collaboration, Kidnapped (aka; Rabid Dogs), which will also be making its Blu-ray debut through Kino Lorber later this year.