Thought by many to be Mario Bava’s most personal film, Lisa and the Devil came about because of the success of the director’s previous feature, Baron Blood (forthcoming from Arrow Films). Delighted with how well that film had done, Baron Blood’s producer, Alfred Leone, gave Bava carte blanche for the director to make whatever he wanted as his next project. The result was a film that people flocked to at Cannes when it was shown there, but which had no luck at all in picking up a US distributor. In fact the movie was such a financial disaster in its native Italy that Leone requested a hasty re-editing job and the shooting of some extra scenes, (apparently also partially shot by Bava), and released the result as The House of Exorcism to cash in on the audience craze for devil movies at the time. This second version was so markedly different from the first that, if nothing else, it’s a fascinating example of how art can be turned into exploitation. Both films are present on Arrow’s blu-ray and DVD combination presentation of what many consider to be Mario Bava’s finest 92 minutes, and both are worth a look.
Lisa and the Devil begins with Lisa (Elke Sommer, rehired after she and Bava apparently got on so well during the shooting of Baron Blood) breaking away from her tour group in the Italian city of Toledo. The group has just been shown an old fresco of the devil, and during her wanderings she comes across a man named Leandro (Telly Savalas) who is in the process of purchasing a dummy. Unable to find her way back to the tour group Lisa accepts a lift from a couple and their chauffeur, but instead of taking her back to her hotel she ends up being driven to a crumbling Italian mansion where Leandro works as a butler. Things are already a bit strange (Lisa keeps being mistaken for someone called Elena) but once she enters the house Bava’s dreamlike imagery and almost fairy-tale style kicks in and the film becomes a macabre ghost story that is all about infidelity and revenge. Lisa’s visit ends with one of the most potent and memorable images of Bava’s oeuvre (Sommer wakes up naked next to a corpse surrounded by the ruins of the house in which the action has taken place) but the story still isn’t over.
Lisa and the Devil is a beautiful film, but it won’t be for all horror fans. Along with the gorgeous cinematography and lazily dreamlike atmosphere there’s blood and nudity and murders, but the film itself really is like a work of art, something that deserves to be hung in a gallery rather than relegated to the exploitation circuit or enjoyed on a Friday night with friends and lots of beer. It’s probably best appreciated by those who harbour a love for Italian horror cinema all the way from Riccardo Freda’s 1963 Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock to Bava’s own Bay of Blood, but anyone willing to savour the subtle and beautiful atmosphere of a horror movie where each shot looks as if it’s been constructed by the brushstrokes of a master imagineer should make time for this.
The House of Exorcism, on the other hand, is as riotous and exploitative an Exorcist rip-off as they come. The extra scenes that were shot ‘reveal’ that Elke Sommer has in fact been possessed, gone mad, and that the footage from Lisa and the Devil is some kind of hallucination she’s having. Only priest Robert Alda in the inserts can save her, when he’s not being vomited on or sworn at (the profanities were apparently the last straw for Bava, who told Leone where to go at that point, leaving the producer to direct the actors himself).
Arrow’s transfer of both versions of the film on blu-ray is just splendid, and is certainly the best existing presentation of Bava’s film. The package includes both blu-ray and DVD discs. Extras include two commentary tracks, one by Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer carried over from the old Image Region 1 DVD, and another by Video Watchdog editor and Bava expert Tim Lucas. Alan Jones provides a couple of filmed introductions, there’s a short featurette on the making of both films, and the entire package is rounded off by the usual excellent Graham Humphries artwork.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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