About thirty years ago Savant first crossed paths with author James Ursini, and read his and Alain Silver's piece on the films of Mario Bava in Photon magazine. I was fascinated by odd European movies, an interest far afield from normal 1974 UCLA film student concerns. You could read the early issues of the fantasy movie magazine Cinefantastique in which a young Tim Lucas might be writing about some bizarre European item, wondering what the original looked like when what was released here had a new title, new credits and an awful dubbed soundtrack. When I scheduled UCLA screenings I'd show bills of films like Black Sunday and The Fearless Vampire Killers. In the UCLA reading room we had copies of obscure European books: Ornella Volta's Le Vampire and Lo Duca's Erotisme au Cinema overflowed with amazing photos of scenes cut from these films. Without explanation, they offered stills of Barbara Steele being whipped half-naked in a movie by an Italian with the baroque name of Mastrocinque, or a frighteningly gross blob-apparition oozing across Elsa Martinelli's bare chest in Et mourir de plaisir - "Blood and Roses."
The few European horror movies I'd run across were almost accidents, as I was a dyed-in-the-Hal Science Fiction fan. But I'd seen The Horror Chamber of Doctor Faustus without even knowing it was French and like everyone else I'd seen Black Sabbath on television. After finally being knocked over by Danger: Diabolik in a midnight screening I became permanently hooked on at least one European director: Mario Bava. Jim had been going to untold lengths to see these films, sometimes catching obscure double bills in Spanish in downtown L.A. fleapit movie houses. He once drove 60 miles to a Bakersfield drive-in to see The Ghost. Ursini was classically educated and knew these movies by their original titles. Pretty soon we were referring to them as such ("Oh yeah, Cinque tombe per un medium.") without a hint of snobbery.
What we couldn't do was see many of the damn things. Jim would translate the French from his collection of Midi-Minuit Fantastique magazine; my wife Maria once interpreted a subtitle-free Sinister Cinema VHS tape of An Angel for Satan. The new wave of VHS didn't bring any huge influx of the key titles we wanted to see, and when they did show up they were the mutilated American versions.One of the refreshingly wonderful things about DVD is that its economics have encouraged the proliferation of new companies dedicated to the non-mainstream cinema interests of their owners: All Day, Anchor Bay, etc. Also, the big laserdisc distributor Image Entertainment began the adventurous policy of issuing independently submitted productions in a special Euro-horror line. The shocking thing is that instead of the measly recycled 16mm prints we had become used to, these new entrepreneurs would in many cases go back to the sources and remaster the films, often in uncensored continental versions.
At the front of the pack is Image's 'Mario Bava Collection' line. Black Sunday is out in glorious 16:9 in its English language export version, The Mask of Satan. Highly awaited are the neglected Hatchet for the Honeymoon and Kill, Baby Kill! The most telling offering so far is this month's Lisa and the Devil, available separately from its retread version, The House of Exorcism, or together on a two-for-one double bill.
Lisa and the Devil is a special case because its genesis and eventual fate tell the story of Euro Horror in a nutshell and help define the distinctions between artistry, commercialism and the genuine love of movies, as opposed to crass exploitation. I'm going to skip most of the usual review info on Lisa and the Devil to concentrate on this idea.
Given a rare opportunity to make the film he wanted to make, Mario Bava sidestepped commercial concerns to fulfill the promise of Euro horror in a way not seen since the long-ago days of Vampyr, when the terms Art and Horror were not yet mutually exclusive. Lisa is practically non-linear and scriptless and follows a flow dictated purely by the visual imagination of its director. Bava's always-arresting photography is on view but instead of being the icing on a predictable genre plot (as in Baron Blood), it IS the plot. In a genre where critics sometimes rationalize deficiencies by citing a 'dreamlike' atmosphere, Lisa and the Devil is a Dream Movie that can stand beside the Art cinema of celestial names like Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais. There's nary a resuscitated witch, mad doctor or vengeful spirit in sight. The Devil never sprouts horns or produces fire and brimstone. The ghosts of Lisa and the Devil are pure mental abstractions.
There is plenty of gory mayhem and near-exploitative sex along the way. Hercules' Sylva Koscina is seen in some spuriously non-Bava near-graphic sex scene outtakes, courtesy of the producer. But the climactic necrophiliac encounter is so beautiful in conception, its effect is transcendent - a truly macabre sordid beauty. After a decade of compromised productions Bava finally made a film that didn't pretend it was 'above' genre concerns, but instead refined them to a new purity.
Naturally, this film was an unsellable, undistributable disaster for its producer Alfredo Leone, whose commentary track is most compelling when talking about Lisa's failure. It was the first Bava film that failed to get a release - festival crowds approved but even European exploitation producers liked their movies either more generically accessible or more gross and crass, or all of the above. Horror fans on both sides of the Atlantic wanted mayhem and monsters, not transcendence.
James Ursini knew about Lisa and the Devil and often lamented the fact that it had been destroyed when its producer re-cut it two years later to make the exploitative variant The House of Exorcism. Fragments of the original film were weaved into a cheapjack rip-off of, what else, The Exorcist. Here was the big schism in film Horror. The last occurred back around 1960 when the psychological 'Horror of Personality' subgenre emerged full blown in Psycho and Peeping Tom. William Friedkin had recently revived the genre as mainstream commercial material. He made his The Exorcist a completely objective series of mechanical, visceral shocks organized around a daring willingness to exploit basic faith as raw material. Just as the Porn film reached an apogee of acceptance,The Exorcist found a huge following in 1974. Following its lead, Horror went big time but lost its last vestige of subtlety, beauty and artistry. Even the occasional Hammer film had still retained some cinematic poetry. The genre had liberated filmmakers for half a century and now The Exorcist plunged it once again into the dark ages.
Producer Alfredo Leone did what any producer does to recoup his cash: he disembowled Lisa, shot a bunch of imitation Friedkin vomit scenes and made his money back and more with The House of Exorcism. It was a hit. It played in Los Angeles in top theaters, just as had the lame Beyond the Door, half a season earlier. Sitting through it after the original on Image's double-bill DVD is almost impossible without the excuse of listening to its commentary track. The competently shot new footage lacks the original's intangible feeling, even though Bava reportedly helped in some of the reshoots. The joins between old and new footage function mechanically, but that's about it: when the 'possessed' Lisa transforms into a voluptuous nude lamia to seduce the priest (Robert Alda), one thinks of the average porn loop, not Simon of the Desert. The House of Exorcism is the same ol' depressing exploitation stew.
Lisa and the Devil ceased to exist, we thought, until a cassette and Laserdisc re-emerged from Leone earlier in the 90s. Revelation and Hosannas, a lost horror landmark was recovered - it was enough to warm the heart. Then DVD came along. Now it is possible to see uncut versions of Bava, Argento, even Lucio Fulci films looking better than they did on movie screens. Savant says let's see it all and sort out the good from the ugly ... he'll do it too, while looking for the charm in Cannibal and Zombie epics that have eluded him up to now.
Image's Lisa and the Devil / The House of Exorcism DVD double bill is a tidy package. Savant had thought the curious 'swimming grain' look of the older Laserdisc was a weird PAL- NTSC conversion flaw, or evidence that the movies had been digitally compressed at at less than optimal rate, as in an AVID editing computer. The new DVD is the same transfer, and has vestiges of that same look, but is brighter and sharper than the laser, and with much more stable colors. Mario Bava's color films fall apart when not presented in good prints, and here Lisa and the Devil is about 95% as good-looking as it should be. One would assume that the original negative was chopped up to make House, so whatever element this was mastered from is hopefully safely salted away in a secure vault.
Producer Leone comes off as an apologetic nut on the commentary, plain and simple. He extols the virtues of his House re-cut while admitting he raped and murdered Bava's film. His talk has such a dissociative lack of awareness, it resembles the ramblings of a serial killer. He must repeat the same 30 facts at least a dozen times each. However, every time the point of exasperation draws near, one realizes that Leone did the right thing by bringing Lisa and the Devil back for us to see, and all can be forgiven. He still mentions an even LONGER Spanish version drifting somewhere out of his grasp ...
Hopefully, the generous and hardworking folk at Image (producer Marc Walkow) will see the success with their Mario Bava Collection that will let them continue with the promised Bava classics: Operazione Paura (Kill, Baby Kill!) and I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath). Aficionados don't need a Savant recommendation. If all of this Euro Horror talk is gobbledygook, but you've grown curious about it anyway, this landmark DVD of Lisa and the Devil may be just the ticket.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Lisa and the Devil rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, House of Exorcism rates:
Text © Copyright 2000 Glenn Erickson
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