Twice the fun for the price of one. Kino Classics has released Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism, the one-two punch from famed Italian horror director Mario Bava (and Alfredo Leone), starring Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Alida Valli, Eduardo Fajardo, Alessio Orano, Sylva Koscina, and Robert Alda. Originally shot in 1972, Lisa and the Devil's lyrical approach to operatic horror found no takers for international distribution in 1973, so a year later, Bava and producer Leone filmed a completely new subplot involving demonic possession (of course Leone wasn't ripping off The Exorcist...), cut out about twenty minutes of footage, and turned the unsaleable Lisa and the Devil into the box-office smash, The House of Exorcism. Kino has included some tasty extras here for these terrific-looking transfers. Let's look briefly at both movies.
LISA AND THE DEVIL
Gorgeous tourist Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) takes her gorgeous body off the tourist bus in Toledo, Spain, and wanders over with her group to view an outdoor fresco...a fresco that depicts Satan carrying off humans to the underworld. Beautiful, haunting music draws Lisa away from the group to a side street workshop where she sees a macabre music box (complete with rotating devil). She inquires if she may buy it, but the shopkeeper (Franz von Treuberg) tells her it's the property of the man at the counter: Leandro (Telly Savalas)...who looks quite like the figure of Satan in the fresco. Alarmed by this coincidence, Lisa exits the store, only to find herself lost in the suddenly abandoned streets, unable to return to her bus. Accosted by a strange, mustachioed man (Espartaco Santoni), who looks suspiciously like the full-sized dummy Leandro bought at the shop, she pushes him down the stairs and kills him when he claims to be her lost love...only to see Leandro later come down a street with the familiar-looking dummy. Later that night, Lisa manages to hitch a ride with rich, quarreling couple Francis and Sophia Lehar (Eduardo Fajardo and Sylva Koscina). Unfortunately, Lisa's nightmare continues when the car breaks down outside the home of the blind Countess (Alida Valli)...who doesn't like the look of Lisa, since she looks quite like the dead lover of her weakling son, Maximilian (Alessio Orano). Even worse―guess who the Countesses' butler is? You guessed it: Leandro. What follows is a spiraling nightmare into madness, overacting, brief, tame nudity, beautiful imagery, a few mild chills, and obvious odes
Just like Michael Reeves' The Sorcerers, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Lisa and the Devil is another one of those titles that become favorites of critics who fall in love with a particular movie's backstory as much (or more so) as with the movie itself. Since Lisa and the Devil was cult-favorite Mario Bava's final (and unsuccessful) chance to break out of the horror genre and make "serious films," and since it was not just ignored upon release but actually denied a release (except a limited one in Spain, it is rumored) by those obtuse, philistine distributors, and since Lisa and the Devil's insensitive producer chopped up this "work of art" and reshuffled it with inane, grotesque exploitation material just to make a buck (how terrible...unless it's your money on the table)...well, then...Lisa and the Devil must be a misunderstood masterpiece that needs to be rediscovered and championed as something that is so much more than it really is. Because that's the phony romance of the auteur theory (one that I still fight all the time, too), intruding on and influencing the actual movie-watching experience.
Now don't get me wrong: Lisa and the Devil is miles above The Sorcerers in overall effect on the viewer. It's recommended viewing for anyone into Eurohorror from this time period and especially Bava (to my taste, it's not at the level of Kill, Baby, Kill or Danger: Diabolik...but it's no Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, either). But is it the "masterpiece" I keep hearing and reading about? Certainly, the most successful aspect of Lisa and the Devil is the one element everyone seems to agree on: tone and atmosphere. Overriding the other facets of the production that prove jarring or troublesome, Bava's ability to create first a waking nightmare with Elke Sommer lost in the deserted streets of Toledo, Spain (the most successful section of the movie), before languidly moving to the haunted villa, where the dark, death-obsessed, perversely erotic ambiance of a night terror is recreated endlessly, is remarkably adept. It's a consistent, sustained exercise in lyrical, painterly, poetic moodiness and dread, one that compares favorably in its force to something like Rollin's masterful The Iron Rose (although Bava's floridly operatic approach to sexual decay and sin here is quite different from Rollin's gray, rainy, depressive necrophilia in that movie).
Unfortunately, that tone of moldering eroticism and dreamy terror is frequently interrupted by contrasting approaches in the script, the direction, and the performances that frequently work against the totality of Bava's intended effect. Far from being confusing or obtuse, as I've read from other critics, perhaps the biggest problem with Lisa and the Devil succeeding as an "art film" (as Bava apparently hoped) is that it's entirely too accessible a work. If Bava, apparently given free rein for the first time to make the kind of movie he wanted, intended Lisa and the Devil to be a work outside conventional approaches to the genre (easy on the sex and gore, heavy on the allusions and atmosphere), he hardly came up with a scenario that would puzzle or even intrigue his demanding critics. "Inscrutable" Lisa and the Devil ain't, to put it bluntly. When we see Sommer looking at the devil fresco painted to resemble Savalas, and then we see Savalas "smoking" at the workshop's counter...we get it. And just to hammer home the point needlessly, Bava superimposes the fresco's artwork over Savalas' face. Bava didn't think this would prove self-evident overkill to those he hoped to impress? Who doesn't know within the first half hour of the movie (particularly after seeing Psycho) that Alessio Orano has the corpse of his dead lover Elena in that upstairs bedroom? And while Bava certainly executes this final "love scene" between Orano, Sommer, and Elena's skeletal corpse with hypnotic panache...the ideas behind the scene are just this side of clichéd, frankly.
Of course, what Bava may have intended for the critics to see is really a moot point in the case of Lisa and the Devil, since the movie never received a general release. It all came down to what the distributors wanted when the movie was screened for them by producer Leone. Now, any arguments about how blind distributors were in the case of Lisa and the Devil should be tempered by the fact that, like it or not, distributors' jobs aren't to make "art" available to the masses―their jobs are to find titles they think they can sell to theatre owners (if Leone's account of Lisa and the Devil's post-production problems is accurate, then in his commentary track on The House of Exorcism he states that he had an offer from AIP's Samuel Z. Arkoff, sight unseen, and that he turned it down as too low). So if they saw trouble with getting a sale for Lisa and the Devil, it's hard to brand them as philistines since they all obviously saw problems with the movie; after all, they wouldn't all have turned down the movie if they thought it could make money for them.
Lisa and the Devil problems, unfortunately, are as equally accessible as its underlying themes. There's no doubt that by 1973, the deliberately soft, romantically-tinged passages in Lisa and the Devil were considered passé (that Windsong® by Prince Matchabelli-like commercial/flashback Sommer stars in isn't tenderly enigmatic as much as it is laughably naïve), but ironically, it's just that juxtaposition of the lyrical and the savage (death by motorcar, death by bludgeoning) that trips up the movie. Had Bava followed his natural restraint that everyone talks about and left Lisa and the Devil largely bloodless, it might have had a shot playing in the art theatres he so craved. Or, had Bava gone for broke (and listened to Leone), and not cut back on the nudity and violence in the final edit, he could have ridden the wave of increasingly exploitative giallos that he had helped create. Unfortunately, Bava's ambiguous feelings towards this mixture of "art" and "exploitation" is all too obvious here, with neither approach feeling complete, nor integrated (as commentator Tim Lucas rightly states, Leone's version of Sommer's more explicit nude scene in The House of Exorcism is more effective than Bava's pulled punches).
THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM
Gorgeous tourist Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) takes her gorgeous body off the tourist bus in Toledo, Spain, and wanders over with her group to view an outdoor fresco...a fresco that depicts Satan carrying off humans to the underworld. Beautiful, haunting music draws Lisa away from the group to a side street workshop where she sees a macabre music box (complete with rotating devil). She inquires if she may buy it, but the shopkeeper (Franz von Treuberg) tells her it's the property of the man at the counter: Leandro (Telly Savalas)...who looks quite like the figure of Satan in the fresco. Alarmed by this coincidence, Lisa exits the store, only to...fall down in the streets in the throes of a demonic possession. Apparently, the shopkeeper had a spare mannequin head that looked exactly like Lisa's, and Leandro/Satan decided to play his nightly games with her, slapping the mannequin's face and instantly possessing Lisa's soul. Fortunately, Father Michael (Robert Alda) happens to be by Lisa's side in the street, and he escorts her to a hospital, where he quickly realizes that Lisa is possessed. He realizes this after she starts swearing like your typical SEIU thug...and when she contorts her body like the Indian rubber man...and when she vomits what appears to be Jell-O 1-2-3® and frogs on him...and when she transforms herself into the gloriously nude Anna (Carmen Silva, gloriously nude from top to bottom), Father Michaels' deceased love. What follows are various flashbacks to the villa where the demon that possesses Lisa resides―and where said demon possesses all the characters from Lisa and the Devil―before Father Michael decides to confront the demon at the villa.
I mean...how can you outright hate a movie that has Sylva Koscina's mammoth knockers on extended display, Robert Alda's dyed comb-over plastered with green pabulum, and Elke Sommer's mouth filled with twitching frog legs...right before you see her perfect, perfect body nude and unobscured (unlike Bava's cut in Lisa)? Is it sacrilege to write that I enjoyed The House of Exorcism just as much as Lisa and the Devil? Well...if it is...so what? And don't give me that jazz that Lisa and the Devil is "art" and that The House of Exorcism is exploitative, derivative junk. Of course The House of Exorcism is exploitative, derivative junk...but Lisa and the Devil ain't exactly successful "art" (whatever that is, anyway), so which movie hits the target it's aiming at? Were Lisa and the Devil's goals so lofty, that The House of Exorcism should automatically be labeled a crass desecration? Maybe...but you'll have a hard time selling me on downgrading House just because Lisa's intent was aesthetically...finer, if you will. Junk is as valid as "art," if it's done honestly.
With that said...The House of Exorcism is a fairly clunky Exorcist rip-off at times...which is every time Leone tries to cut in the newer possession footage with the old Lisa material. If you believe Leone's commentary track, Bava participated in this "reboot" all the way up to editing, including setting up shots and eventually, after the movie was released and a success at the box office, even asking for his name to be put back on the credits (Leone's "Mickey Lion" is House's credited director). I'm no scholar on Bava, so I don't know if this story is true, but if it is (or more likely, if part of it is true, somewhere in the middle between Bava's and Leone's accounts), that's a fairly good argument to take The House of Exorcism seriously―even if it proves to be entertaining garbage. Which it certainly is. And as such, it can be enjoyed purely on that superficial level, without guilt, and without whining about it being "depressing" exploitation fare.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.