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This reviewer came to be a Mario Bava fan only slowly, after showing the Italian maestro's Black Sunday to an audience of dormies at UCLA in 1971, and then seeing Bava's glorious Danger: Diabolik in a midnight screening in Santa Monica. Fellow Eurohorror addict Jim Ursini filled in some background on Bava with issues of the French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique, helpfully translating some of the French. Although we knew about these rare pictures, we couldn't see many of them. The new wave of laserdisc releases didn't result in video debuts of the key titles we wanted to see, and when they did show up they were the mutilated American versions.
Lisa and the Devil is a special case because its lofty genesis and eventual fate emphasize the fine line that Eurohorror producers must tread between commercial demands and the desire to make something worthwhile. The original Lisa may disappoint fans expecting uninterrupted shock scenes, but it delivers things missing in most horror efforts of the time -- a truly uncanny mood and a tone of genuine morbidity.
A tourist in Spain finds herself pulled into an uncanny nightmare world. Young Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) steps away from her sightseeing group as it admires a painting of the Devil and the Dead on the side of an ancient building. In a mannequin-filled curio shop she encounters the first of a seemingly endless series of malevolent hallucinations, a man closely resembling the Devil in the painting (Telly Savalas). Lisa then meets a handsome mustachioed man claiming to be her long lost lover, and accidentally kills him. The 'devil man' is seen carrying a wax mannequin identical to the 'dead' lover. Abandoned by her tour, Lisa hitches a ride with a bickering rich couple (Sylva Koscina, Eduardo Fajardo) and ends up at a villa inhabited by the handsome but sullen young Max (Alessio Orano), his domineering near-blind mother Sophia (Alida Valli) and their sinister valet Leandro (Telly Savalas). Lisa naturally reacts with trepidation to this new incarnation of the mystery devil-man but has little choice but to go along with the bizarre happenings. These include the murder and funeral arrangements for the rich couple's chauffeur (Gabrielle Tinti). Before the night is over Lisa will see the apparent murder and resurrection of most all of her companions. She will attempt to run away with the increasingly deranged Max and will experience a set of beautiful but macabre hallucinations of a previous life with the mustachioed lover. All of this culminates in a sex scene in a crumbling boudoir overrun by greenery: the sexually frustrated Max strips and seduces Lisa in this abstract setting, with a rotting corpse lying by their side...
Given a rare opportunity to make the film he wanted to make, Mario Bava sidestepped commercial concerns to fulfill the promise of Eurohorror in a way not seen since the long-ago days of Vampyr, when the terms Art and Horror were not yet mutually exclusive. The nearly non-linear Lisa 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), the visuals dominate the action. 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 Antonioni and 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.
Some gory mayhem and macabre sex do intrude along the way. Beautiful Sylva Koscina (Hercules) makes a highly erotic appearance as a terrified victim. But Lisa's climactic necrophiliac encounter is transcendent, a truly beautiful macabre tableau. After a decade of compromised productions Bava finally made a film that refined genre concerns to a new purity.
Audiences don't necessarily want artistic purity, not even at film festivals. Bava's film was an unsellable, un-distributable disaster for its producer Alfredo Leone, whose commentary track is most engaging when talking about Lisa's initial failure. It was the first Bava film to fail to get a release. 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 had told me that it had been destroyed when its producer re-cut it to make the exploitative variant The House of Exorcism. Fragments of the original film were woven into a cheapjack rip-off of the hot horror item of the day, 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's shrewdly manipulative shocker revived the genre as mainstream commercial material. At the same time that the Porn film reached an apogee of acceptance, The Exorcist found a huge following. Following its lead, Horror once again went big-time but lost its last vestige of subtlety, beauty and artistry. What was once subjective, became objective.
Producer Alfredo Leone did what any producer does to recoup his cash: he cut up Lisa and the Devil, filmed some imitation Friedkin vomit scenes and re-titled the mess as The House of Exorcism. The framing story shows Elke Sommer writhing on a hospital bed, vomiting green bile on the priest (Robert Alda). House played in Los Angeles in top theaters, just as had the lame Beyond the Door half a season earlier. The contrast between old and new footage is immediately obvious: 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 old depressing exploitation stew.
Lisa and the Devil ceased to exist, we thought, until a cassette and laserdisc re-emerged from producer Leone in the middle 1990s. A lost horror landmark was recovered, a happening to warm the heart. And now in HD, Bava's most challenging horror item is once again a visual feast.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Lisa and the Devil / The House of Exorcism repackages earlier DVD releases with an improved transfer. The quality of the original Lisa seen here at last reflects the rich visual texture we expect from Mario Bava. In most scenes he dials back on the prime-color lighting associated with his gothic subjects, and much of Lisa's nightmare takes place not in darkness, but in hallucinatory brightness. The most fantastic visuals take us into Lisa's insane boudoir, a large room soon choked with unmotivated vegetation. Instead of crypts and cobwebs we get something out of an erotic painting, sex in a setting of ultimate decay. The sight of Bava's camera panning across this tableau to find Elke Sommer's Lisa naked amid vines, flowers and a desiccated corpse, is conceptually chilling.
The comparison of Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism underscores the reality of screen horror in the '70s, when nobody expected or seemingly even wanted horror to be art any more. However, for many viewers House may be the main feature and the more restrained and dreamlike Lisa, the 'extra'.
The extras from older Image and Anchor Bay releases are present, with only some semi-pornographic outtakes between Alessio Orano and Sylva Koscina left behind. Tim Lucas' commentary on Lisa is a fountain of information and insight on this once-elusive masterpiece. On the commentary on House, producer Leone comes off as an apologetic nut, plain and simple. He extols the virtues of his House re-cut while admitting that he thoroughly mangled Bava's film. His talk has such a dissociative lack of awareness, repeating the same facts several times, it resembles the ramblings of a serial killer. However, considering that Leone brought Lisa and the Devil back for us to see, all can be forgiven. He still mentions an even longer Spanish version drifting somewhere out of his grasp...
Also included is a new interview featurette with Mario Bava's son Lamberto talking at length about filmmaking in his family, starting with his grandfather back in the silent era. It's a pleasing, relaxing talk.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lisa and the Devil / The House of Exorcism Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.