Lisa and the Devil (1973)
Directed by: Mario Bava
Written by: Alfredo Leone, Francesca Rusishka, Giorgio Maulini, Mario Bava, Roberto Natale, Romano Migliorini
Starring: Alessio Orano, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Telly Savalas
HCF REWIND NO. 244: LISA AND THE DEVIL AKA LISA E IL DIAVOLO [Italy 1973]
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 95 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tourist Lisa Reiner wanders away from her tour group in Toledo and in a shop encounters a man named Leandro who is purchasing a dummy and a carousel Lisa attempted to buy. Due to his resemblance to the portrait of the devil in a fresco she has just seen, Lisa flees, only to be confronted by the man whose dummy Leandro was buying. He says she’s someone else, then falls from a flight of stairs to his death. When she fails to find her way back to the tour group, she takes refuge with a couple and their driver, who agree to help Lisa get to her hotel, but their car breaks down in front of a crumbling mansion, where Lisa discovers Leandro works as the butler and the Countess’s son thinks she’s Elena, his lost love….
Lisa And The Devil is to me Mario Bava’s masterpiece, the film where all his filmmaking skills combined with all his personal obsessions combine to be a beautiful tone-poem of love and death that is also a great movie full-stop, perhaps the most perfect melding of the horror film with the art-house film. Though the more I think about it it seems like in part a far more complex variant on that cheapie creepie classic Carnival Of Souls, it’s one of those films that doesn’t operate on a rational level and, even if you work much of it out, there is still a lot that isn’t explained. One can pick up bits and pieces, and eventually get some kind of picture of the whole thing, but certain aspects remain shrouded in mystery, which makes it all the more enticing to its fans, and there certainly are people out there like me who adore this film and every now and again are drawn back to its mysteries, it’s morbid romanticism, it’s feel of a ‘waking dream’, it’s meta-physical leanings, though it’s certainly Bava’s oddest and most defiantly un-commercial work, and films like this, by their very nature, often fail to do well at the box office. In fact, Lisa And The Devil was treated in an abominable way by its producer Alfredo Leone, the story of its virtual destruction one of the saddest accounts of art being ruined for commerciality in the history of cinema, though it does have a happy ending of sorts.
Bava had just made Baron Blood for Leone, and it was a major success in the US as well as Italy. Leone told Bava he could make whatever he wanted, so Bava responded by making Lisa And The Devil, almost a summation of his themes, but also a project he’d been planning since the mid-60’s, though it seems that elements of a planned film about Victor Ardisson the ‘Vampire Of Muy’ a French graverobber and necrophiliac, as well as Bava’s wish to make a film based on H.P.Lovecraft’s work, heavily influenced it. Bava and Leone wrote the screenplay with uncredited assistance from four others: Giorio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale and Francesca Rusishka. Bette Davis and Anthony Perkins turned down the parts of the Countess and Maximiliam. Bava thought the film was cursed when Davis’s replacement Alida Valli turned up wearing purple, a colour Bava believed brought bad luck, though things went okay for a while, with Bava enjoying being given total carte blanche on a film for once. Telly Savalas was responsible for the idea of having his character sucking lollipops throughout, something he had taken up in real life as he’d recently quit smoking. It went on a major part of his Kojak character. Filmed largely in Spain with some studio work in Italy, Lisa And The Devil was a film Bava was justifiably proud of, and he took it to Cannes, where it played to enthusiastic and large crowds.
But….nobody would actually buy the film, which was just considered too un-commercial. If Bava had actually produced the film, he could probably have got it out there himself, but it was owned by Leone, who decided to perform an act of butchery in the name of money. Inspired by the success of The Exorcist, imitations of which were very common in Italy at the time, Leone brought back star Elke Sommer to have Bava film scenes where she was possessed by a demon [though Leone ended up directing some of them himself when Bava would just set up scenes involving profanity and strong sexuality and leave the set], with Robert Alda as the troubled priest having to confront her, and the Lisa And The Devil footage, of which about an hour remain in the film, playing as flashbacks of her character. The House Of Exorcism is a total mess of a film, though kind of fun in a trashy way. I feel so sorry for Bava though, having a film in which he invested so much love [though what later happened with Rabid Dogs, a picture I will get to in due course as I go through Bava’s movies, is even sadder] mutilated and his original version disappear after a release in Spain under the title The Devil And The Dead. For years The House Of Exorcism was the only version around, but in 1983, three years after Bava died, a print of Lisa And The Devil was released by Leone and turned up on both UK [good old Moviedrome again] and US TV, and the film gradually got more and more widely seen. It’s worth noting that even versions of Lisa And The Devil sometimes differ slightly, most notably near the end where some versions obscure Sommer’s breasts. And, while it pains me to say this, The House Of Exorcism is worth its inclusion on the Blu-ray and DVD sets as it features more graphic versions of one of Lisa And The Devil’s murder scenes and a sex scene, scenes where Bava obviously shot the footage then toned it down [in fact, an even more graphic version of said sex scene was shot but not used at all].
Lisa And The Devil’s beguiling titles show the face of Savalas and then a deck of cards on which the film’s other characters are revealed. The film actually tells you partly what it’s about there and then, and you can’t help but notice that a painting of the devil on a wall has a distinct resemblance to Savalas, but of course it’s easy to forget that with the almost surreal weirdness that follows. Lisa wonders off and encounters Savalas, now called Leandro, in a shop buying a dummy. Running away, Lisa is then approached by the actual person who the dummy was of and accidently kills him. Bava’s camera zooms in on the man’s broken pocket watch – glass smashed out, hour and minute hands crossed – as an omen suggesting that time is no longer a certainty in this story. She tries to return to where she started, and it’s all quite eerie what with the subtly chilling scoring and the sound of sobbing as she gets hopelessly lost in the [very creepy, despite the daylight] back passages of the town. Eventually it’s night-time, and Lisa seems to have gone into a different time, or even different dimension, as she’s picked up and driven to a strange old mansion where things get even odder. While a love triangle forms involving the driver of the car she was in and the man and wife in the car, Lisa finds herself in a bizarre triangle of her own when Maximilliam, the son of the Countess, thinks she’s his long lost girlfriend, and the man she seemingly killed also turns up to say she’s his. And what’s with Leandro now being the butler, or the mysterious unseen sobbing person locked away in a room, or Lisa’s seeming remembrances of a past life involving the two men, or the dummies who sometimes turn into people and vice versa?
It’s all very confusing for a first time viewer [though I still haven’t worked everything out even now], but I remember absolutely loving the spell the film was casting on that first viewing back in 1983. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what’s happening in a film – what’s more important is that you’re enjoying it. Many horror fans dislike the very slow pacing, Bava seeming to dwell for ages on seemingly unimportant scenes like a funeral, though we do eventually get some memorably brutal killings like a repeated running over by car and a bludgeoning where the blood goes all over the camera lens. Bava mostly goes more for beauty and sadness then typical horror devices though. There’s a lengthy scene of necrophilia where the dead woman is being made love to in a bed [the same one that featured in Black Sabbath and A Hatchet For A Honeymoon] beside a skeleton, and, instead of being horrific and disgusting, it’s a sequence of intense morbid romanticism set to Rodrigo’s gorgeous Concerto per Aranjuez. Then you have what is one of the single most gorgeous shots in the history of the cinema. Lisa leaves the mansion, which is overgrown, and for a few seconds the viewer is treated, in soft-focus, to a sublimely beautiful shot of autumnal vegetation covering the house. It’s brief, and easy to miss, but totally stunning.
Of course being a Bava film Lisa And The Devil is full of unforgettable shots where Bava [the cinematography is credited to Cecilio Paniagua, but of course all Bava fans know that he pretty much did it himself] makes what would seem ordinary looks magnificent. Spilled red wine on the dining room floor shimmers almost translucently. A couple kissing reflected in the mirror of a make-up box is a trippy blur of strange shapes. There is actually less darkness than usual, and less games of light with colours such as blue and pink. Bava instead opts to stage much of the action in bright surroundings – even night-time scenes somehow seem to glow – and emphasise both the majesty and decay of his primary location rather than set up weird and wonderful colour schemes of his own, but this film still looks magnificent throughout, Bava and Paniagua constantly finding new ways to make something look unusual or interesting. There’s something off-kilter about virtually every scene, with small details helping to give the proceedings a dream-like feel even if you don’t notice them, while the camera either tends to adopt an observing distance or slowly circle round its characters. In fact, the film is full of emphasised circles [notice, for example, how many times we are shown the figures in a musical box going round and round], which certainly gives you some, if not much, idea of what is going on.
Lisa And The Devil’s characters seem to exist in some kind of purgatory. Some of them appear to exist in different times to others, yet still interrelate with them. Most of them also have their own mannequins at various points, some sporting injuries, which leads to a darkly amusing variant on the Last Supper, though I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of everything in the film. In any case, all of Bava’s favourite themes, from major ones like the cyclical nature of violence and the weakness and destruction of the family from within to minor, less-mentioned but also quite common ones like necrophilia and sexual inadequacy, are here, and usually taken about as far as they could go. Bava’s usual wry, knowing humour is mostly restricted to Leandro, my favourite screen portrayal of the Devil. Satan here is a world-weary jester who speaks aloud as if to the audience. He seems to tire of his work and seems to be there because the others need him, but his humour gets him by. Savalas sometimes seems to exist in his own little film separate from everyone else, but his scenes give the mostly very heavy-going proceedings some levity, whether he’s sticking one of his lollipops into a dummy’s head or breaking the legs of a corpse so it fits into the coffin. The most unsatisfying aspect of the film to me is Lisa herself. Elke Sommer does fine in the part, but she doesn’t really have a character to play, and even after multiple viewings over the years, I’m still unsure of the entirety of her role is in the story, or more to the point if she deserves her fate.
Carlo Savina’s score is an important ingredient in Lisa And The Devil, elegant, gorgeous and uncanny without really ever becoming typical horror film music. His lovely Ennio Morricone-like main theme, which mixes in touches of the Concerto per Aranjuez but in a tasteful manner so it seems like a natural development of the piece rather than tacky plagiarisation, is a lovely creation and it’s a great tragedy of film music that the soundtrack remains unavailable, though for a while the film wasn’t exactly available either, but it eventually turned up. It still seem destined to remain a bit obscure, the kind of film that will usually be ignored by the snobby art-house critic who will jump over anything by someone like Federico Fellini and ignore stuff from people like Bava because they mostly worked in often disreputable genres like horror, yet is often just as a work of art. By contrast, horror fans, because the genre can result in such different work and so much experimentation, are often some of the most open-minded film-lovers you can get, so are often more willing to embrace such films. A while back, I reviewed Death In Venice, regarded by many as a great work of art. Lisa And The Devil is just as worthy of being called one.