Lisa and the Devil
July 23, 2018
Franz von Treuberg
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
hosts the movies now considered his masterpieces — like Black Sunday (1960), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) — Bava was often forced to work with miniscule budgets and less-than-ideal production schedules. (He did, however, have run-ins with big names like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.)
His galactic Planet of the Vampires, from 1965, was made for such little money, most of its ethereality had to be developed by stage-lit studio fog. Danger: Diabolik, a 1968 adaptation of the Italian comic book series Diabolik, was scattered and rushed — worsened by the domineering presence of head producer Dino de Laurentiis.
Lisa and the Devil would make for a difference. It was the second film Bava made with the producer Alfredo Leone, who had given the former complete creative control, in 1972, with Baron Blood. Production went smoothly; it would be one of the few instances in which Bava wouldn’t be undermined in some way or another.
Post-production, though, was calamitous. When Lisa and the Devil was unveiled at Cannes, the reviews were damning. Roberto Curti, a film historian, called the initial screening “disastrous.” When it became time for the movie to undergo a theatrical run, Italian censors sliced a large portion of the run time. The original cut never saw the light of day in its native country; the version Bava envisioned, albeit with a few minor edits, ran in Spain in the fall of 1974.
That should have been that. But Leone, inspired by the smash success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), had other plans. What if Lisa and the Devil were renamed The House of Exorcism, had more overt occultist sequences shot and then inserted, and then were sold on the U.S. market as the Euro equivalent of the Friedkin masterwork? Bava, likely numbed by Cannes and its aftermath, agreed. Lisa and the Devil was then mangled by Leone and Bava’s filmmaker son, Lamberto. Some commercial success accrued for The House of Exorcism in America, though the film was mostly looked at as a throwaway grindhouse fixture.
Fans of Bava, myself included, are wont to go into Lisa and the Devil hoping that it will be an undiscovered cabochan — an exceptional feature that, like most of what Bava put out at his height, was unfairly underappreciated upon release. But Lisa and the Devil, akin to much of what Bava would go on to do in the 1970s, is muddled, if stylish — an echo of his inspired ‘60s output. (The House of Exorcism remains unseen by me, but I can’t imagine it fares much better.)
It is a descent-into-hell kind of movie. I was reminded of Jesús Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead, from 1973. That film, retrospectively one of the most compelling of the semi-psychedelic, oneiric horror operas of the era, watched as a lithesome teen went to the castle of her estranged relatives to sort out the intricacies of her recently deceased father’s will. The movie devolved into nightmarish histrionics that suggested the property had ties to the paranormal. It didn't end very conclusively.
Ambiguity was part of the reason A Virgin Among the Living Dead worked. Instead of trying to neatly explain why its nonsensicality was increasing, it embraced illogicality, and obliquely decided that the movie would unspool without reason, becoming its own sort of nightmare.
Lisa and the Devil tries to do something similar. In it, the German actress Elke Sommer plays an American tourist who unwittingly ends up in the rickety, middle-of-nowhere castle of bizarre Spanish aristocrats after getting lost in the city. An arc comparable to the one found in A Virgin Among the Living Dead is put forward: our eponymous heroine finds that the manor’s inhabitants are inherently maleficent — supernaturally inclined, maybe — and that it is vital that she try to make a daring escape before it, with clichéd dread, is too late.
The film’s first couple of acts — which see Lisa parsing through the over-abundantly decorated mansion and having unsettling conversations with fellow houseguests — more or less work. Bava, as he did with Kill, Baby, Kill!, makes it seem as though he’d prefer we enjoy the feature as a nightmare cinematized. In these scenes, the film is pointedly difficult to grasp, and is marked by unclear motivations and underlying — though prominently abstract — danger.
But the long-winded final act is so abuzz with plot twists and inefficiently explained reveals that the movie comes to be significantly impaired. Lisa and the Devil is a melange of mysterious horror imagery for most of its length — the inaugural acts are so absorbing because the film is daringly, and successfully, more concerned with looking and feeling like a horror movie than narratively looking like one. It, like almost all of Bava’s films, is splendid in its macabre beauty.
When a sheaf of confusing “reveals” is plopped down toward the beginning of the film’s last chapter, the movie is set off course. Sudden divulgings — with include a Psycho (1960)-esque mother-son bond, a reincarnation element, the suggestion that the family butler (Telly Savalas) might be the devil, and more — are dissonant and exhausting, sharply contrasting with the somnolent appeal of everything coming before it. The film, then, ultimately feels like a vestige of the yesteryear — a feature which contains glimmers of Bava’s ‘60s uncanniness that nonetheless more prominently shows his artistic drive declining. C+
isa and the Devil, first seen at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, should have been the Italian horror guru Mario Bava’s masterpiece. He was given $1 million — an unusually high amount for the oft-undervalued filmmaker — to make the movie. Had a competent ensemble at his beck and call. Had rare creative autonomy.
Bava, among the cleverest of macabre storytellers, had not often seen these sorts of perks during his peak in the 1960s. Although the decade