Buoyed by the success of ‘Baron Blood,’ producer Alfred Leone offered Mario Bava carte blanche for his next project. Bava decided to collaborate with Leone on re-writing a story that he had wanted to do for some time. It was called ‘Lisa and the Devil.’
As the movie opens, Lisa Reiner (played by Elke Summer) is an American tourist in a small Spanish village. Departing from the tour group while they closely examine a fresco of the devil taking souls down to hell, Lisa makes her way down several long, winding streets to find an antique shop. Once inside, she finds a music box, with figures that move about on the top of it. She enquires as to the price. The owner informs her that the box belongs to Leandro (played by Telly Salavas,) a man also in the shop and not for sale. (Leandro is there to pick up a life-like dummy.) When he turns, Lisa has a start. He looks just like the devil in the fresco.
She leaves the shop but gets lost. Growing more and more frantic, she bumps into Leandro again who directs her to the center of town. Lisa hitches a ride with Francis Lehar and his wide Sophia, who are being driven by their chauffeur George. However, in the middle of the trip, (and the middle of the night,) the car breaks down. They are in front of a large mansion. When they ring the door bell for assistance, who should answer but Leandro.
Once inside, Alexander, the son of the baroness who owns the house, takes a liking to Lisa. She, along with the Lehars, are invited to dinner. When the baroness shows up and Leandro introduces her to everyone, she insists that there is one more to meet. Everyone says that it is just them, but she insists. And then footsteps are heard one floor above. Is this the extra visitor?
‘Lisa and the Devil,’ is Bava’s late-career masterwork. It is a misty, confused, dream-state of a movie. Every scene makes the viewer question if what we are watching is actually happening, or if it’s a dream, or a nightmare. (And who is having these visions, if that’s indeed what they are.) Almost every scene contains some reference to death, in either the framing and visual composition or the dialogue. Bava builds and explores each idea so carefully and so well, that the one can relax and let the images wash over them, and loose themselves in this amazing world.
The strange, ethereal music works perfectly and the cinematography, so focused on reflections and seeing another side of a person, works wonderfully. (All of this said, the movie does betray the decade of its creation as well. There is a reliance on soft-focus filters for some of Elke Summer’s close-ups. Some critics have placed the blame for these on cinematographer Cecilo Paniagua, in his first and last job with Bava.)
Bava only provides the essential details. We don’t know where Lisa is from. (It doesn’t matter.) We don’t know what country she’s visiting. (It doesn’t matter either.) In fact, we don’t know much about any of the other characters. (In the end, they don’t matter.)
Leandro is the most together of characters. Always perfectly dressed, and always quick with a quip, the devil is someone you sort of admire. (The way he plays with the people around him, also shows how attractive power can be.)
Some critics have suggested that Bava is trying to say that it doesn’t matter who we are, where we are, or what we’ve done; that in the end, we’ll be forced to re-live the painful moments of our life over and over again. (Which, personally, makes me worry about re-living my awkward summer of soccer camp.) With Leandro’s obsession with mannequins, is Bava saying that the human race are simply puppets? That no matter what our machinations in this life, we’ll all suffer the same cruel fate that befalls Lisa?
Clearly, this is a movie that Mario Bava, in many ways, spent his entire life preparing for. Which is why its final release to the world is all the more devastating. The studio producing the film was not interested in a thought-provoking look into the eye of evil. It did not care to have its entire existence questioned by a genre director. ‘Lisa’ was re-cut.
Hot on the heels of the success of William Fredkin’s ‘The Exorcist,’ the new version had Lisa cursing and vomiting pea-soup. The fact that producer Leone made Bava shoot these scenes must have made the insult all the more personal and painful.
The delicate balance of a dream-state, so perfectly achieved with Bava’s cut now ruined, ‘Lisa’ was finally released under the title, ‘The House of Exorcism.’ Money was made, but at what cost?
This film, while on the surface seems to be ‘just another 1970s movie about satan,’ is so much more.
Thankfully, Bava’s version is now readily available. If you only check out a few of Mario Bava’s movies, make sure ‘Lisa and the Devil’ is one of them. –Sam