This is probably the last great horror film from Mario Bava (director of Gothic classic BLACK SUNDAY and the seminal giallo thriller BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) Unfortunately, LISA AND THE DEVIL, did not reach U.S. audiences in its original form for decades. When producer Alfredo Leone was unable to secure U.S. distribution in 1973, he added exorcism footage and retitled the film HOUSE OF EXORCISM. The revamped version, which is copyrighted as a separate movie, was released to U.S. theatres in 1976.
LISA AND THE DEVIL tell of a tourist (played by Elke Sommer) who loses her way in Italy and winds up at an isolated house filled with eccentric people, where strange things are going on. As the dream-like story develops, we get hints that there is an unseen presence lurking in the house, something to do with a tragedy that occurred years ago, involving the death of a young woman. Flashbacks suggest that Sommer’s character may be a reincarnation of the deceased lady, but there are other interpretations as well. Telly Savalas plays a butler who works behind the scenes, arranging mannequins who bear a striking resemblance to the various characters in the house. Could he be the Devil of the title, and is he manipulating everything as some kind of shadow-play for the benefit (if that is the word) of Lisa?
There are few clear answers, but that is all part of the fun with this film, which presents its narrative with a glorious stylistic verse that forces you to sit back and enjoy it, whether or not it make sense. Rather than sloppy writing, the film seems to b a deliberate attempt on Bava’s part to craft an art-house movie in horror film drag. A director who worked in a film industry that demanded commercialization and popular genres (horror, science-fiction, thrillers), Bava here is offering something closer to Ingmar Bergman (think HOUR OF THE WOLF) but with more color and exuberance than Bergman ever mustered.
Despite the higher aspirations, Bava proves that he remains a master at delivering the visceral thrills, sometimes with the most simply of techniques. There are a handful of brutal murders, along with some touches of black comedy (mostly courtesy of Savalas, who seems to be improvising some of his lines), and there is one absolutely uncanny moment guaranteed to chill your spine: As Lisa joins the guests around the dinner table, there are words of concern regarding someone else who make be lurking in the house. The sound of a crash from upstairs jerks everyone’s attention up form the table, and as if following the directions of their thoughts, the camera cuts to an attick room. As slow footfalls drop on the flooboards like approaching death, the camera winds its way through the room, apparently replicating the point-of-view of someone – we don’t know who – find his way. The moment is impossible to describe in words that equal the visuals; there is something about the pacing of the camera movment, combined with the sound effects, that creeps into your spine like icy skeletal fingers.
In a very loose kind of way, LISA AND THE DEVIL replicates some elements of CASTLE OF TERROR (a.k.a. CASTLE OF BLOOD), starring Barbara Steele. That film is an entertaining but somewhat more conventional genre piece. Bava’s movie may be less satisfying to the casual viewer, but it is an altogether more grand and impressive piece of work.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the Fall 1976 issue of Cinefantastique (5:2), publisher-editor Frederick S. Clarke wrote a brief capsule comment about HOUSE OF EXORCISM in the magazine’s Film Ratings section. We include it here to provide a glimpse into how the film was seen during its initial release, before U.S. audiences knew that Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL had been radically altered by its producer:
Mario Bava, credited as Mickey Lion, does the first rip-off of THE EXORCIST to be even mildly interesting. Interesting, not good. It is a bizarre, uneasy assimiliation of the exorcism motifs into the Bava formula atmosphere and schloss setting. Actually more like two films spliced together, with the exorcism segments segreated, as Elke Sommer goes through strenuous – and some of the most disgusting - bouts of vomiting and scatology yet depicted. But Bava tries to remain aloof from that- as the rest of his film follows Telly Savalas’ incarnation of the Devil, sucking on a Kojakc Lollipop, as he victimizes a disembodied Sommer by placing her into the madness of a family of sexually depraved aristocrats.
THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (”La Case Dell’Esorcismo,” A Peppercorn-Wormser Release, 7/76 [c75]). In Color by Movielab. 93 minutes. Produced by Alfred Leone. Screenplay by Alberto Tintini, Alfred Leone. Directed by Mickey Lion (a.k.a. Mario Bava). Filmed as LISE E IL DIAVOLO (”Lisa and the Devil”). With: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koschina, Alida Valli, Robert Alda.
NOTE: In the 1980s the unaltered LISA AND THE DEVIL made it to late night TV, where it was trimmed for violence and nudity but more or less intact. The uncut version finally became available in the 1990s on laserdisc and later on DVD, where it was double-billed with HOUSE OF EXORCISM.