His catalogue then embraced horror and thrillers (Black Sabbath, Baron Blood), science fiction (Planet of the Vampires), westerns, spy-fi (Danger: Diabolik) and action films (Hercules at the Center of the Earth). He is also credited with kick starting the 'giallo' thriller sub-genre in 1962 with La ragazza che sapeva troppo (aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and Sei donne per l'assasino (aka Blood and Black Lace) in 1964, both of which would have a huge influence on directors such as Dario Argento.
As writer Troy Howarth notes, "No matter what the subject matter, Bava's obsession with key themes like the deceptive nature of appearances and the destructive capacity of human nature shone through, and his wholly distinctive visual style endeared him to a generation of film fanatics."
... a breathtakingly visual expression of Bava's ideas
With Bava seeing the film as a chance to capture a personal summation of his achievements as a film maker, location filming took place in Toledo (the cathedral is featured heavily in the opening scene), the backstreets of an Italian village, Faleria, and the interiors included a villa in the Frascati region of Rome and a semi-derelict castle on the outskirts of Madrid.
The Faleria location, as Tim Lucas notes, has a direct connection with Bava's earlier film Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966) which not only used the same village's winding back alleys to depict its night time environs of Karmingen but also reflects the premise and characters of Lisa and the Devil with its Gothic stylings including a signature shot of a malevolent entity looking through a window, hand pressed against the glass.
It comes as no surprise then that the writers of Kill, Baby... Kill!, Romano Migliorni and Roberto Natale, developed the first drafts of Lisa and the Devil as The House of the Devil which Leone and Bava then worked on together, with the final script credited to them both. Natale was not best pleased about his missing credit on the film as can be evidenced in the documentary on this release.
German actress Elke Sommer also returned from Bava's Baron Blood to play the eponymous Lisa Reiner, a tourist who alights from a bus in Toldeo and is engulfed in a highly charged, logic-defying nightmare. She finds herself trapped in a mansion where multiple murders, death, reincarnation and a hundred year old necrophilic Oedipal triangle between a son, his wife and his mother are fused with a mise-en-scène full of symbolism and "allusions to religion, mythology and art history". (1)
Sadly Lisa and the Devil only ever played at the Paris Theatre during the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and received a limited theatrical release in Spain. It failed to pick up a distributor and the film was deemed a failure when Leone struggled to sell it. In 1973, Leone persuaded Bava to shoot entirely new scenes to include in the film in response to the success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), which was becoming influential on an entire sub-genre of horror and, at Leone's urging, Bava apparently flew to London to see a screening.
Bava agreed to adding the new scenes but he refused to oversee any sequences that featured profanity and nudity when Leone planned to introduce a framing story, riddled with cliches of the 'demonic possession' sub-genre, about the Elke Sommer character's possession by the devil and a visiting priest, played by Robert Alda, who comes to exorcise the demon in a Rome hospital. Apparently, Bava rehearsed and set up the shots and then left the set and placed the direction of the new scenes in Leone's hands. He even attempted to persuade Sommer not to perform in such scenes.
Photographed by Cecilio Paniagua, Lisa and the Devil is often a breathtakingly visual expression of Bava's ideas. The plot is elliptical, non-linear and bizarre and begins with Lisa wandering away from the group of tourists in Toldeo who have been drawn to look at a fresco of the Devil carrying away the dead. The Devil resembles the film's other star, Telly Savalas and she encounters him, as Leandro, in an antique shop. There, he oversees the construction of a dummy and she briefly sees the Devil of the fresco superimposed over Leandro's face while an ornate music box, symbolic of the medieval danse macabre, plays in the background.
After wandering through the back streets in an increasingly agitated state, Lisa again encounters Leandro carrying the dummy and the music box. The Devil and the dummy are both reincarnated figuratively as a reflection of the fresco, and the dummy is transformed into the flesh and blood form of Carlo.
Carlo (Espartaco Santoni) greets Lisa as "Elena" and she, confused by this stranger's familiarity, knocks him to the ground. Again this foreshadows the reincarnation and familial anxiety sub-plots that are revealed towards the end of the film and Bava emphasises a close up of Carlo's broken pocket watch, a recurring image suggesting a temporal fracture is at the heart of the film's disjointed and absurd dream world. As Tim Lucas notes in the commentary, Bava's visual lexicon takes in paintings, clocks, mirrors and other artifacts that "often prefigure a triumph over time and allusions to reincarnation". (2)
The fracture in time is evident when the film cuts from day to night and sees Lisa, now lost in the back streets, acquire a lift with a married couple Francis and Sophia (Eduardo Fajardo and Sylva Koscina). After the car breaks down, their chauffeur George (Gabriele Tinti) takes them to an isolated mansion and they are inculcated within the household overseen by a blind Contessa (Alida Valli) and her neurotic, psychologically unhinged son Maximillian (Alessio Orano). The rather beautiful Orano, sporting an outrageously winged white shirt, plays a role originally intended for Anthony Perkins. Perkins presence would perhaps have over-emphasised the elements of Psycho played out here between domineering mother and psychopathic son.
As the film progresses, the mysterious and ghostly Carlo reappears at the mansion and we understand that Sophia and George are lovers and Maximillian has the hots for Lisa because she is the incarnation of a lost love, Elena. Leandro, now a lollipop sucking butler to the Contessa (this was before Savalas adopted it as his Kojak motif), is collecting mannequins of each of the principal characters to construct the danse macabre, a symbolic last supper for the souls in the mansion before the Devil carries them off.
The film increasingly becomes hallucinatory and the marooned characters start killing each other off, each character symbolic of a transgression that becomes the Devil's due. As Lisa descends into a dream, she is plunged into the past and manifests as the Elena sought by the mysterious Carlo. Bava reveals that Lisa is both the reincarnation of Carlo's wife and Max's lover as the family's sexually tainted past bubbles to the surface.
... death and time dominate, doppelgangers and substitutes litter the film
Lisa reawakens in the derelict remains of Elena's bedroom and, emerging back into present day Toldeo, the local children believe her to be a ghost from a hundred years ago. But her trauma is far from over... The Devil/Death has been chasing Elena ever since she evaded him and, even reincarnated as Lisa, she will not escape again.
Kevin Heffernan sees the danse macabre symbolism - in the music box, the mannequins and the group of characters - as central to the film and Leandro is emphatically a Devil/trickster figure, a symbol of death, who "summons a group of humans to their fate in order of their earthly prominence" and where the music box and its circling wooden figures reflect the criss-crossing of the beginning and end of time and the collection of representative mannequins, flesh and wax gathered by Leandro in the mansion. (3)
The Dance of Death, the collecting of bodies and the arrangement of souls are familiar motifs in Bava's other films, such as Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), and the dance is visualised in the arrival at the mansion as the guests walk in a line through the grounds, reflected in a lake as they cross a bridge or in the last supper codification at the end of the film when Max joins his fellow souls at the table. As Tim Lucas notes, Bava's obsession with duplicates and mannequins also reflects a childhood memory of his father Eugenio's workshop where he would carve likenesses of the saints and where he found a dummy in a workshop drawer. (4)
Death and time dominate, doppelgangers and substitutes litter the film - the production design by art director Nedo Azzini and set decorator Rafael Ferri makes use of legions of stuffed animals and birds, sculptural features such as cupids, lions, female figurines and various clocks and mirrors. The mansion is encrusted with funereal Art Nouveau glassware, candelabra, statuary and ornately framed portraits. Characters also gaze into mirrors or are reflected in surfaces, a symbol of the thin membrane between reality, dream and the temporal ellipsis that the film constantly plays with.
For example, the twin figures of Lisa and Sophia, both wearing yellow, are shown as reflections before they physically enter adjoining scenes. Sophia is superimposed over a chiming grandfather clock and then her tryst with chauffeur George is framed in the open lid of a silver cigarette case while Lisa is seen doing her make up in a mirror and inadvertently knocking a pocket watch onto the floor, the broken time piece recalling her first encounter with Carlo and the crossed fingers underlining the split in time at the centre of the film.
Later, Maximillian is shown bringing a slice of chocolate cake to Elena's bedroom by opening a mirrored door to the room, a lover entering a transgressive past that is meant to be forgotten ("did you know he was back...? I will not let him come between us again") and a portal into his own tortured mind and soul which is given full vent in the next scene in Carlo's study.
Leandro is also captured as a reflection in a pool of spilled wine after a bottle falls to the floor during the dinner, suggestive of the spilled blood that will decorate the rest of the film, and he is seen again on the bridge over the lake where Bava pans down from him to the water as he throws his lollipop into it, shattering momentarily the depiction of his tricky, elusive nature.
The notion of deceptive appearances and of reflections is echoed in the blindness of the Contessa, particularly in the scene where Leandro describes Lisa's face to her as she tentatively reaches out to feel the profile of her guest. She is an apt symbol of the surrounding decay of the gloomy mansion and gardens, trying to maintain the fiction that nothing has happened even though her blindness could be symbolised as a punishment for the transgressions of her strange family.
This surreal, oneiric film is also brimming with Bava's virtuoso control of the camera and editing. At the dinner in the mansion he goes for a vertiginous overhead shot of the table and the dinner guests, another visual reformulation of the carved figures on the danse macabre music box which is repeated at the end of the film when Leandro's collection of souls is gathered together.
During an intensely melodramatic moment, as Max burns a photograph of Elena, Bava jump cuts back and forth between the photo and Lisa to emphasise the connection between the living and the dead. Bava uses a circling camera and lushly romantic palette in Lisa's regression into the past where she, as Elena, meets Carlo in the grounds of the mansion and, finally, there are many beautifully lit and impressive tracking shots and cuts as various characters meet their doom in the corridors of the decaying mansion. The latter were clearly an influence on Argento's Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) as was Bava's penchant for intense colour and use of primary reds, greens and blues.
The film's sepulchral intensity is perhaps best achieved in the very disturbing scene where Max, having anaesthetised Lisa, takes unsuccessful sexual advantage of her as she lies naked next to the rotting remains of Elena. This attempted rape scene is suffused with necrophilic allusions and Max's behaviour suggests of the necrophile what he "truly desires is to hold onto something transitory, the illusion of beauty" in the face of his domination over an inert body.
Sexually frustrated, Max wants to regain his male power over her and demands Elena/Lisa remains as "permanently and eternally unchanging" as the mannequins the Devil composes for each guest at the mansion. The shot of the frozen clock in this scene seems to underline Max's desire to hold on to his encounter with Lisa, to make time stand still long enough for him to deal with his sexual inadequacy. (5) Elena, of course, has the last laugh in this remarkable sequence.
Most of the performances hit the right note and, in particular, Telly Savalas is wonderfully sardonic and mercurial as the lollipop sucking figure of Death. Sommer exudes serenity, innocence, bafflement and terror as Lisa is overtaken by the dark dream of her situation and becomes a Sleeping Beauty trapped by destiny. Alessio Orano is perfect as the son trapped by his own spiral into psychopathic destruction and the Contessa allows the magnificent Alida Valli to effectively convey the decay of maternal and female power in the family. These and Bava's control of light, colour, camera and editing techniques are given greater resonance in the distinctive score and its use of the pop variations of Concerto D'Aranjuez by the Paul Muriat Orchestra and Carlo Savina's title composition To Mirna, dedicated to his wife.
Lisa and the Devil is a conundrum, a beautifully styled psychological and symbolic contemplation of death, mortality and sexuality. Don't expect copious blood letting (try The House of Exorcism for some gorier material not included in this television cut) or Gothic horror elements such as vampires and monsters. Mind you, some of the murders towards the end of the film are pretty vicious and graphic in and of themselves. This is a personal film for Bava, his exploration of a waking dream steeped in death that skews the horror film into art cinema and is a reflection of his own work, summarising, recreating and referencing his back catalogue.
(1) Kevin Heffernan, Art House or House of Exorcism? in Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Policitcs, ed. Jeffrey Sconce.
(2) Tim Lucas commentary, Lisa and the Devil DVD
(3) Kevin Heffernan, Art House or House of Exorcism? in Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Policitcs, ed. Jeffrey Sconce.
(4) Tim Lucas commentary, Lisa and the Devil DVD
(5) Anthony Ferguson, The Sex Doll - A History
About the transfer
There are definite differences between the footage of Lisa and the Devil in the original film and the The House of Exorcism. Both are enjoyable viewing experiences but the former looks grainier and slightly less defined. This may have something to do with the origins of the version of Lisa and the Devil that exists, presumably a dupe of the cut prepared for television after Leone sold the negative to Allied Artists. The transfer on Lisa and the Devil is plagued intermittently with white specks of dust and dirt and the layers of contrast are inconsistent, with some scenes offering a charcoal grey instead of a robust deep black. However, colour is represented very well and is rather sumptuous on both versions of the film. Detail is slightly better on the Lisa and the Devil footage in The House of Exorcism.
The House of Exorcism (1:31:26) Three and a half weeks additional shooting with Bava and his son, Lamberto, allowed Leone to frame Bava's original material for Lisa and the Devil as an extended flashback from the scene of the possessed Lisa ranting and railing in the back of an ambulance and in a hospital room. As a trashy exploitation flick this is enjoyable in its own way and Sommer's vomiting, throwing up frogs and her use of some very colourful language are now rather hilarious. You have to hand it to her for putting in a bravura performance in the new footage. However, it does no favours to Bava's elliptical, ambiguous and dream-like poem of a film although Bava and Leone should receive some kudos for returning to the villa in Frascati to shoot the final sequences of Exorcism and tie them together with Lisa and the Devil.
Audio Commentary on Lisa and the Devil
This is detailed exploration of the film by Bava biographer and expert Tim Lucas, originally produced for the 2007 Anchor Bay DVD release, and is packed with detail about the development of the film, Bava's personal investments in it, the symbolism of the imagery as well as biographical details about the cast and crew. An absorbing listen.
Audio Commentary on The House of Exorcism
From the 2000 DVD release. Producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer discuss the production of Lisa and the Devil, Bava's humour at the expense of his American producer, the influence of Bava's father on the film ("we built a film around these mannequins, around his father's statues"), Sommer's involvement in the film and Leone and Bava's failure to sell the Lisa and the Devil. He recalls sending Bava to London to see The Exorcist, hiring new writers and bringing Sommer and Bava back to film new material for The House of Exorcism. Leone defends his decisions all the way but acknowledges that Bava disagreed with them. An equally fascinating listen that sheds much light on the making of both films.
Introduction to Lisa and the Devil (3:31)
Author and critic Alan Jones describes the film as a "subtle and personal masterpiece" and notes the influences of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, Lovecraft and Dostoyevsky on a "lushly lyrical" film. The film's failure was, according to the very superstitious Bava, down to the purple dress worn by Alida Valli.
Introduction to The House of Exorcism (2:56)
Alan Jones poses the question: "judge which one you think is the better version for yourself" and praises the re-shot and re-edited exploitation film as among "the finest achievements that Italian horror has to offer." I'd have to disagree.
The Exorcism of Lisa (25:05)
Assistant Director Lamberto Bava, screenwriter Roberto Natale, Roy Bava and Alberto Pezzotta discuss the making of both versions of the film. Plenty of background about the survival of Lisa and the Devil beyond its re-editing as The House of Exorcism and many reflections on Bava's craft as a director, the development of the film, its nostalgia for a Gothic sensibility that was already passé in the 1970s and its narrative influences from, among others, Klossowksi's 'The Baphomet'.
Deleted Scene (2:35)
The Sylva Koscina and Gabriele Tinti sex scene in its full, soft porn glory and the inclusion of which Bava very much disapproved of.
Unfinished Lisa and the Devil trailer (3:19)
A trailer in progress, abruptly halted when no distributor picked the film up, and it remains an interesting curiosity as the film never got a full theatrical release.
The House of Exorcism trailer (3:18)
Hilarious. "Don't break my balls, priest!"
The House of Exorcism U Cert trailer (1:15)
The same trailer without all the effing and blinding. Plus, booming Bill Mitchell voice over!
The House of Exorcism Radio spot (00:59)
Bill Mitchell earning his pay packet again. "Rated R. Under 17 not admitted without parent!"
Featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
Featuring new writing on the film by critic and author Stephen Thrower illustrated with original stills and archive posters
Lisa and the Devil - 1974
The House of Exorcism - 1975
Euro America Produzioni Cinematografiche - Leone International - Roxy Film - Tecisa
Arrow Video Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD Edition / FCD757 / Released 4 February 2013 / Cert: 18 / 1.85:1 / Colour / High Definition Blu-ray (AVC 1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of both versions of the film: Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism producer’s cut / Optional English and Italian audio on Lisa and the Devil / English SDH subtitles on both features and a new English subtitle translation of the Italian Audio of Lisa and the Devil / Region B/2