Regarded as Mario Bava's most personal and unconventional film, Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il diavolo) is a diabolical thriller flavored with the dreadful imagery and tormenting logic of an endless nightmare.
Elke Sommer stars as a tourist in Spain who, upon seeing the image of a bald, grinning devil in an ancient fresco, wanders away from her group and finds herself drawn into a confounding labyrinth of mystery--lured ever deeper by a mysterious figure (Telly Savalas) who may in fact be the fresco's Satan made flesh.
After some distributors found Lisa and the Devil too mystifying for release, producer Alfredo Leone (with Bava's uncredited assistance) hired veteran actor Robert Alda, shot additional scenes, and transformed Lisa into The House of Exorcism, capitalizing on the popularity of demon possession films. While sharing much of the same material, the films have come to be looked upon as two distinct entities, beautifully illuminating the stylistic diversity of the Bava/Leone partnership.
As with Ferroni's 'Night of the Devils' and Polselli's 'Black Magic Rites,' Mario Bava's 'Lisa and the Devil' is yet another fine example of the transitional stage in Italian horror cinema — the move from classic gothic sensibilities to graphic giallos and zombie mayhem. As one of the final films made by the legendary, prolific filmmaker (He made two more theatrical features before passing away in 1980), 'Lisa' can be somewhat confusing and baffling, but the Poe-esque style and Hammer Horror overtones keep it afloat. Bava tells this weird tale about repressed desires and the supernatural caught in the middle of a soap-opera melodrama with an elegant, baroque beauty that's mesmerizing. With animated and enchanting cinematography by Cecilio Paniagua, the director displays a great deal of creative freedom and panache.
Telly Savalas stars as the titular devil, but named Leandro and working as butler to a wealthy Spanish family. Our first introduction to the actor is through a hilarious scene where a tour group gawks at a fresco depicting the devil with a woman over his shoulders. The portrait resembles Savalas — shaved head, mole in the left cheek and all. His memorable portrayal here is just around the same time his career was taking off because of his soon-to-be famous role as Kojak. As the Prince of Darkness, his place is more like the Tempter and collector of evildoers than a malevolent force corrupting the souls of the innocent. Part of the confusion in the plot, which Bava co-wrote with producer Alfredo Leone from a story by four other writers, is precisely his involvement with the house and a family seemingly haunted by past evil deeds. Is he at the center of the mystery, or a witness the aberrant behavior, waiting for his chance to collect?
When our heroine, the eponymous Lisa, played terrifically by Elke Sommer, arrives at the mansion, we're left to wonder about her relationship to the mother and son (Alida Valli and Alessio Orano), who appear to recognize her. There is also some ghostly figure (Espartaco Santoni) which keeps materializing and professing his love for her. Throwing another wrench into the mystery is a histrionic subplot about an aristocrat couple (Sylva Koscina and Eduardo Fajardo) and their driver (Gabriele Tinti). But in spite of this somewhat perplexing plot, Bava amazingly manages to push the story forward with strange surreal images hinting that all those involved are trapped in some kind of elaborate, nightmarish purgatory. There's a good deal that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but Bava's hypnotic visual style keeps audiences glued to the screen. And when it comes to Italian gothic horror cinema, that's usually seen as more than enough. (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
Unable to sell Bava's bizarre supernatural vision in overseas markets, producer Alfredo Leone convinced a reluctant director to give his film a face-lift. In an attempt to capitalize on the success of Friedkin's 'Exorcist,' Leone added an exorcism twist to the plot and several more scenes to the script. The experiment turned into a huge fiasco, with Bava pretty much wanting nothing to do with the new production and removing his name from the credits. Left to finish the project on his own, Leone directed new footage with Sommer and Robert Alda while also butchering almost a half hour from the original, including the beginning and the ending. This American version came to be called 'The House of Exorcism' and directing credits went to the pseudonym Mickey Lion.
Unfortunately, the attempt to attract international audiences did not work. In fact, Leone's changes turned the film into an even more confusing mess, as it shows a possessed Lisa acting like a near-forgery of Friedkin's horror masterpiece, down to the neon-green projectile vomit. Alda plays the priest trying to save her soul and combat the evil presence. It's funny because of how blatant it is, but also perplexing because it doesn't flow very well with Bava's original vision. However, I admit that I actually enjoy the idea of that vision as some kind surreal nightmare serving as Lisa's subconscious prison, meaning she's trapped in her own imagination controlled by Savalas character while seemingly possessed to the outside world. But in the end, this heavily-edited alternate version is a vastly inferior movie to Bava's original film and really can't be watched as anything more than a curiosity. (Movie Rating: 2.5/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics brings 'Lisa & the Devil/The House of Exorcism' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc inside a standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers are asked which version they prefer to watch. After making the selection, the main menu changes accordingly with a static photo, music and different special features.
'Lisa & the Devil' meet Blu-ray with an attractive AVC-encoded transfer that shows excellent contrast and definition. Given the movie's age, the print is in very good condition, but it's clear little time was spent on a proper restoration. Dirt and white specks are not only evident throughout but also abundant and a tad distracting. A few frames about midway into the film expose some discoloration, scratches, and possibly a bit of decay. Otherwise, the 1.78:1 image looks great with deep, rich blacks and a bold, animated color palette. Fine object and textural details are sharp with clean, distinct lines of the architecture and the baroque furniture.
'House of Exorcism' arrives in similar condition, with scratches, dirt and white speck everywhere. However, between the two flicks, this movie takes the short end of the stick. Although the encode shows strong contrast and brightness levels with great clarity, there are several poorly-resolved scenes with noticeable discoloration as well. In the end, Bava's original cut is the better of the two.
Like the video, the audio arrives in good condition but also shows some minor problems. Aside from the ADR not always being in perfect sync with the image, the uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack comes with a few pops, noises and hissing in the background. It's very low and negligible but audible nonetheless. The mid-range is well-balanced with a decent sense of space and presence though not very extensive and noticeably clips in the higher frequencies. There's not much bass to speak, yet it's adequate, if only slightly. Separate from the ADR issues, vocals are very well-prioritized in the center, and while the soundstage is nothing special, the overall lossless mix is passable and enjoyable.
Interestingly, the uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack for 'House of Exorcism' arrives with slightly better quality. The ADR work might be a tad more of a nuisance, but dialogue reproduction in general remains strong. Low bass is still wanting, but dynamics and acoustics exhibit excellent range between the highs and mids. In fact, the final moments push hard into the upper frequencies without distortion, delivering a spacious soundstage with great clarity and detail. Between the two, this high-rez track impresses just a bit more.
One of Mario Bava's more controversial films, 'Lisa and the Devil' follows a young woman trapped in nightmarish game concocted by Telly Savalas as the devil. Its controversy comes from producer Alfredo Leone heavily editing and restructuring Bava's original gothic vision in order to attract an international audience and calling it 'The House of Exorcism.' Comparing the two makes for an amusing study, but ultimately, Bava's original film is superior. The Blu-ray comes with passable picture quality but a better audio presentation. Supplements are disappointingly light, but the overall package is one that fans will happily want.