Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two movies from one source:
'Lisa and the Devil' and 'House of Exorcism'

One of the DVDs included in the "Mario Bava Collection, Vol. 2" contains two different versions of the same movie. (It can also be had as a stand-alone from

The first version is "Lisa and the Devil", which was a film that director Bava was given a completely free hand on after the commerical success of "Baron Blood." According to a number of sources, it was the film the he always wanted to make, the perfect expression of his vision through the craft he had spent decades honing.

And it was a tremendous flop.

"Lisa and the Devil" was such a such dud that it was only ever released theatrically in Spain, the country in which it was filmed--and then only in a single theater. No distributor was interested in picking it up, despite everyone who saw it at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival thinking it was an artistic masterpiece.

Two years after the failure of "Lisa and the Devil," producer Alfredo Leone set about to salvage his investment by re-editing it and adding scenes that gave the film an all-new exorcism plot in the hopes of riding the success of the "The Exorcist" (which was the first official blockbuster, ever). The revised film was released under the title "The House of Exorcism."

And it became an international box office hit.

"The House of Exorcism" has been described by some critics as a butchered version of as masterpiece. However, these same critics have a tendency to discuss Mario Bava with lots of hyperbole and using the word "genius" almost as frequently as "the" when writing about him. I am hesitant to trust any critic who describes Bava as a genius, so I am hesitant to take their word for the craptacular nature of Leone's re-cut. The more films from Bava I watch, the more I admire his command of cinematography and the visual language of film, but the overall packages that make up his movies are lacking. Most Bava films I've seen have tended toward the slap-dash and incoherent story-wise, as if he was putting together the films primarily to show off imagery. And, frankly, his movies too often call attention to the fact that he's doing something cool with the camera... he's too often doing things to just show off technique instead of doing things that serve the story for me to consider him a genius.

Here are review both "Lisa and the Devil" and "The House of Exorcism". The rating assigned at the top of this post is an average of the rating of the two films with some consideration for highly interesting commentary tracks.

As always, I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the Comments section. I'm interested in what others think about Bava's films in general, or these two films specifically.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Sylvia Koscina, Alessio Orano, and Alida Valli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Lisa (Sommer) is separated from her tour group and lost in the old section of Toledo, she is invited to spend the night on the large, walled estate of a reclusive noble woman (Valli). But who is the mustachioed stranger who is oddly familiar to Lisa, but who keeps calling her by the wrong name? Is it more than coincidence that Lisa crossed paths the household's only servant, Leandro (Savalas), just when she lost her way? And why do people start dying in the house? And why don't they stay dead?

So many questions will come to mind while you're watching "Lisa and the Devil." The answers to some of them seem to come into focus as the film progresses--Lisa has clearly been drawn into some bizarre haunting or the supernatural climax of some greater evil--but whatever starts to make sense is thrown into question by a "shock ending", which, like most shock endings doesn't really work because it's not quite supported by everything that led up to it. (It's a little better than most of them, but I think the film could have done without it, even if I can see how it harkens back to the beginning of the film and the image of the devil carrying off the sinful dead.)

This is a gorgeous-looking film that's well-acted and, although a bit slowly paced, is one that will engage your imagination and curiosity as it unfolds. It's also a movie that's surprisingly classical and literate in nature--it reminds me of the Edgar Ulmer's Karloff/Lugosi film "The Black Cat" from the 1930s, and it's full of references to classical art--and full of visual hints and clues that are never spelled out through any form of exposition. Watch the introduction of the Lehars and their driver... you know EXACTLY what's going on in that relationship even though nothing is said. It's a scene that's perfectly staged and acted. The same is true of the scene where Max (Alessio Orano) prepares to rape the unconscious Lisa. I think that's probably one of the creepiest bits of film I've ever seen.)

The film's imagery and pacing gives it a dreamlike quality that is highly effective here. From the moment Lisa "crosses the threshhold", every event, every image we see seems possessed with a deeper, hidden meaning and that a secret story is unfolding below and behind the surface. The broken watches, the odd clocks, the white rose, the blind mistress of the house, the servant who seems to be the one truly in control, Lisa herself... all of these things seem to be images that stand for something other than what is obvious. It's a very cool sensation, and it's one that Bava successfully maintains for most of the film. He doesn't even ruin the mood anywhere with the expected garish color gels or painfully overdone camera flourishes... part of this might be because he didn't serve as his own cinematographer on most of the film but it might also be that those critics who have described this film as Bava's masterpiece are not being hyperbolic. I'm still not convinced he was the genius some like to make him out to be, but I do think there is greatness present in this film. I also think that it was ahead of its time. If this film had been made and released twenty years later. in the 1990s when the direct-to-video market was flourishing, I think it would have been a huge hit. It is a movie that had no place in the 1970s film market, despite its excellence. (The "shock ending" after the film's main action has concluded is also a sign that the world was not ready for this movie. I can't say for sure that this was the first movie that was structured liked this, but it's definitely one of the earliest.)

By the way, the film also contains some of the sexiest non-nudity you're ever going to see in a slasher-film style death scene. Sylvia Koscina, who is remarkable for her habit of getting nude in movies, actually stays covered up here, but watch for scene where she gets bludgeoned to death by the red-robed killer. I'm sure you'll agree that she's ten times more gorgeous there than if she'd actually been flashing her boobs... and it's another instance of Bava getting something exactly right.

It's not just Mario Bava who is perhaps as good as he ever was in this film. Elke Sommer gives a great performance as Lisa, who may or may not be the ghost or reincarnation of Elena, a woman who brought doom upon a household some 100 years prior to the beginning of the film. I don't think I've never seen Sommer look so beautiful or be so convincing in a role. Telly Savalas is even better as the enigmatic Lehandro who is both servant and puppetmaster in the dreamworld that this film's characters exist in. I think Savalas probably gave the best performance of his career in this film; particularly impressive is the way he delivers some very lyrical stretches of dialogue that sound completely natural as he speaks them.

"Lisa and the Devil" is every bit the masterpiece it has been cracked up to be. The DVD release included as part of the "Mario Bava Collection Vol. 2" is the first release of the film that's been fully restored to the state that Bava intended it to be seen.

The House of Exorcism (1975)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Robert Alda, and Carmen Silva
Directors: Mickey Lion (aka Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone)
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After a young tourist (Sommer) is possessed and forced to live out horrors with her inner demons, a priest (Alda) undertakes the dangerous task to driving the evil from her soul.

If one doesn't try to apply story logic to this film, one can admire the relative seamlessness with which Leone's new sequences blend with Bava's original film. (Except for the bit in the antique shop. The owner changes completely in appearance from one shot to the next, and then changes back again at the end of the film; the original actor was plainly not available, and I guess Leone thought no one would notice.)

However, one cannot admire the way he gutted the artistry from "Lisa and the Devil". I understand what he did and why he did it. I understand that he is in the film industry and that he was in the business of making product that people wanted, but I still think it was a shame that the 1970s film audiences weren't ready for something as good as "Lisa and the Devil".

One also cannot describe "The House of Exorcism" as a good movie, no matter how generous one wants to be. It is completely incoherent storywise, and it wanders fairly aimlessly through its 94 minutes of running time. Although the acting is good--Sommer and Robert Alda both do fabulous jobs in the cheesy, overblown priest vs. possessing spirit scenes--it is being squandered on empty nonsense.

As I said earlier, the action in the mansion has been transferred to Lisa's soul eventhough it doesn't make sense as being treated as such. To make matters worse, while "Lisa and the Devil" ended in a strange and inscrutible way, this version just sort of stumbles and falls on its face at the end with no real resolution to Lisa's possession, nor any clear explation to why the priest things that exorcising demons in the house will cure her. (Yes, at the very end, Leone decides not to give us blow-by-blows on everything that's happening.)

Watching this film and "Lisa and the Devil" in close proximity to one another will give you some insight in how just a few cuts, rearranged scenes, and a few additional scenes can change one movie into something completely different. The transformation of a beautiful, mysterious ghost story into a sloppy, third-rate horror flick with a completely different storyline is an astonishing sight to behold, whether you're interested in the craft of filmmaking or just a lover of movies.

If you decide to check out "Lisa and the Devil"/"The House of Exorcism", make sure you take the time to watch "The House of Exorcism" a second time while listening to the commentary track by Alfred Leone and Elke Sommer. Leone's discussion of how and why the recut version of the film came to be is absolutely fascinating. (Actually, you might just want to skip straight to watching it with the commentary. You won't be missing much, because everything good you've already witnessed in "Lisa and the Devil".)

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