4/9/09

B.L.O.G Presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)

As Good Friday and Easter bear down on us, it’s a good time to remember that God could amount to nothing if it wasn’t for his arch nemesis The Devil. It is said that the Devil takes on many forms to tempt the hearts of men…and women, and this is most certainly true. For the Devil must have his due, and you loyal Lair-ers must have your B.L.O.G entry for this week. So I am devilishly proud to introduce tonight’s Beautiful Lady of Genre…..
German born Elke got her start in film after winning a beauty contest while on vacation in Italy. From there she starred in several Italian and German productions and eventually made a name for herself as a European sex symbol. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking, and many non-genre fans will recognize Elke from her role in the Peter Sellers classic A Shot in the Dark. She continued to work in films both in Europe and America, and in 1972, she made her first film with the Italian horror maestro Mario Bava when she starred in Baron Blood. Off the success of that film, Bava enlisted Sommer for yet another, a moody an atmospheric work of suspense. What Bava did not know was that his own work would fall into the clutches of Old Scratch, but more on that later. For now let’s sit back and enjoy…..

Lisa and the Devil (1973) starring Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Alessio Orano, and Alda Valli. Directed by Mario Bava. 

While traveling across Spain with her friend, Lisa (Sommer) decides to tour a church where she sees a fresco showing Satan harvesting souls to take back to hell. She is soon distracted by music coming from an antique shop and splits off from the group to check it out. While browsing in the shop, she encounters a bald man with the same profile as the painting of Satan, who seems to be purchasing a mannequin of a mustached man. Her nerves frazzled, Lisa steps back out onto the Spanish streets only to become hopelessly lost. 

After encountering the bald man from the store on the streets and then a man who looked like the mannequin, Lisa finally finds safety when an affluent couple agrees to give her a ride. However their car breaks down in front of a large mansion, and they are forced to seek refuge there. Once inside they meet the strange blind Countess (Valli), her squirrelly son Max (Orano), and their butler, the bald man from the antique shop, Leandro (Savalas). Lisa soon finds herself caught up in the tangled history of the strange family, and Max begins to believe she is his long lost love come back to life. With each passing moment, Lisa’s stay becomes more dangerous, and it all may be the work of the Devil come to drag souls down to Hell. 

The Bugg Picture

Lisa and the Devil is a film which has a hellacious history of its own. Flopping in Italy at the time of its release and unable to find an American distributor, producer Alfredo Leone, who had given Bava money to make any project the director wished, began to convince Mario that they should do reshoots on the film. Bava finally acquiesced although he was dismayed by the graphic sexual and violent content that Leone wanted. It is said that Bava would do the setups for the scenes, and then leave the set letting Leone direct the footage. In the end with some 20 minutes of footage removed from the film and replaced with the new shots, the film was re-released as House of Exorcism in order to cash in on the success of The Exorcist. The film fared no better in this form and was quickly lambasted for being a blatant rip off. Sadly, the film that Bava made was not seen in the United States until years after his passing. In fact, for many years it was believed that the original film had been lost. 

That was not the case though, and though the magic of the DVD age we now have a magnificent transfer of the film which includes both the original and revamped versions. While I viewed both films, for the sake of brevity let’s just say that Alfredo Leone was a ham-fisted director, and the House of Exorcism is only enjoyable because of the wild abandon Ms. Sommer allows herself to go to during the possession scenes. Apart from that Lisa and the Devil, while not perfect, is a far superior film. 

What makes Lisa and the Devil a better film is that traditional earmark of Mario Bava’s work, the atmosphere. This film practically oozes a creepy vibe even during the early daytime shots of the Spanish streets. Once we are ensconced in the Countess’ creepy mansion with its gothic looks and strange unsettling décor, we are firmly into the world of suspense that Bava was creating. Working for the only time with cinematographer Cecilio Panigua (100 Rifles, The Hunting Party), the film maintains the style that fans of Bava’s work have become accustomed to, the incredible lighting and the play with light and shadow. What Panigua added to this mix is a wonderful sense of motion with the camera that moved just as slyly as the intricate plot. 

I think the reason many people are turned off by the film is that it is devilishly (pun intended) hard to follow. With no explanation of events or actions, the film leaves you guessing not only about the end, but one scene to the next. Each scene unfolds before the audience in a manner that leaves you as bewildered and confused as poor Lisa. There is very little that Mario Bava did unintentionally, and I truly believe this is done entirely on purpose. By the time the end rolls around, the dedicated viewer who has been hanging on every plot thread will find themselves rewarded by and ending that is both challenging and horrifying. 

As is usual with a complex script, without the correct actors it would be all for naught. Here Bava’s cast performs beautifully. Elke Sommer not only looks beautiful, but she also wonderfully transmits all the emotions that Lisa experiences. Paranoia, confusion, sadness, and abject terror all reflected in her performance so skillfully that it would do Ms. Sommer a disservice to dismiss her as simply a pretty face. Speaking of faces, Telly Savalas has to have one of the most recognizable mugs in show business. With a quiet menace, Savalas’ Leandro stalks each of his scenes, and in the hands of a less charismatic actor, the role could have felt overwrought and foolish. Instead, Savalas attracts the eye each time he is on screen, and not just because of his lollypop. That’s right a lollypop. It seems that in late 1972 Savalas had just quit smoking and was using a sucker to fend off the craving, and just as the sucker appeared in Kojak (which began filming the same year) it shows up here as a very strange touch. Alessio Orano and Alda Valli both fill their roles with enough vigor to sell their crazed dysfunctional family and add considerably to the unsettling tone of the film. 

I have almost no problems when it comes to this film, but I’m not sure that’s because I watched the far inferior House of Exorcism directly after. Either way, Lisa and the Devil is a very enjoyable film with an incredible history. While it is not among my personal top 5 Bava films (Twitch of a Death Nerve, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Blood and Black Lace, Baron Blood, and Black Sunday), it does come up with a strong enough performance that it would not be far behind those titles. If you have a chance to see this one, try and watch both it and it’s chopped up counterpart. Truly a unique experience and one I do recommend. 


The Bugg Rating 

Sadly, because Lisa and the Devil was never properly released, it has to trailer. Instead I give you the trailer for it's bizarre twin House of Exorcism 

2 comments:

  1. Yet another Bava flick I haven't seen in years. I have this one on VHS still, so I'm going to have to break it out of the vault soon. Your review is dead on by the way. Will watch it again as soon as I can

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the comment Steve. Bava is constantly one of my favorite filmmakers.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...