Once again I am participating in the October Horror Movie a Day challenge. To start the month off, I decided on my favorite of Mario Bava’s works, the 1973 surrealist classic Lisa and the Devil. Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas play the two respective roles, and we meet them both shortly into the opening of the film. Lisa the tourist gets separated from her group and ends up into some type of specialty shop where she meets Leandro (Savalas) buying a life like mannequin. Leandro looks very much like a painting of the devil that Lisa and her friend saw in a mural in the townsquare. Unable to find her way back to her tour group, Lisa takes refuge with a group of strangers (including bombshell Sylvia Koscina) whose car breaks down in front of an old castle where Leandro is the butler. What unfolds is a hauntingly beautiful Gothic romance fever dream where sex, death, and reincarnation terrorize the castles occupants with their own obsessions.
The Countess (Alida Valli, herself a Baroness in real life and one of the witches in Suspiria) and her son Maximillian (Alessio Orano) are perfect in their roles as the castle’s owners. Dark secrets are being held between the mother and son that come to light as the strangers begin to be stalked and murdered in the castle. Alessio Orano is perfect in a physical sense for the role of the tortured, passionate, and haughty Maximilian. Haunted by his former lover Elena whom he believes Lisa is the reincarnation of, Maximilian makes a play to rid himself of Elena and bed Lisa. It’s difficult to say if Maximilian is the villain of the piece or Byronic hero. We learn Elena was murdered by Maximilian after she slept with the Countess’s husband Carlos (who is now the mannequin we’ve seen Leandro buying at the opening of the film) to avenge himself, and his mother, against her. While I have issues with Orano’s vocal acting, the way he conveys his character through facial expressions is amazing. It’s very believable that he is a young man, trapped in time, and driven mad by his actions. There is a powerful scene where Maximilian burns a picture of Elena and stares at it while it burns while the main theme of the movie plays on. The anger and sadness of his eyes sell the scene; it’s an impotent action, no matter what he does he is still going to be obsessed by the specter of his late lover.
Mario Bava is the king of Italian horror and this is his masterpiece. Lisa and the Devil is one of his final films and what Bava saw as a last chance to make a name for himself. Between this and Rabid Dogs, Bava went out swinging for the fences before his death in 1980. Unfortunately, it would be decades later before these two films found their audience. Lisa and the Devil is Bava at his most pure. The set design and cinematography are top notch; part of the joy of the film is just taking in the lush decorations of the castle. There is a sense of grandeur and class that, unfortunately, is no longer (or rarely) seen in films today. The 1920’s style of the decor also helps suggest a sense of timelessness, and the characters displacement in the “modern” day. Equally deft as the set design is Bava’s cinematography. Everything is shot perfectly to either sell the story or focus on some detail in the castle. There is a scene in the car on the way to the castle where not a word is spoken but we learn Sophie (Sylvia Koscina) is cheating on her husband with the chauffeur, and the husband knows about it. What is unclear is how much he really cares.
What one the things I really love about Lisa and the Devil is it’s sense of playful malevolence. Telly Savalas is amazing as Leandro, who is orchestrating this little passion play from behind the scenes. Leandro seems almost sorry for these people forced to go through this event time and time again, but it doesn’t stop him from playing his part, and playing it well. There are scenes of him grumbling about his duties as a butler that we know are bits of Satan self-amusing himself. Leandro is fully in control of the situation (we realize how much so in the film’s finale) and he is character acting that he is a put upon family help.
Unfortunately, Lisa and the Devil never did find it’s audience upon release. It was therefore re-edited with an absurd plot about Lisa being possessed by Satan to cash in on the possession craze left in wake of The Exorcist. This cut of the film, titled House of Exorcism, features some of the sex and violence edited out of the original version and has new footage of Elkie Sommer cursing and foaming at the mouth. I’ve never watched the entire cut of this, every time I try to I end up laughing at the whole thing and cutting it off.