It has been awhile since I’ve written about Italian legend, Mario Bava. I have no idea why, but every so often images from his films dance through my mind and spin off into the ether. That’s the way phantasms work, I suppose. And now I have the troubled, confusing, and intoxicating Lisa and the Devil (1974) to add to my collection of Bava ghostery.
The film opened in Cannes in 1973, then played overseas the following year. Lisa, a languid, lurid, fever dream, was a dud. Producer Alfredo Leone and Bava’s burgeoning filmmaker son Lamberto shot and added exorcism footage of Lisa (all the rage at the time) while removing some of Papa Bava’s original film. Re-released in 1975 as The House of Exorcism, it too was dud. And bad.
Whereas Lisa and the Devil is not bad. In fact, it is quite good, different, and unique; the original incarnation flopped because even a marketing guru would have a hard enough time trying to describe it, let alone try and push the wares on the public. The remix flopped because it stinks.
So I, in all my smooth-brained glory, will try to describe and then decipher the strands of disconnected and warped synapses that make up Lisa and the Devil.
Toledo, Spain shines in the morning sun, as a group of tourists including Lisa (Elke Sommer) unload and wander the streets in search of local flavor. Lisa loses touch with her party, and finds herself facing strong winds and an ancient mural of Telly Savalas. (Great PR work, and this is even before Kojak!) Soon she is face to face with the face from the face, Leandro, a man-servant who carries mannequins around the square. He tries to engage her in conversation but she’s wary, flees, and catches a ride with a married couple and their chauffeur to the airport.
Except the car blows a hose and breaks down in front of… the estate Leandro works at. What a coincidence! Invited inside while the chauffeur tends to the jalopy (a big difference from the modern auto Lisa arrived in at the start of the film), Lisa finds herself and the clearly unhappy couple in the vast home of the Countess (Alida Valli), her bug eyed son Max (Alessio Orano), and of course Leandro.
Over the course of the evening, layers are peeled and the truth about the family is revealed- it turns out they’re all layers. It’s up to you the viewer to decide where to stop peeling.
Is Lisa and the Devil a horror film? An erotic thriller? A Groupon? Possibly! It offers up logic upended and unending, constantly twisting on itself, toggling between reality and a heightened dreamscape. Here, Bava’s ornateness serves a thematic purpose as a gateway to the mind -- but when it is employed for the lush as well as the lay, it is hard to tell which it represents.
Just another reminder that Bava was above all else, a storyteller; and here, his tale is not only shown but said, with some pithy dialog mostly delivered wonderfully by Savalas and the couple who wandered off the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Which is nice, because we really settle into a “getting to know you” scenario once we hit the house. Frankly I loved this part of the film, because it really gives Orano a chance to go free range; he comes across as a young Oliver Reed with better cardio, never less than lust/rage-filled at every turn. Our Countess turns out to be a not particularly grief-stricken widow. The chauffeur is involved with Woolf. Lisa looks exactly like Elena, a woman who was having an affair with the Countess’ husband. Both are dead. Yet Lisa keeps getting visits from him, claiming she’s Elena. Meanwhile, Leandro keeps moving around mannequins. The ones that look like our cast.
Can you dig it? On first glance, Lisa and the Devil seems made up as it goes along; one expects narrative confusion from Lucio Fulci, but of the Bavas I’ve seen this one seems apart from the rest -- a chance for the sound and vision to reel around before landing where it does.
And where is that? Who knows? Once the dust settles, you’re left with a woman who is possibly dead and in hell, or is dreaming. By the same token, it’s the story of a devil just trying to keep his shit together, one lolipop at a time. It makes no difference to me; in my mind, the dance carries on.
Lisa and the Devil is available on Blu-ray from Kino as part of The Mario Bava Collection.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: MAUSOLEUM (1983)