Lisa and the Devil (and its alternate version, The House of Exorcism) focuses on a young lady named Lisa Ranier, who I am led to believe is an American, although why she speaks with a German accent is anybody’s guess. A tourist in Toledo (the one in Spain), she finds herself undergoing a series of misadventures after being separated from her tour group, which culminate in her being stuck in a crumbling mansion with an aristocratic couple and the mansion’s residents, a strange old woman and her dashing young son. Who is the mustached man who seems to vex Lisa at every turn? What is the terrible secret the family is hiding? Why does the family’s butler seem to be following her?
And more importantly, why should I care?
Lisa and the Devil
Italy. 95 minutes. Directed by Mario Bava, 1973. Starring Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Alida Valli, Alessio Orano, Sylvia Koscina, Gabriele Tinti, Eduardo Fajado.
Yes, it’s another one of those beautifully shot, logically incoherent, highly onieric, probably symbolic waking-nightmare movies I’m so damn fond of (he said, his words dripping with sarcasm). It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re made by Lynch, Bergman, Jodorowsky, Argento, Fulci or Rollin; this is a mode of filmmaking I’m never going to be particularly fond of.
At the very least, I need to have something I can engage with. Lisa is directed by Mario Bava, so you know you’re going to get some pretty pictures. They’re nice, and since cinema is a visual medium their importance shouldn’t be underestimated, but I do need a bit more than that. Story and character are what I want, preferably both, but I can do with one over the other. Since Lisa is dreamlike, you know it’s not going to have a strong story, so it’s down to the characters to carry the damn thing.
The title character is the most problematic. It’s hard to imagine a less compelling protagonist in any of the films I’ve seen recently. Lisa doesn’t feel much like a character–she’s more like a pawn on a chessboard, with all the personality to match. It’s not simply that she lacks agency in the story–I could describe her as being more reactive than proactive, which is true, but my irritation with her goes beyond that. If she were merely reacting, she’d still be doing something. A lot of the time it doesn’t seem like she’s actually doing anything–she’s moving around and talking, sure, but none of her actions seem to mean much. As a result, she just floats through the film but never seems part of it…and, it has to be said, she only vaguely seems aware of the world around her. The most ludicrous aspect of the film’s final sequence (in which Lisa doesn’t realize that she’s entirely alone on a passenger jet until the damn thing is well up in the air and on its way to wherever it’s going) is a symptom of this. If Lisa’s experience is meant to be dreamlike…well, Bava succeeds at that. If it’s meant to be interesting, he fails.
In the face of such weak characterization, casting is almost irrelevant. German sex kitten Elke Sommer (Lisa) is pretty to look at, and it’s nice to see Aida Valli (Suspiria, Eyes Without a Face) in anything, but their talents are pretty much wasted, as are the rest of the ensemble’s. The one exception is Telly “Kojak” Savalas as the creepy butler, who doesn’t have much to do in terms of the story, but at least Savalas attacks the role with gusto, along with a certain amount of self-parody. (He even has the goddamned lollipop.) He’s the most watchable thing on display.
I guess Lisa and the Devil has something of a cult following, and good for it–although I have to admit, I don’t really understand why. Maybe there’s something here I’m not getting. I liked Savalas. But beyond that, it was simply dull.
The House of Exorcism
Italy. 91 minutes. Directed by “Mickey Lion” (pseudonym for Mario Bava & Alfredo Leone), 1975. Cast is the same as Lisa and the Devil, with the addition of Robert Alda.
How could Lisa and the Devil possibly be more tedious and incoherent?
Apparently it a major commercial flop in Italy, and when producer Alfredo Leone shopped the film at Cannes, he couldn’t find anyone willing to buy it for the American market. Leone’s response to this was to throw Bava off the project, shoot a bunch of new footage with Elke Sommer and Robert Alda, and use the new footage to repurpose the film into a tale of demonic possession: The House of Exorcism.
I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that House is not an improvement over Lisa. Leone cut about twenty minutes out of Bava’s original film; for the most part, I didn’t notice the cuts. The most notable exception was the ending, easily the best thing about Lisa. Sadly, none of the footage where Lisa just sits around like a frog on a log instead of saying things like “Why do keep calling me Elena, which is not my name?” and “It’s 1973, I’m a grown woman, and it’s not for Maximilian, whom I just met, to tell you whether I’m staying or leaving” or even “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” was excised, thus neatly not solving Lisa’s biggest problem, to wit, the irritating passivity of its protagonist.
Leone’s footage turns Bava’s into a flashback, a story Sommer tells Alda (playing a conveniently-placed Catholic priest) about something that once happened to her, which is kinda weird, considering that, in the flashback, Leandro (Telly Savalas’s character) remembers things that happened between himself and Lisa right before Alda’s character stepped into the picture. So while the implication is that the events of Lisa happened in the past, the clumsy editing actually implying that the two sets of footage are happening at the same time.
The new frame story is, if anything, even duller than that of Lisa, and mainly consist of Sommer screaming epic bouts of profanity (“Get your shitty hands off me, asslicker!”) and puking on Alda while he tries to keep calm and exorcise whatever it is that’s got a hold of Lisa. Most of it comes off as a limp attempt to rip off The Exorcist, although at one point Alda hallucinates a hot naked woman, and towards the end, Sommer vomits up a frog. None of it helps bring any degree of coherence to the finished product, but I mean, wow. Elke Sommer urps up a frog and it flops to the floor. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere.
So, yes, The House of Exorcism is inferior to Lisa and the Devil. And yet…I respect it, to a small degree, because I have never seen a frog crawl out of a German sex kitten’s mouth before.