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Dustin Putman

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Lisa and the Devil  (1973)
4 Stars
Directed by Mario Bava.
Cast: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Alessio Orano, Sylva Koscina, Gabriele Tinti, Alida Valli, Eduardo Fajardo, Espartaco Santoni, Franz von Treuberg, Kathy Leone.
1973 – 96 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R for strong violence, sexual content and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Neither glue nor splintered heads can stop a funeral. The ceremony must go on.

First, a disclaimer. When Mario Bava's lush, cerebral "Lisa and the Devil" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and released internationally in '74, it was a financial failure (the U.S. did not even distribute it). In the hopes of making a return on their investment, the producers hired director Alfredo Leone and set out to shoot additional footage in 1975, tacking on a satanic possession plotline that copied off of William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" and retitling the film "House of Exorcism." This new and completely different cut didn't do much better at the box-office and served to almost erase the existence of "Lisa and the Devil" until the original version was put out on video in the 1990s and DVD in 2007. "House of Exorcism" is trashy and exploitative, and should be avoided by all except those who wish to compare how a true artist's vision can be resculpted and downright desecrated by money-hungry, quality-deficient studio executives.

Equal parts resplendent and haunting in its dreamlike logic, "Lisa and the Devil" is an unheralded gem, a motion picture of breathtaking beauty that casts an intoxicating spell over viewers who delight in being treated as equals rather than as imbeciles who demand everything be spelled out for them. Nothing, really, is spelled out in "Lisa and the Devil"—the narrative is open to interpretation in the same way a painting or a photograph might—and that is part of its savory, unforgettable charm. For Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, 1971's "Twitch of the Death Nerve" (a.k.a. "Bay of Blood") may be his most famous effort, paving the early way for the '80s slasher bonanza and notoriously helping to inspire several death sequences in the early "Friday the 13th" movies. It is the lesser-known "Lisa and the Devil," however, that is his paramount achievement. Not only did Bava finally receive full control over the script and production, but it is said to have been the project he always wanted to make. Judging from the rule-breakingly imaginative, creepingly seductive final product, it's easy to see why.

Vacationing in the ancient Spanish city of Toledo, Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) wanders away from her tour group and stumbles into a shop where she meets Leandro (Telly Savalas), a maker of lifelike dummies who strongly resembles the portrait of the Devil she has just seen on a nearby fresco. Upon exiting the store, Lisa is unable to find her tour group as she delves all the more deep into the cobblestone labyrinth of streets, alleyways, and looming old buildings surrounding her. She finally comes upon a car and is able to flag the riders down—wealthy married couple Sophia (Sylva Koscina) and Francis Lehar (Eduardo Fajardo) and their chauffeur George (Gabriele Tinti)—but automobile trouble leaves them stranded. The lot of them are invited to stay the night at a mansion owned by the blind Countess (Alida Valli). It is here that Lisa's nightmarish ordeal only deepens. As the guests begin dropping like flies, the Countess' son Max (Alessio Orano) is taken by Lisa's uncanny resemblance to his former deceased lover Elena. If that weren't enough, it is revealed that Leandro is working as the butler, his handmade puppets of deceased people morbidly tied to the funeral parlor he is running on the property's grounds.

"Lisa and the Devil" is a mesmerizing, singularly one-of-a-kind experience. The story, driven by an artistic eye for stunning imagery and quixotic cinematography by Cecilio Paniagua, is spellbinding to watch unfold. Deliberate pacing is mixed with striking mise en scene compositions and floating camerawork that also incorporates low angles, representing Lisa's foreign landscape crushing down upon her, and a number of startlingly effective zoom-ins—a calling-card of Mario Bava's work. Symbolism is quite prevalent—note the heavy use of clocks, many of them broken, as well as the use of reflections within a lake and spilled red wine on the floor—adding texture to the film that only increases with each viewing. Surrealistic touches permeate each scene, too, and keep a close eye on the way Leandro's dummies are intermittently and scarily replaced with human actors, foretelling of the characters' threatened mortality.

As Lisa's night proceeds, the film methodically breaks ties with reality altogether, the complexities within each of the characters' pasts and current motivations not immediately explaining themselves. Blunt and brutal murder set-pieces are orchestrated—in one scene, bright-red blood nearly covers the lens—in between Lisa's horrifying voyage throughout the buildings and property. When she comes upon an ornate room populated by the lovingly displayed heads of the dummies, it calls to mind 1985's "Return to Oz," which must have used this picture as inspiration. The sheer unorthodox otherworldliness of the piece additionally cements the influence Mario Bava has on David Lynch's modern work (i.e. 2001's "Mulholland Drive" and 2006's "Inland Empire").

The highly photogenic Elke Sommer is a well-cast heroine as Lisa Reiner. Not a whole lot is asked of Sommer outside of reacting to an unthinkable plot happening to her, but she holds the camera's attention and manages to build her character through charisma and actions rather than concrete details about her life. The standout of the cast is Telly Savalas (most known from his 1973-1978 television drama "Kojak"), who, as Leandro, depicts one of the most sinister, skin-crawlingly shady villains in memory. In every look, glance, dialogue exchange, and lollipop lick, Savalas is deeply frightening as only the Devil himself could be. The rest of the actors commit to their roles and fill them nicely, but this is Sommer's and Savalas' show all the way.

An indelible horror film of a remarkably original nature, "Lisa and the Devil" is overflowing in atmosphere and suggestion. The ending will not be given away, but I would be remiss not to mention a finale set on Lisa's airplane trip back home that is unshakably eerie and thoroughly ingenious, bringing the tale to a close that keeps with the off-kilter rationale of the rest of the picture. The culminating image before the end credits is unforgettable. "Lisa and the Devil" is thirty-five years old, but just as contemporary and relevant today. That it has been overshadowed by the junky "House of Exorcism" is sinful. "Lisa and the Devil" is the real deal, a masterfully poetic journey into darkness and dislocation that is long overdue in finding the audience it so desperately deserves.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman