In all of Mario Bava’s weird career, there may be nothing as peculiar as Lisa and the Devil, his 1974 fantasy starring Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas, and the project’s history is as bizarre as the experience of watching it.
Bava had bounced back from late-career doldrums with the Gothic hit Baron Blood (1972) and that film’s producer, Alfredo Leone, offered him the chance to do whatever he wanted: a poisoned chalice few filmmakers can resist. Bava knew enough to stick to the horror genre: his recent sex comedy (Four Times That Night, 1972) and Western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, 1970) had been interesting divertissements, but didn’t really allow him room for the full-on delirium of his best work.
Bava’s recent work in the giallo field he practically invented, the wonderfully titled Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), had shown less interest in inventive and bloody homicide, and more in chic interiors and glamour. Hatchet for the Honeymoon, the same year, was nastier, but impressed mainly by the sheer craziness of its plot, which leaves the audience bewildered and frustrated almost to the last frame. Lisa would be an attempt to take that derangement even further…
Essentially a dream-film, it plucks its tourist heroine, Sommer, from her Spanish package holiday and strands her at an eerily out-of-time villa, where Telly Savalas may be Satan, collecting the souls of the dead, and both necrophilia and serial murder may be part of the evening’s entertainment. Though it features a hammer attack so vicious that it was trimmed in Italy (the only country where the film saw release), the movie is far less interested in killing than in disorientation, kitsch surrealist beauty, off-kilter humour and throwing together a lot of weird elements. At times it’s as if Bava had set himself the game of confusing matters so thoroughly that no coherent outcome is possible; then he manages a last-minute expository splurge that more or less tidies away the more radiant red herrings; and then he decides he has a few minutes left and uses them to gleefully screw the whole affair up beyond all chance of recovery.
The necrophilia subplot leads to one of the strangest scenes not only in Bava’s scrambled oeuvre, but in all of cinema, as badly listing dreamboat Alessio Orano tries to molest a drugged Sommer, his decomposing former love arranged in rotting fragments on an adjacent bed. Finally, despite the plangent musical accompaniment, he screams at the deceased, ‘I can’t, while you’re there!’ One can see his point, though perhaps shovelling up the remains before attempting date-rape would have improved the odds of carrying the whole thing off without a hitch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bava’s oneiric labyrinth of severed plotlines struggled to find distribution: The Exorcist had just come out, and the market was not hungry for a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and The Exterminating Angel. Leone took desperate measures, re-titling the film House of Exorcism and adding an embarrassment of new footage in which Sommer vomited pea soup at guest star Robert Alda.
Happily, Lisa and the Devil is now appreciated for the demented, soft-focus, Spanish-guitar-inflected masterpiece it is, and Leone’s commercially minded revision is reduced to the status of extra on Arrow Film’s new Blu-ray. It’s a welcome addition: devoid of artistic merit in its own right, the garbled re-edit adds yet another layer of weirdness to a truly odd film: it’s like an alternative pathway through Bava’s world, where one minute we’re in his Gothic hallucination, and then we round a corner and find a whole different scene that was never there before. It’s like walking through an idiot’s dream about a genius’s dream.