Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lisa and the Devil

Lisa and the Devil (1974) aka House of Exorcism (sort of)
Dir. and Written by Mario Bava
Starring Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas

A young lady wanders away from a tour in Italy, and ends up at a creepy old mansion owned by a decidedly odd mother/son duo and staffed by a lollipop-sucking butler (Telly Savalas) and his sidekick, a man-sized paper mache doll who sometimes turns into a real man (I’m assuming this isn’t a Calvin & Hobbes thing, probably something more sinister given the title). And that’s just the setup; from there things get much stranger, more complicated, and more murder-y.

You know, Mario Bava is one of those odd directors who never seemed to get better or worse, he was equally likely to make either genuinely classic or seriously shitty movies throughout his whole career. I had actually sort of written him off after the dull PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES last year and the nearly-unwatchable early giallo TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. But then, I randomly saw BLACK SUNDAY, an iconic black and white class act with just a hint of shocking violence peeking through the cracks in its pristine surface. Wow, who knew the guy who made DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS had that in him? And now we’ve got him creating some sort of surreal ghost story/slasher which is also about the devil somehow?

Cue Bill Withers... Just the two of us...

Here, Bava manages to find a near-perfect tone for this strange, uneasy dream, which eschews the obvious horror conventions you might expect. Avoiding the classic shadows and cobwebs of the genre, Bava instead presents a luxurious, ornate world of lugubrious pastels and dreamy, haunting music. There doesn’t appear to be any overt danger here, but there’s a lurking menace in it’s lonely opulence. The doll, the odd behavior of the hosts, the expansive but empty manor, (the ever-increasing body count)… there’s a strong subtle undercurrent that beneath the serene surface, something here is most decidedly not right. But Bava isn’t in any hurry to come out and say exactly what you should be afraid of. Even when the murders start happening, he maintains the dreamy ambivalence of the film’s tone and simply folds the murder and perversity into the mix. The result is a film which feels uneasy and off-kilter in a subtle but effective way, undermining your expectations and managing to feel tense and unhurried at the same time.

Bill Withers didn't write any songs that would apply here.

I’ll say no more about the plot (partially because I’m a little shaky on the exact details, though I believe I got the gist of it), but this is a unique one filled with neatly unexpected macabre imagery and ideas. It keeps you on your toes with the twists and turns that develop from the undercurrent of dream logic, and even rewards you for following along with an ending which is both satisfying and ambiguous. Plus, Savalas looks like he’s having a ball playing his sinister yet friendly butler character, providing more than enough energy to keep things from turning too murky and morose. This one is lyrical, sharply made, constantly surprising and thoroughly unsettling, so it’s no surprise that when it came to America the producers insisted they cut it up, retitle it, and reshoot a bunch of horseshit about a possession so they could market it as an EXORCIST rip-off under the title HOUSE OF EXORCISM.* Since the few Americans who saw it got this version, I guess it’s no surprise that it’s not remembered as fondly today as it deserves. But if you’re looking for an eerie, uniquely surreal film which has nothing whatsoever to do with exorcisms, this one is waiting to be rediscovered.

* By the way, Netflix has both versions and is trying to pass them off as separate movies, so don't be fooled.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: None
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: Yes indeedy.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER:Savalas was probably nearing the height of his popularity at this point (Kojak had just begun the same year), but turns out a few years later he would be in BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE with Michael Caine, so... still not exactly a sure ticket to boxoffice glory.
  • BOOBIES: Pretty much, Elke Sommers gets 99% naked.
  • CULTISTS: None.
  • SLASHERS: Yes, there is a definitive slasher element which is introduced later on.
  • CURSES: Uh... borderline. It's not explicit, though.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? Yeah, Savalas makes creepy sort-of-lifelike dolls in his spare time, ick!
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, not one of Bava's better known films.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Awake and thoroughly confused to the point of incredulity.

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