Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil (1974)

Picture this. You’re on a vacation in Toledo, at a crowded town square with a large group of tourists you’ve just spent the last several hours with on an uncomfortable stuffy bus ride.The tour guide is exhibiting an old fresco of the devil, whose face seems peculiar and unforgettable and looks like that one actor who used to play Kojak. Out of nowhere, an irresistible and soul warming melody catches your attention, and you can’t help but stray from the group and pursue its source. Your curiosity has led you to an antique store where a lovely music box is emanating a most attractive sound. Upon inquiry to the shop owner, you learn that the music box is not for sale but belongs to a customer standing before you, who to your concern, happens to carry the same face you beheld in the fresco. After leaving the shop, you now have a complete disoriented sense of direction amidst an endless winding labyrinth of cobblestoned alleyways, without any sign of the town square where you had the comfort and safety of being in a group. Strange folk you come across shun you, avoid you, and treat you like you’re invisible. 

Now you are lost and all alone, but this isn’t by mistake, he has chosen you and you are in his world now, for he is your only guide. You might as well make the best of it and try to look forward to what’s in store….. Surely bizarre and exciting adventures must lie ahead….. I’d also feel flattered if I were you, since it’s likely he thought you the fairest and prettiest of the bunch. 

What has just been narrated to you is my interpretation of the set up to a high-body-count Gothic thriller from Mario Bava called LISA AND THE DEVIL, a visual feast from a cinematographic master that is full of memorable sequences that uncontrollably pummel the viewer with some of the greatest “Oh my God!” moments, ever. Allow me to attempt to manifest in words why this film kicks much ass, without giving too much away. 

The plot concerns a dreamy and fascinating encounter between the character of Lisa, played by Elke Sommer, and Leandro, better known as the Devil, played with much enthusiasm by Telly Savalas, whose role makes for about 60% of the entertainment. By a Contessa’s orders, Leandro slaves as a butler in a mansion hauling around, fixing, and positioning mannequins of characters like puppets in a play while comically cursing tedious tradition, much to the viewer’s amusement. Caught in the middle of this nonsensical dark passion play is the blond haired Lisa, whose green school teacher outfit with matching green shoes, convincing screams, beauty, eloquence, and vulnerability make for a great lead, who I enjoyed spending the whole movie with from beginning to end. 

"Tradition she says....  More work I say!"-- Leandro/Telly Savalas

After being lost in what feels like purgatory for a while, a little more depth is added to Lisa’s situation when night falls and an antique car rolls up carrying a few more characters, among them a chauffeur played by Gabrielle Tinti. In desperate need of help and company, Lisa hitches a ride only to break down a few minutes later in front of a Gothic villa where all too coincidentally they are welcomed by a butler (Savalas), who happens to be the same man Lisa came across earlier in town, to her somewhat surprise. The prospect of a broken down vehicle in front of a mansion may sound cliché, but trust me in saying that you’ve never seen anything like this before. 

For mysterious reasons, a handsome young man, Maximilian played by Alessio Orano (a role turned down by Anthony Perkins), appears out of the shadows and emotionally insists that Lisa and her party stay, against his mother’s wishes, the Contessa played by Alida Vali. Maximilian has a weird and eccentric behavior that is somewhat linked to a twisted mother complex and his reason for wanting Lisa to stay at the mansion sort of becomes both clearer and more mysterious as the film carries on. Mario Bava’s Norman Bates, superficially has a charming and warm personality that masks his immature stubbornness and determination to have everything his way, everything he wants, and everything the way it was in a long gone past. 

Further adding to the allure of the film is the beautiful and superbly Gothic mansion, which naturally lends an added creepiness with its antique and authentic interior design, and serves as the main backdrop to several intriguing sequences. A particularly vintage element from the film is felt when Maximilian burns a picture of his past lover while some very moving, almost KARATE KID 2 moving, music makes for a feeling of such genuine melodrama that one can’t help but proclaim “they don’t make them like this anymore”. 

A stand out scene worth mentioning, my favorite scene, is when after we have established a good sense of claustrophobia from the nighttime mansion setting, Lisa is staring at the music box she’s been drawn to and under a hypnotic spell is magically whisked away into a day lighted dream world, running in slow motion, amongst beautiful green hills, lovely music, and a Romanesque gazebo. The mystery is intensified as she comes across a supposed lover, Carlos (Espartaco Santoni), who addresses her as Elena. It’s as if she is now living the life of someone else, someone from the past whose relation to the present horror is all too mysterious but significant. 

After the first character turns up dead from being murdered in “whodunit” fashion, there is an impromptu funeral procession that takes place in the mansion that is full of emotion and black humor that had me grinning and feeling sad as well. This was similar to what I felt during the impromptu memorial segment in Jess Franco’s A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. 

It was Professor Plum with the candlestick in the room with the creepy heads.

LATD contains a convoluted story with intriguing events that happen without rhyme or reason, but it can still be a great viewing experience if you try not to think about it too hard. Let Bava guide you through this fascinating journey to a great ending that will leave you with a wide grin on your face and shouting BRAVISSIMO! The feel of the film is beautiful, classy, and dreamlike, but it also has a ruder side consisting of some very satisfying kill scenes and horror surprises that continually come back, up until the very end. 

I got my copy of LISA AND THE DEVIL in the Mario Bava box set that came with an alternately cut and edited version with completely new scenes directed by producer Alfredo Leone, for distributive purposes and to cash in on THE EXORCIST, called THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which I can’t bring myself to watch. I enjoyed and appreciated Mario Bava’s original film LISA AND THE DEVIL so much that I just couldn’t accept it in any other form. But…. Maybe I’ll watch it if anyone wants to convince me to do so.


  1. I could never take Elke Sommer seriously, as the first thing I saw her in was Carry On Behind!

  2. My high thoughts of Elke Sommer are primarily due to her look and performance in LISA AND THE DEVIL, as well as BARON BLOOD. I regret to admit that I haven’t seen her in anything else, so I am not necessarily one to be able to argue fairly for or against Sommer as an actor. Thanks for commenting and stopping by Doctor Cyclops!

  3. You're so right when you say that Leandro/the Devil provides most of the entertainment. Even the seemingly banal phrase “it’s with chocolate sprinkles” becomes sinister when uttered by Salvalas in this movie.
    I did not know Anthony Perkins could have been in this movie. There's not much that could have made it better, but I wish he had been in it, just because I love him so.

  4. @ initforthekills My source for Perkins turning down the role is from Wikipedia so I’m not 100% sure, but I did enjoy him in every Psycho film and do think it’s interesting to imagine what the film would’ve been like with Perkins in the role of Maximilian. Although I do think Alessio Orano was great in the role as well. Hmmm… Maybe one way the film could’ve been better would be to give it an M. Night Shyamalan style twist where Lisa turns out to be the Devil……. No that wouldn’t be any good at all, LATD is just fine the way it is.
    Thanks for commenting Wednesday’s Child and give my regards to Wednesday Addams ;)

  5. I haven't watched that film for years. Elke Sommer was in a film which I watched recently too, "Endless Night" (1972), which I think is very underrated.

  6. My husband and I just watched both LATD and the re edited version that came out as House of Exorcism. Don't bother watching it, unless you fast forward thru it just to see the differences, like we did. It's a bad movie.

    1. Hello and welcome. It took me a long time to accept the fact that there was another version of this film, but I did eventually watch House of Exorcism, and I didn’t think it was worth watching. HOE does try to give rhyme and reason to everything going on, but it just ends up feeling clumsy and unnatural. I didn’t think Elke Sommer was bad as a demon possessed woman, but it ends up feeling so unnecessary. The biggest offense for me was that it replaced my favorite part, the ending on the impossibly long airplane, with a rather uninspired Exorcist style scene. What baffles me is that Lisa in the Devil ended up being a failure on its initial release, but in order to save it, it was re-edited as HOE and ended up being a huge success, after that. Go figure.

    2. No accounting for taste re: HOE! If I remember correctly, Bava didn't want his name attached to HOE and also got into an argument with Leone regarding the new scenes of seducing the priest. He thought they went beyond the pale. The whole time I was watching LATD I was thinking holy cow this is good stuff! I was nearly overcome by the wealth of textures in a single mansion scene. You're right, don't look for a lot of logic- just go with the flow like a dream, and the ride is amazing. On the other hand, multiple viewings reveal multiple layers about fate, free will, etc. For another visual stunner (though not horror), see Bava's Danger: Diabolik.

    3. Hi, Maria! Thanks for your comment! I’m glad this article is still receiving attention. The film is a delight to rewatch, and there is so much depth to just about everything Maximilian says, so much wisdom from a psycho. Although one cannot help thinking his homicidal tendencies possibly result from his overbearing mother. Danger: Diabolik is definitely one of my favorites, as well as its contemporary fumetti brethren: Kriminal, Satanik, and Mister X.