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LISA E IL DIAVOLO (Italian-West German-Spanish co-production, 1972)
Director: Mario Bava
Cinematographer: Cecilio Paniagua
Story: Mario Bava
Screenplay: Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone
Camera Operator: Emilio Varriano
Editing: Carlo Reali
Music: Carlo Savina
Main Players: Telly Savalas (Leandro); Elke Sommer (Lisa Reiner); Alessio Orano (Maximilian); Alida Valli (The Contessa); Sylva Koscina (Sophia Lehar); Eduardo Fajardo (Francis Lehar); Espartaco Santoni (Carlo); Gabriele Tinti (George); Franz von Treuberg (The Maestro)
Alternate titles: Lisa and the Devil; The Devil and the Dead
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Alternate version: LA CASA DEL'ESORCISMO (Released 1975)
Director: Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (credited as "Mickey Lion")
Screenplay: Alfredo Leone and Alberto Cittini
Extra Players: Robert Alda (Father Michael); Carmen Silva
Alternate titles: The House of Exorcism; Devil in the House of Exorcism
SYNOPSIS:

Lisa Reiner is an American tourist who is visiting a small Spanish village. While admiring a fresco of the devil carrying a dead body, she hears a beautiful piece of music. Following the sound, she traces its source to an ornate music box in a little antique shop just outide of the main square. Also in the shop is Leandro, a strange man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the image of Satan depicted in the fresco. Leandro's peculiar behavior distresses Lisa, so she flees the shop and tries to re-join her friends, but she becomes lost in a maze of back streets. Though she has only walked a short distance, the city seems totally alien to her. The local refuse to give her directions; side streets lead to dead ends. She then runs into Leandro for the second time, though this time he is carrying a life-size dummy and the music box, still issuing forth the same haunting music that led her astray in the first place. He kindly offers the lost tourist some directions, but they too only lead to more unfamiliar streets. Lisa next encounters a strange man who looks exactly like the dummy Leandro was carrying. All of these bizarre coincidences terrify Lisa and she flees from the stranger, who acts as though she is his long-lost lover.

Lisa's luck seems to be improving when she hitches a ride from Francis Lehar and his wife Sophia, who are driving through the village with their chauffeur George to some unspecified location. The car eventually breaks down in front of a stately villa inhabited by a blind Contessa and her neurotic son, Maximilian.Since he is convinced that Lisa is the reincarnation of the woman he had loved and lost, Maximilian convinces his reluctant mother to give the strangers shelter for the night. Lisa is subsequently shocked to discover that Leandro is the family's butler, and when she sees the same strange man from the village peering in at her through her bedroom window, she tries to escape. Her escape is thwarted by Maximilian, who begs her to stay. As she feels some attraction, and pity, for him, she relents.

Meanwhile the strained relationship between Lehar and his wife erupts into a violent scenario of its own. Lehar's cold demeanor drives Sophia into the arms of the chauffeur, who is later found dead, a pair of scissors plunged into his throat. Sophia automatically blames her husband, and traps him under the wheels of the car, running over his body repeatedly. What she, and the others, have failed to realize is that Maximilian is totally insane. It was he who stabbed the chauffeur, determined that Lisa will not be taken away from him, and when Sophia discovers this she is killed in one of Bava's most savagely brutal set-pieces.

With the meddling strangers out of the way, Maximilian turns his attention to Lisa. His intentions toward the girl seem benign, though he is savagely protective of her. The stranger who has pursued her from the village is actually Maximilian's step-father, Carlo. Like Maximilian, he previously fell in love with Elena, a girl who bore an amazing resemblance to Lisa. Carlo abandoned the Contessa for Elena, but before she could join him, Maximilian murdered her and stored her body away in a concealed room. When Carlo returned to find out what happened to her, he saw Lisa and automatically assumed that it was the same girl. Now that the step-father has returned, Maximilian kills him as well to insure that nobody will take Lisa from him. To this point, Lisa has no idea that the apparently victimized Maximilian is deranged. It is only when he decides to show Elena's body to him that she discovers the truth. Rather than kill her, too, Maximilian chloroforms Lisa and puts her in the same bed as Elena's decaying remains. As he tries to make love to the unconscious girl, he feels as though Elena is mocking him and is unable to reach an orgasm. Becoming even more deranged, he determines that he has to marry Lisa in order to consumate the relationship. He tells the Contessa of his plans, but she is jealous of the hold Elena -- in the form of Lisa -- continues to hold over her beloved son. When the Contessa insists that he must murder Lisa before the police come looking for her and her companions, Maximillian turns on her and stabs his own mother to death.

All of these events are quietly observed by Leandro, whose presence seems to haunt the plush villa, and who seems to be orchestrating the bizarre occurences as some kind of sick game. Unsettled by his act of matricide, Maximilian rushes about the house looking for Leandro, who for once is nowhere to be seen. What he does find is the corpses of all his victims, stationed around the dinner table in a perverse parody of The Last Supper. In shock, he recoils backwards, only to fall out of the window and onto the spikes of an iron gate. At that point, Leandro emerges from behind the Contessa's corpse and remarks, "Oh, it slipped."

The next morning, Lisa awakends, nude, amid unfamiliar surroundings. Maximilian's room is now over-grown with vegetation, and nodody -- including Elena's corpse -- is to be seen. The entire house is now deserted -- in fact, it looks as though the house has been unoccupied for years. Disoriented and frightened, Lisa leaves the house and runs into a group of small children. One of the kids points at Lisa and proclaims her a ghost, saying that nobody has lived in the villa for years. Lisa then catches a taxi and goes to the airport where she boards a plane. A few minutes into the flight, she notices that she is all alone on the plane. She searches section after section, finally finding the corpses of Maximilian and all the others. Lisa then frantically makes her way to the cockpit, only to discover that Leandro is flying the plane. He turns to her, and laughs. At this point, the camera cuts to Lisa, who is now dressed in Elena's clothing. Her pallor is ghostly and sick, and she falls to the ground, dead.


CRITIQUE:

As a result of the box office of GLI ORRORI DEL CASTELLO DI NORIMBERGA, producer Alfredo Leone extended carte blanche to Bava for this film. Allowed to work (almost) completely without front-office interference, Bava finally has an opportunity to express his vision purely and without compromise. Never one to waste an opportunity, Bava seized the opportunity with a vengeance, creating a bizarre, hallucinatory, and often perverse work of genius. Few films are so obsessed with images of death and decay as LISA E IL DIAVOLO, from the crumbling exteriors of the villa to the bloody murders that occur therein.

As the title of the film suggests, the film is about Lisa and Leandro (The Devil); all of the other characters are little more than pawns in a ruthless and bloody game. Bava provides no background story for Lisa. All that the viewer knows is that she is a tourist visiting a foreigh country; both the name of the place she is visitng, and the identity of the country she hails from are withheld. Nevertheless, Bava easily manipulates the viewer into believing that she is who she claims to be and that she is totally perplexed by the labyrinth of bizarre horrors that she is plunged in to. Yet, by the end of the film, this idea is called into question. In the very last scene of the film, Lisa transforms into Elena. The question then becomes, did Lisa actually ever exist? The director's obsession with surface appearances is fully on display here. However, while a film like LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO resolves itself with perfect clarity, LISA is deliberately obtuse. Beneath its enigmatic exterior, however, lurks a very precise and coherent point of view. LISA is a dark allegory about the dominate influences which malevolent forces exercise over the lives of all humans. The character of Lisa may be at the core of the narrative -- in a sense, the viewer sees things through her eyes -- butshe is no less a pawn than any of the others in the film. Lisa is a character without a "biography" simply because she hasn't one; she has never really lived. The hauntingly romantic visions of Carlo which plague her throughout the film are not imagined. She is re-visiting these events because she really lived through them. Lisa is Elena; the artificial addition of a new name cannot and does not mean that she is a new person. Bava's suggestion here is that she is re-visiting this location because she has to -- it is pre-destined. Lisa/Elena is trapped in her own purgatory, forced to re-live an unpleasant memory over and over again for the amusement of Leandro/The Devil. Even at the end of the film, when she boards the plane in one final attempt to break free, Lisa still finds Leandro to be, quite literally, in the driver's seat. The final image of her, as she reverts into her true identity -- that is, a withered corpse -- is both ironic and elegaic, and the viewer is left with no doubt but that she will be forced to undergo the same ordeal time and time again, for all eternity.

Leandro is a particularly fascinating character. The film opens with a blaring burst of pure, white light. As the light dissolves, Bava introduces a close-up of Leandro. The superficial connotations of pure, white light is quite obvious: it suggests a spiritual vision -- the pure light of Heaven. The irony, of course, is that this light leads not to salvation, but to perdition. Likewise, the film ends with a similar shot of Leandro. After the end titles roll, the white light returns, before fading into all-consuming darkness. This final fade to black serves two purposes: the first, obviously, means that the film is over; on a thematic level, however, it mirrors the narrative of the film. The characters all seem to follow Leandro into the light, before being consumed by darkness and death. Yet, in between these two bursts of light there is much to consider. For example, consider how Leandro is almost always seen carrying a mannequin; this mirrors the eerily beautiful fresco of the devil carrying a dead body. Bava's suggestion here is an obvious one: the human character, whether alive or dead, is little more than a puppet. These mannequins serve as a constant reminder of this. Bava even compounds this idea by having the actors "stand-in" for the mannequins at certain key points. Telly Savalas, who plays Leandro, invests this character with a great deal of charm and quirky humor. By giving this character so much personality (and by giving him the film's most memorable dialogue), Bava vividly shows the attractive allure of evil. Devious and mischievous, Leandro constantly lies to the other characters. He gives Lisa false directions in the square, for instance, and sucks on lollipops to cover up the fact that he has been smoking -- the Contessa does not allow smoking in the house. Often seen bitching or complaining about his heavy workload, in the privacy of a mannequin-filled room (shades of IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA), he comically mimics his "employers" and fantasizes about having more free time on his hands. The delicious irony, of course, is that Leandro is the one in command; it simply suits his purposes of deception to take on the appearance of a humble butler.

LISA is not an easy film. It asks the viewer to remain alert at all times and to form their own conclusions as to what is actually happening. Bava completely blurs the line between reality and fantasy; ultimately the two become inseparable. All of this makes for a difficult viewing experience, but the end result is worth it. LISA captures the feeling of a nightmare with more poetry and imagination than any other film.

Quite rightly, Bava was very proud of the final result, but what should have been a crowning moment instead deteriorated into humiliation when the director was forced to radically re-work the film for commercial reasons. Distribution companies, frightened by the film's non-linear structure and hallucinatory feel, deemed LISA unreleasable. Producer Alfredo Leone responded by forcing Bava to shoot added scenes to help cash in on the success of William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (1973). These new scenes, featuring Robert Alda as a priest trying to exorcise a foul-mouthed, pea soup-spewing Elke Sommer, totally wrecked the dream-like tone of the original, but proved acceptable to the money-mad distributors.

This new version, LA CASA DEL'ESORCISMO, was distributed in 1975 to deservedly horrendous reviews. Of all the films Bava is connected to, LA CASA is the most unspeakably awful, rivaling even AIP's re-edit of LE SPIE VENGONO DAL SEMI-FREDDO. In trying to visualize the unspeakable horrors implicit in the original, the film succeeds only in being laughable. Even worse, by trying to de-mystify the narrative, the film becomes totally incomprehensible. Where the original film is elegant and unsettling, the new version is crass and obnoxious -- hardly the qualities one associates with Mario Bava. However, Bava himself is not to blame for this atrocity. While Bava did start shooting the added footage, he refused to shoot anything he considered to be blasphemous. This resulted in an argument with Leone, who took over the film, finishing the re-shoots and supervising the final re-editing. The two men later reconciled their differences, but not before Bava's masterpiece was turned into one of the worst EXORCIST knock-offs of all time.

Luckily, LISA is now available for the general public on video and laser disc. In its original form, it's a film of beauty and power, and a standing testimonial to Bava's genius and innovation. It is truly one of his greatest achievements.


Review © Troy Howarth


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