The Film: 4/5
Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) is an American traveling through Spain with a tour group. One afternoon they visit a fresco that features a painting of the devil. Lisa wanders off and finds herself inside a shop where she encounters a mysterious man (Terry Savalas) buying a lifelike dummy who resembles the devil of the painting. Leaving the shop she realizes that the tour group has left and she is now lost. While trying to find her way back Lisa is accosted by a man named Carlos (Espartaco Santoni) who calls her "Elena". She pushes him away and he falls down some steps, apparently dying in the process. As night falls she manages to hitch a ride with a married couple of fellow travelers, Francis Lehar (Eduardo Fajardo) and his wife Sophia (Sylva Koscina), and their chauffeur George (Gabriele Tinti). Due to a leaky water pipe their car breaks down in front of a sprawling estate owned by a blind countess (Alida Valli) and her young son Maximilian (Alessio Orano). Tending to their every need is their butler Leandro, who Lisa recognizes as the devilish stranger from the shop. George, who unbeknownst to Francis is having a passionate affair with Sophia, makes the necessary repairs to the car while the others settle in for a night's stay at the countess' behest. But the hospitality soon turns to hostility as the dark and disturbing secrets of the countess and her family are exposed throughout a harrowing evening of sex, murder, and metaphysical terror.
Lisa and the Devil was a distinct change of pace for Mario Bava, the famed Italian director who worked in many genres but was cherished for his brilliant and iconic contributions to horror cinema. Bava's films like Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace broke new ground for Italian horror and made the director a force to be reckoned with in the world of visually astounding, high class fright films. But by the time he made Lisa and the Devil in 1974 his movies were no longer guaranteed box office successes. Only Bay of Blood, his bleakly comic prototype for every slasher movie made since the late 1970's, was enough of a hit to ensure that Bava would continue to do cinema his way at least for the foreseeable future. He pretty much expended all of that creative capital making this movie and it was not even picked for international distribution following its Cannes Film Festival premiere until Bava was compelled to alter the narrative considerably (more on that below) to make it a more viable film in an increasingly crowded market. Lisa may be one of the most challenging and difficult to categorize movies the director has ever made, if not the most period. The story seems to owe a great debt to classic novels and films from Jane Eyre to Rebecca to even Psycho and its first two acts play out more like a Gothic soap opera than one of Bava's bloody gems with more shocking plot twists than an M. Night Shyamalan wet dream. Whereas most movies would crack under the pressure of an narrative that refuses to stay track the twists in the plot Lisa and the Devil emerge organically and allow for the viewers to consider everything that has transpired before from an altered perspective. This makes repeat viewings essential.
The pacing of Bava's film is slow and deliberate, allowing us to be enraptured by his elliptical storytelling techniques. Lisa and the Devil is not one of the most linear features Bava has ever made, but the build-up to each reveal is delicately constructed and there is not a single wasted moment. Every frame shot by Cecillio Paniagua, line of dialogue written by six writers but only credited to two (Bava and producer Alfredo Leone), and piece of the elegant set design created by Nedo Azzini and Rafael Ferri plays a part in the story. Paniagua's lush cinematography gives the film the feeling of a creepy Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and the sensual and brooding score by Carlo Savina helps to draw us in and envelope our imaginations in Bava's masterful imagery. The director also allows for some of his trademark gallows humor, including staging an inappropriate love scene that becomes a surreal rape where one participant is unconscious, the other is alternately laughing and crying at their own crumbling mental state, and the skeletal remains of a former lover plays the role of voyeur though it is not exactly clear what they can and can not see. There is violence in this movie but it is not overwhelming and the murder scenes are over before they have even begun. That usually is not a problem for me but this movie did not need a heaping helping of gore, though those blood-drenched set pieces are executed with brutal flair by special effects artist Franco Tocci.
The performances are of a higher caliber than you would expect of a film of this type. Elke Sommer plays a fine, sympathetic heroine though there is not much to her character to play other to act either confused or mortified. Orano makes for a terrific tormented anti-hero, while Valli dominates her scenes quietly and with little effort as the countess. But it is the great Telly Savalas who walks off with his scene as the butler Leandro, directing the actions of the characters without their foreknowledge like he was an extension of Bava's own mind. Whether he's sucking on one of his ever-present lollipops - a character motif that he would later adopt for his hit TV series Kojak - or singing "Auld Lang Syne" while decorating a room with life-size mannequins of every person in the house (as well as one or two lurking around the premises) Savalas is clearly having a ball as the one character in Lisa and the Devil who is not taking any of this stuff seriously. When the knockout ending arrives you will see why.
This released also includes House of Exorcism, the infamous alternate cut of Lisa and the Devil that was prepared for release in the U.S. and other countries when Bava's original cut failed to attract distributors. Inspired by the theatrical success of The Exorcist producer Alfredo Leone convinced a reluctant Bava to restructure his film as a blatant rip-off of William Friedkin's surprise horror blockbuster by filming scenes of Sommer's character being possessed by Satan and Robert Alda as a haunted priest who must perform the titular exorcism. Twenty minutes of footage from Lisa and the Devil were removed, more violence and sexual content added, and the scenes from Bava's original cut that remained formed a flashback narrative told by Sommer to Alda. The director refused to film certain explicitly sexual scenes so that responsibility either fell to producer Leone or Bava's son Lamberto, the latter employed as an assistant director on Lisa. The result is a goofily entertaining exploitation flick that while fun to watch is still a hollow shell of the intricate tale that had meant a great deal to its director, whose is credited on this recut as "Mickey Lion". At least the footage shot by Bava is as handsomely composed and beautiful as any other film he has made, though the reedited version of his cherished masterwork was a box office flop everywhere it was released.
Both cuts are presented on this dual-layered Blu-ray in stunning high-definition 1080p widescreen transfers. The picture quality on each version is the best it has looked on home video with low levels of grain and vivid colors and lighting. Print damage is minimal and will not detract from your viewing experience. Lisa and the Devil gets English and Italian 2.0 LPCM audio tracks that are both ideally balanced in the music and dialogue divisions but the dialogue on the English sounds slightly muffled while the Italian features a more bolstered mix. House of Exorcism comes with an exceptional English 2.0 track that at times sounds even clearer than the sound tracks on Bava's cut with less audio distortion. English subtitles are provided for both cuts.
Both cuts feature their own set of extra features, many of which previously appeared on DVDs released in the U.S. by Image Entertainment and Anchor Bay. Lisa and the Devil gets a commentary from Bava expert and biographer Tim Lucas. Lucas is his usual veritable wealth of facts and critical analysis as he dives headlong into the film's dense narrative and provides interesting details about its complicated production and reception from the public and Bava's devoted fans. For House of Exorcism producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer collaborate on their own commentary track. Leone provides ample stories about the shoot and his professional relationship with Mario Bava while Sommer discusses working on both Lisa and the Devil and the House of Exorcism reshoot and her opinions of being directed by Bava. Both are solid tracks packed with valuable information and insight that will either add to or detract from your enjoyment and appreciation of the two radically different cuts.
"The Exorcism of Lisa" (25 minutes) is a newly-produced Italian documentary (with English subtitles) that features interviews with several of the surviving members of the Lisa and the Devil crew, including assistant director Lamberto Bava and screenwriter Roberto Natale. Lamberto's son Roy also appears to offer his memories of the movie and grandfather Mario. Most of the running time is devoted to the chilly reception that greeted the original upon its debut and the tension between Mario Bava and producer Leone that arose during the filming of scenes for the House of Exorcism recut the director found objectionable. There is very little information here that was not already covered in greater detail on the dual commentary tracks, but it is a fine documentary regardless.
In the documentary we got a brief glimpse of an extended sex scene between Kosina and Tinti's characters that was cut down to practically nothing in Bava's preferred cut but was partially restored for House of Exorcism and resurrected in full for the Japanese release cut. The entire uncensored scene is presented here as an individual extra in a mostly silent (due to some lost audio elements), three minute form. Thought it runs a bit too long for my tastes and Tinti was way too hairy to be seen fully nude (you even get an extended peek at his junk), fans of voluptuous Italian actresses getting naked will appreciate the nice show Kosina gives them here.
British film journalist Alan Jones provides in-depth introductions for both Lisa and the Devil (4 minutes) and House of Exorcism (3 minutes) filled with back stories of the two cuts and relevant facts regarding the director. Since Lisa never got a proper theatrical release (it wasn't seen in Bava's intended version until an Italian television airing in 1983) a preview trailer was never completed, but the unfinished trailer is presented here (3 minutes). House of Exorcism gets U.S. (3 minutes) and U.K. (1 minute) theatrical trailers and a U.S. radio spot (1 minute). The package is rounded off by a reversible cover sleeve featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys and a collector's booklet with a new essay on the film by Nightmare U.S.A. author Stephen Thrower, a 1976 Italian interview with Mario Bava translated into English for the first time, and original archive stills and posters.
Also included in this combo pack are two DVDs containing both cuts of the film presented in standard definition as well as all of the bonus features.
Lisa and the Devil is certainly an unique and mesmerizing film from Italy's finest horror filmmaker, and though you might find it a perplexing watch at first subsequent viewings will enhance your appreciation of Mario Bava's meticulous craft. An outstanding film worthy of reappraisal is given a handsomely produced Blu-ray that I highly recommend.