Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The House of Exorcism

1974
Dir. Mickey Lion (Mario Bava)

When she separates from her tour group to look around an old antiques shop, Lisa (Elke Sommer) encounters a man (Telly Savalas) who bears a striking resemblance to a depiction of the Devil she saw in a fresco. Making her way back to the town square, Lisa is suddenly struck down by a mysterious and somewhat disturbing ailment that causes her to spasm uncontrollably and to spout obscenities. She is visited in hospital by a Priest (Robert Alda) who surmises that she is possessed by the Devil and sets about trying to exorcise her. During the exorcism she reveals to him how she came to be in this unsavoury situation…

Due to the success of Bava’s prior film Baron Blood, he was given ‘carte blanche’ by his producer Alfredo Leone to write and direct another film. Bava had seemingly waited his whole career for such artistic freedom and the resulting film, Lisa & the Devil is amongst his most accomplished, beautifully surreal and engaging films. Described as a ‘meditation’ on love, death, identity and the machinations of evil, Bava’s film lingeringly unfolds as a series of stunning set pieces punctuating the lightest of plots; high on lush style and moody ambience.

However!

The film premiered at Cannes, and whilst lauded by critics, Bava failed to find a distributor. Enter ‘savvy’ producer Alfredo Leone, who with Bava’s begrudging approval, drastically re-cut Lisa & the Devil, filming and inserting a new possession plot to cash in on the recent success of The Exorcist. Stripping the film of its dreamy ambiguity (and also rendering it all the more incomprehensible) the re-cut film, re-titled The House of Exorcism featured Lisa being possessed by the Devil - which showcased a writhing, bile drenched and obscenity spewing Elke Sommer as the ever unfortunate Lisa. The inclusion of Robert Alda in a thankless role as the Priest who would save her soul through exorcism, completes this woefully misguided rehash. The film, credited to director ‘Mickey Lion’ (one of Bava’s more obscure pseudonyms), went on to obtain somewhat dubious international success.



A cheap title card and some thunderously ominous music announce the beginning of The House of Exorcism, essentially an abridged version of Lisa & the Devil with some bits taken out and other, less good bits haphazardly thrown in. Approximately twenty or so minutes of the former film’s running time have been trimmed and replaced by scenes in a grotty (read: cheap and makeshift) hospital room as Elke Sommer pretty much goes bat crazy; snarling profanities, cackling uncontrollably and writhing around exposing her under garments for all to see. And boy, does she writhe a lot. She also spouts some priceless and unintentionally hilarious dialogue in a husky, raspy voice. Words such as shitty, fuck, prick, balls and c**t are used with wild abandon.
Beginning exactly as Lisa & the Devil does, we follow Lisa to the antiques shop and witness her encounter with the Devil. Things change though when she leaves the shop: Telly Savalas smashes an ornate plaster head that makes Lisa suddenly fall down, flail around and growl in the town square like something, well, possessed.

Whilst the scenes depicting the possessed Lisa break up the dreamy narrative and ambiguity of the original film, as well as creating a wildly uneven tone, the filmmakers at least try to slot them in with some sort of precision and usually during ‘key’ moments that signify flashbacks by way of visual or audible pointers. However, this doesn’t distract from the point that the addition of the exorcism sub-plot renders the film almost completely incomprehensible.



Lisa & the Devil unfolded as a funereal meditation on death and desire and did so without much regard for logic. The same happens here but with additional scenes of Lisa spewing frogs and saying ‘fuck’ a lot whilst writhing around in a filthy bed as her priest looks on with an ever furrowed brow. These moments seem to have no bearing on the story whatsoever – except when Lisa actually explains that the scenes in the villa are flashbacks and somehow explain how she came to be possessed.

As ever tenuous attempts are made to link the two unrelated plot-strands together, events become even more confusing. The melancholy gloominess of the scenes from Lisa & the Devil make up the bulk of the running time, but every now and then are pierced by the scenes depicting the exorcism. During these we must endure endless exposition as a doctor and the priest discuss the soul, schizophrenia and ‘occult invasion’ while Lisa screams the place down, flings herself at hospital staff (and exhibits some moves that can only be described by comparing them to an interpretive dance routine) and makes objects fly around the room. There is however, something perversely enjoyable about these scenes and their overt crassness. They are the epitome of exploitation and when one watches this film alongside Lisa & the Devil (as I did) the differences are astounding – even though they are basically the same film. It’s interesting to see how that by removing certain fragments and adding in others, a film can become so far removed from what it was initially envisioned to be. So as well as the more ponderous aspects of Lisa & the Devil, we also get hokey exorcism bunkum.

As well as Lisa being sick all over the place, we are also treated to a random flashback of the priest in a car accident in which his wife dies. Said wife then reappears, stark naked, in a ploy by the Devil to tempt the priest. As the Priest Robert Alda furrows his brow and appears to think that being ‘dramatic’ is simply having the ability to repeat the same words over and over again, with increasing volume. ‘Tell me where she is! Where is she? Where? Where?! WHERE?!!’ Etc.



A new ending is also tacked on in place of the first film’s haunting denouement. The priest goes to the villa where Lisa stayed to find it empty. Weirdly titled camera angles and spooky lighting (not a match for Bava’s otherworldly flourishes) tell us the house is evil. A bed with Elena’s corpse appears in one of the rooms and a storm seems to be blowing through the rooms, knocking the priest over and rolling him around for a while. Some snakes also appear and are flung at him, presumably by the out of shot crew. He eventually completes the exorcism and then lighting strikes a wall in the house and the credits roll. The end!


Lisa & the Devil and The House of Exorcism make for an interesting, if somewhat arduous double feature. It is fascinating, and troubling, to see how one film was transformed into something completely different and subsequently highlight how things can turn sour when commercial success takes priority over artistic integrity.

‘Don’t break my balls, priest.’

2 comments:

Tower Farm said...

"Lisa & the Devil and The House of Exorcism make for an interesting, if somewhat arduous double feature". Arduous, for sure! I have watched both of these bores. I can't imagine trying to get through them back to back!

JM

James said...

What can I say JM? That's just how I roll.
Lisa and the Devil may have had its fair share of impenetrableness, and sure - the pacing at times was somewhat 'unenthusiastic' - but I certainly didn't find it boring!

;)