Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Lisa & the Devil

1972
Dir. 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 in the town square. Becoming lost in the myriad streets, she eventually hitches a ride with a bickering couple and their driver. When their car breaks down outside a mysterious villa, they are invited to stay by its occupant – Max, a nervous young man who lives there with his overbearing mother (Alida Valli) and their butler Leandro (Savalas again). Lisa's resemblance to Max’s former lover seems to stir something sinister within the house and someone begins murdering the guests. Lisa soon begins to lose hope as she navigates her way through what can only be described as a waking nightmare, peopled with bodies and mannequins…

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.



The film premiered at Cannes, and whilst lauded by critics, Bava failed to find a distributor and the film looked set to languish on a dusty shelf in some forgotten archive. 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 a writhing, bile drenched and obscenity spewing Sommer, and Robert Alda in a thankless role as the Priest who would save her soul. The film, credited to director ‘Mickey Lion’ (one of Bava’s more obscure pseudonyms), went on to obtain somewhat dubious international success.

The original camera negative of Lisa & the Devil was recently uncovered in the lab of a vault in Rome and has been lovingly restored and re-mastered to finally showcase the film Bava intended his audiences to see. And what a film it is! Bava’s love letter to death and decay wields an overwhelmingly romanticised morbidity, enhanced by its surreal logic and meandering narrative and all the directorial aplomb one would expect from the director.

Opening with some wonderfully chic credits, in which each of the cast members appear on playing cards dealt out by Savalas, accompanied by the strains of Carlo Savino’s elegant score, the film already exudes class and just the right amount of kitsch. The story opens as Lisa breaks away from her tour group – after seeing a creepy fresco in the town square depicting the devil carrying off the souls of the dead - to follow the twinkling sounds of a music box to an old antique shop. Here she meets a man with a mannequin (!) who bears a striking resemblance to the Devil in the fresco. Unnerved, she leaves the shop and becomes entangled in the web of eerily deserted streets before having a strange encounter with a man (who looks like the mannequin Savalas had) who insists he knows her. The impromptu meeting ends with the man taking a tumble down a stone staircase to his ‘death.’ Lisa continues her trek through the winding streets – the same arched streets Bava used to nightmarish effect in Kill Baby Kill – until night falls. The viewer may be forgiven for becoming as disorientated as Lisa thanks to the frantic editing of these scenes and the weirdly tilting camera angles, conveying a skewed vantage of the world that will continue to haunt the remainder of the film.



After the car of the tense couple Lisa hitches a ride with breaks down outside an immense villa, the group are invited to stay by the young owner, Max. He seems drawn to Lisa – and his mother warns him to stay away from the young woman.
Lisa wanders through the spookily lit house whilst Sophia, the woman who gave Lisa a lift, makes love with her driver. Once again Lisa is stalked by the mannequin/man she encountered in the streets of the town. Fleeing into the arms of Max, events become even more confounding when he welcomes her ‘back’ and seems insistent they also know each other. Turns out she bears an uncanny resemblance to his former lover Elena who ran off with his stepfather Carlo (the mannequin/man). Still with me?

Is Lisa possessed by Elena? Is she Elena in some sort of reincarnated form? At times the obtuse nature of events becomes a little tedious. At times Lisa has dreams or flashbacks depicting her as Elena cavorting with Carlo in soft-focused meadows and woodlands. In much the same way as Roman Polanski’s What?, the characters here seem overwhelmingly accepting of their strange situation, and simply wander through it in a somnambulistic manner; which would indicate that Bava is more keen to explore themes and ideas, rather than tell a straightforward story. All we have as an anchor is his assured direction, which makes for an oddly unsafe sensation whilst watching the film. Anything could happen. When it does, Bava’s camera caresses it, saturating it in funereal grandeur and opulence.

The use of classical music in certain scenes to accompany somewhat cryptic actions, such as when Max burns a photo of Elena or when the blind Countess touches Lisa’s face, seems to signify we are witnessing some strangely significant event. These moments verge on being overwrought, however because Bava ceaselessly imbues everything with such poetry and odd lyricism, it all bleeds into one majestic dreamscape. Exquisite use is made of JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez; apparently Bava played it on set to get the actors in the appropriate mood.



The violence, when it occurs, cuts through the hazy atmosphere like a primal scream. Sophia, believing her husband has murdered her lover, avenges herself by repeatedly driving over him in a shockingly effective scene. She is then bludgeoned to death by Max, but not before she is stalked through the luridly lit villa in a scene that easily recalls Suzy’s midnight wanderings in Suspiria. Parallels can also be drawn with Kill Baby Kill; not only are some of the same streets re-used here, but Bava also swirls together a similar atmosphere, tinged with something otherworldly and saturated in a preoccupation with death and dying.

Indeed, this notion is further highlighted in a deeply unsettling scene where Max drugs Lisa and begins to have sex with her limp body as she lays in the same bed as the skeletal remains of Elena in a moment that lingers like a disturbing visual poem. After this, Max is confronted by his dead mother in a purple-lit dinning room where the bodies of his guests are seated at a table. When Max falls to his death, Leandro appears again to reveal that the bodies are mannequins…
The mannequins in the film at times come to life – and the various murder victims are later seen as mannequins. It would appear that the Devil has a hand in this and he relishes seeing these unfortunates come back to life briefly to re-live tragic past events in some sort of infernal, cyclical nightmare. Perhaps when he obtains their souls, they become his puppets, forever doomed to succumb to his eternal manipulation – ‘performing’ for his twisted pleasure.

As Leandro/The Devil, Savalas is obviously having a ball. His portrayal is mischievous and roguish as he sucks on his now trademark lolly pop and seems to be the only character with any clue as to what is going on. Elke Sommer exudes fragility as Lisa – and though characterisation is pretty much completely disregarded in this film, she occupies each frame with grace and intrigue – her confusion and vulnerability garnering some sympathy.



As the film nears its end (beginning?) the increasingly lavish sets and lighting are nothing short of breathtaking. In a truly mind-boggling and captivatingly beautiful scene, Lisa awakens naked on a bed in a room filled with foliage and trees. As the camera slowly pulls back we realise the room is in the middle of a serene forest. Emerging back into ‘civilisation’ she notices that the villa is now a mass of ruins.
The Twilight Zone like finale onboard an empty aeroplane – where Lisa discovers the only other passengers are the bodies of the other characters and the plane is piloted by the Devil – is downbeat and grim. It echoes the likes of Carnival of Souls, in which individuals are doomed to wander through a purgatory nowhere-land, never finding peace and always stalked by the guilt of past actions and misdeeds. At one point, Lisa encounters a group of school girls who refer to her as a ghost.

With Lisa & the Devil, Bava has concocted a languid, oneric film that unravels as a weird stream of consciousness; free flowing from one alluring moment to the next without concern for logic or reason, like the abstract notion of a ghost gliding through an empty and ornate house. As provocative, challenging, hauntingly macabre as it is obscure and infuriating, it is never anything short of captivating and surely must rank as one of this director’s most breathtaking and bewitching works.

11 comments:

SteveStayAtHomeDad said...

For whatever reason this is a Bava movie I've never heard of. Odd, and added to Netflix.

James said...

Hi Steve. Yeah, up until quite recently it was quite hard to come by. A friend gave me the second Bava boxset for my birthday and this was one of the films inside. I loved it - its just so creepy and surreal. I also quite enjoyed The House of Exorcism too (its on the same disc with commentary by the producer and Elke Sommer) - but in a way I feel very guilty about! If you are a fan of Bava's work you should check it out. Hope you enjoy it.
Thanks for stopping by.

Aaron said...

This whole time I thought they were the same movie. I have the same Bava box set and I thought they were both the same movie because RABID DOGS and KIDNAPPED are both on one disc and they turned out to be the exact same movie. I might have to check LISA and HOUSE OF EXORCISM out soon!

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

Hey Aaron. They sort of are the same movie - but House of Exorcism was re-edited by the producer and has a few scenes cut completely, replacing them with a silly (though admittedly humorous) possession sub-plot in which Elke Sommer spews bile, frogs and a whole bunch of swear words. Oh my! The 'Lisa and the Devil' cut (Bava's original) is by far the superior version, in my own humble opinion.
Hope you are well - y'all come again now, y'hear!

Carl (ILHM) said...

I want so badly to like LISA AND THE DEVIL more, if for nothing more than to appreciate Bava's struggle to bring this one to the screen. I like it, but there are so many other Bava films that I place above this one. Very surreal and nightmarish!

James said...

Agreed Carl - so good to see this film how Bava initially intended it to be seen. I reckon Black Sunday/Mask of Satan is still my 'fav Bav' film - but this one also ranks up there for me. And Kill Baby Kill. And Blood and Black Lace. And Bay of Blood. And Black Sabbath. And...

;)

Lysergic Earwax said...

"Lisa" is an absolute Bava masterpiece and there is something about it which often reminds me of "Last Year At Marienbad" (another absolute masterpiece). I've never got round to watching the copy of "House Of Exorcism" on my double movie dvd set, but now you've given me the impetus to have a a go at it...

James said...

I agree with you - absolutely something about it that evokes Marienbad. Its probably all that dream (ie. lack of) logic and somnambulist wandering around.
Good to see you on here - don't be a stranger.

Cody said...

How have I never heard of this one? It sounds amazing. I am planning to watch it directly.

James said...

I hope you love it as much as I do, Cody! It's so extravagant and lush and weird. I think it was somewhat overshadowed by the producer's cut - House of Exorcism - which has NONE of the lyricism of Bava's cut. Enjoy!