Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism (1973/74)

Director: Mario Bava (and Alfredo Leone on The House of Exorcism)

Bava had a respectable hit with Baron Blood, however much of a throwback it may have seemed to its critics, and his relationship with his producer Alfredo Leone was solid as a result. So Leone basically gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for his next film. The film Bava made was a thing called Lisa and the Devil, a story he’d apparently wanted to do for years, which I gather is now regarded in some quarters as maybe his best film. I’d hesitate to go that far myself, but, without admittedly having seen his entire oeuvre, I think we can call it his strangest. The Italian horror film’s predisposition to being light on narrative logic is rather beautifully illustrated here in a way I don’t think Bava otherwise really attempted; somehow, though, Bava managed to create a feeling of something genuinely dreamlike rather than merely being nonsensical. Once again Bava was stuck having to use actual locations (including a castle in Toledo), but once again the production company’s dictates were actually to the film’s benefit, Bava got good use from his castle “set”. Basically, the story involves a young tourist getting lost in Toledo, becoming entangled with Telly Savalas’ mysterious man first seen purchasing a strange life-size dummy; she falls in with a similarly odd couple and their chauffeur, whose car gets into trouble outside an ominous castle… where Savalas is the butler, the countess who owns the place is blind, and there’s apparently another guest roaming about who shouldn’t be there. This is roughly where the letters W, T and F really begin to exert their influence upon the film, which takes quite a long time to begin to make sense, and even then I’m not sure it exactly does… But there’s something fascinating about it nonetheless; Savalas—lollipop and all—is stunning as Leandro, who he plays with ghoulish relish that makes him a magnetic presence throughout, and the film offers a wealth of striking imagery. It communicates something, even if I can’t put my finger on quite what it is or quite how it does. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect and general atmosphere.

So, Bava made the film he wanted to make. There was just one slight problem… no one wanted to buy the damn thing. Tim Lucas’ DVD commentary on Lisa says the only country where it played was Spain; otherwise, Leone’s attempts to sell it to US distributors at Cannes were failures. (To be honest, it’s hard to blame them; if you wanted to have a commercial hit with a horror film even then, you’d probably want it to be a bit less wilfully bizarre too.) Staring catastrophe in the face, he eventually convinced the not terribly happy Bava that Lisa needed an overhaul… and the recent success of a little film called The Exorcist gave him, shall we say, inspiration for how to carry it out. All they needed to do was cut chunks from Lisa, write a new character, shoot a bunch of new scenes, and boom. Instant new saleable film.

Hence, The House of Exorcism. Which I remember turning up here on VHS in the mid to late 90s via some  dubious label, and it could very well have been my first exposure to Mario Bava—who I’d probably heard of by that time—if I hadn’t been wary of it for some reason. I don’t know why, but I was. And it appears my instincts were onto something way back when. As post-production refitting of this sort goes, House is astoundingly poor. The new scenes are atrocities; Elke Sommer—who admired Bava’s work and was bitterly disappointed by Lisa‘s failure to sell, and who apparently agreed to do the reshoots for nothing—attacks her profanity-laden “possession” scenes with great vigour, but that’s not enough to make them actually any good. They’re quite poorly integrated into the existing film, not least because of their markedly different visual character, and their blank cheap-shock tone also clashes with the original’s more refined atmospherics; they’re bad enough to drag down the good stuff from the original film with them and makes those things seem bad too. I can’t exactly blame Bava for his refusal to direct this new business, which he insisted on Leone doing; if anything, House makes even *less* sense than Lisa, sacrificing the latter’s carefully established overall feeling of strangeness. Lisa and the Devil is an imperfect but interesting work by someone with a real gift for that sort of cinema that I’ll revisit in future; The House of Exorcism is something I’ll quite gladly never watch again.

Written for the 4th Annual Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

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