DIRECTED BY: Mario Bava
FEATURING: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer
PLOT: A tourist finds herself staying overnight at a Spanish chateau managed by a butler who is the spitting image of Satan as pictured on a local fresco.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A mildly surreal horror, Lisa might make for interesting Halloween watching for the patient, but it’s too slow-paced with too little payoff to be counted among the greatest weird movies.
COMMENTS: “The entire setting is so right for a tall tale of gloom and perdition,” says one of the guests at a banquet as a manservant played by Telly Savalas serves her slices of rare meat. “We could make one up as we go along.” Given the almost random way the script unfolds, you might suspect that this line of dialogue is a confession rather than a throwaway bit of dinner conversation. It’s not always clear whether the frequent lapses of logic in Lisa and the Devil are meant to be part and parcel of the unsettling atmosphere, or are merely the result of lazy, indifferent screenwriting. After one of their party is found murdered, the owner of the estate in the middle of nowhere suggests to the rest of the party stranded there that there is no need to call the police—and they all accept that view calmly without offering much in the way of a counter-argument. Niggling unanswered questions proliferate: How do the chauffeur and the wife find time for a lovemaking liaison when he’s supposed to be fixing the car? Why is Lisa terrified of a pocketwatch she sees on a table? Whether these minor story issues add to the film’s dream logic or merely frustrate you as you try to settle on a context for this fright tale may determine how you react to the movie. Lisa builds to a perverse and spooky third act as the shameful secrets of the chateau are slowly brought to light, but the first two thirds of the movie are slow and often confusing. The main living denizens of the villa, a blind mother and her fey son, are an intense couple, but top-billed Savalas (who sucks on his trademark lollipop here) makes by far the biggest impression as a slyly diabolical butler. He’s not conventionally sinister or overtly threatening, but like most servants he knows more about the secret workings of the chateau than his masters do, and his blasé glances and mysterious smiles suggest a man whose subservience is an ill-fitting mask for a deeper purpose. As Lisa, star Elke Sommer, on the other hand, is little more than a blank pretty face—not her fault, as the script gives her nothing to do other than gasp, scream and fall unconscious. Lisa has no history and no reason is given for her straying from her tour group, and she is swept along by events with a bewildered expression, offering no resistance. Passivity is her only real character trait. Her lack of dialogue stands out: other characters divulge shocking confessions to her, and she has nothing to say in response. It’s not clear if her silence is a deliberate choice to make her a mysterious tabula rasa, or whether the character is simply underwritten. If it was a conscious decision, I’m not sure the gamble pays off; we are given little reason to care about the fate of this ambiguous protagonist. On the plus side, Bava’s films are always visually luscious, and Lisa is no exception. The dusty Spanish town and the aristocratic villa give him plenty of lush color to work with, and in her mod short blue skirt and mint green blazer, Sommer looks perfectly out of place romping through these classical vistas. She’s as dislocated in her fashion as she is in her psychology. A flashback/dream sequence set in a sylvan glade supplies a visual highlight, and foreshadows a later scene of a nude Sommer waking in a similar-looking ruins. Savalas’ offhand conversations with his collection of life-sized dummies and an ending that induces shivers despite being somewhat obvious are other memorable bits in this oft-odd spook story. The movie has assets: Savalas, the cinematography, and a few moments of thrilling disorientation. At its best it plays like the dream of a mad ghost; but overall this sepulchral tale is too lifeless for a general recommendation. Fans of slow-paced atmospheric horror may find it a worth taking a chance on, though.
Lisa and the Devil was a flop in Italy and was not picked up for American distribution. Producer Alfredo Leone then decided to try to salvage the movie by re-cutting it and shooting new footage with Sommer and Robert Alda (as a priest) to turn the film into an Exorcist clone; the resulting mess was released in the States as The House of Exorcism. It flopped. The 2012 Kino Classics release contains both versions of the film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Bava art on full display, voluptuous and oneiric…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.com (DVD)