Today: February 29, 2024

Lisa and the Devil

Back in the 1970s, the makers of European exploitation films often tried to increase their profits by releasing multiple cuts of the same film.

Back in the 1970s, the makers of European exploitation films often
tried to increase their profits by releasing multiple cuts of the same film.

For example, if softcore pornography were proving successful in Japan, the
producers would send their Japanese distributors a version of the film with
more nudity, less violence and a score featuring a lot of bass and saxophone.
Similarly, if American audiences happened to be responding to graphic violence,
then screeching violins would replace the saxophones and extended sex-scenes
would give way to gruesome special effects. As a result of this, many European
exploitation films lack a single definitive cut; they are not so much films as
they are variations on a cinematic theme. Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil is an excellent example of this phenomenon as
the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist prompted the producer to
add a number of scenes that effectively transform the film from a Horror version
of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to a sort of psychological
thriller with supernatural elements. Both versions of the film are included on
the discs and both are absolutely fascinating.

The film begins as a sinister man
with a wax dummy (Telly Savalas)
lures a young woman named Lisa (Elke
) away from her tour party. Lost and afraid, Lisa soon attaches
herself to a wealthy couple in a vintage car only for the couple to wind up
spending the night in a vast mansion inhabited only by a deranged noblewoman (Sylvia Koschina), her overly
affectionate son Max (Alessio Orano)
and the sinister dummy-wrangler who turns out to be their butler. Trapped
between the sexual hysteria of the wealthy couple and the increasingly
hysterical romantic gestures of Max (who believes her to be his long lost
love), Lisa sinks into a world of madness, memory and passion where nothing is
as it first appears.

Lisa and the Devil is a
stylistically uncomfortable film. Set in a magnificent gothic mansion, the
film’s candelabras and sweeping staircases appear oddly out of place amidst the
production’s garish colours and aggressive lighting. However, rather than
arising from poor creative decision, this stylistic dissonance is entirely
keeping with the film’s themes of heightened passion, clouded memory and
temporal repetition. In fact, this tension between the film’s setting and the
manner in which the setting of shot lends the film a feeling of staged
artificiality, as though Bava were intentionally revisiting an old story using new
cinematic techniques.

This feeling of artificiality
is fiercely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and both works
feel like products of an aging creator reflecting upon the theatricality of
their own lives. However, while Shakespeare clearly identified with the aging
wizard Prospero, Bava appears to identify with Savalas’ satanic butler, a
character forever fussing with cheap special effects and grease paint in an
effort to control what people see and how they feel. The melancholic nature of
this identification is even more evident when Lisa snaps out of her reverie
amidst wax dummies and ruined buildings: when the film ends, the audience picks
up their stuff and leaves while the reality of the film decays in their minds
and nothing is left but ghosts.

Released in the aftermath of The
Exorcist, the American cut of the film entitled House of Exorcism frames Lisa’s hallucinatory journey as the fever
dream of a woman undergoing an exorcism. Though less thematically interesting
than the original cut of the film, the alternate version actually works better
as a horror movie. However, the beauty of this release by Arrow Films is that
you not only get both versions of the film, you also get an absolutely
magnificent assortment of interviews and commentary tracks explaining why the
various versions exist and how they relate to one another. In an age of
half-based and insubstantial DVD extras, these discussions do not only help you
to better appreciate an already excellent film, they also shed a fascinating
light on the process of making, marketing and re-releasing films. There really
is more to the process than letting Ridley
have a second go at extracting a coherent story from his latest
bloated epic.

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