“What does tradition mean to a poor devil like me?” says butler Leandro, measuring up Lisa like an undertaker in a spaghetti Western. He makes mannequins from the souls he’s ensnared that may or may not come to life to torment and tempt the living, and he may or may not be Satan himself.
Left to his own devices by producer Alfredo Leone, flushed by the success of his previous film, 1971 slasher progenitor Twitch Of The Death Nerve and 1972’s surprisingly poor but financially successful Baron Blood, 1973’s Lisa And The Devil, isn’t the Italian horror auteur’s worst, but it’s perhaps one of his most impenetrable.
Put together entirely without studio interference and against a backdrop of Dario Argento making similarly stylish and expressionist thrillers like 1970’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Bava made one of the most outright surreal films of the age, pre-empting Argento’s later peak with his own parable of one woman’s descent into hell alongside a rogues’ gallery of necrophiliacs, murderers, liars and cheats.
A tourist of anonymous origin, Lisa Reiner (Ten Little Indians‘ Elke Sommer) is visiting a crumbling medieval city in Spain with a tour group when she’s drawn into a workshop by music, there Leandro (Terry Savalas, star of Kojak and godfather to Jennifer Aniston) is working on a mannequin, thoroughly creeped out she backs out of the workshop and into an unfamiliar street, a deserted labyrinth of dusty stonework. Unable to find her party of slack-jawed sightseers, she is forced to take refuge in the crumbling mansion of blind countess (The Third Man and Suspiria‘s Alida Valli) and her slimy son Maximilian (Alessio Orano), and Leandro pops up again, introducing himself to be the butler. From thereon in it only gets weirder as dream sequences, Catherine Cookson TV movie music, horrible Seventies movie sex, bad Seventies outfits, and a little light murder are dealt out like the deck of cards in the title sequence.
Guaranteed to be a frustrating, remote-lobbing viewing experience for many, there’s little in the way of explanation, although plenty of room for speculation and enough heavy duty GCSE psychology symbolism to work out vaguely what’s going on. As the cards in the opening credits make clear, it’s all a game and the house always wins.
It’s sad, but not unsurprising that Bava and Leone struggled to find buyers and the film was re-cut and a tawdry exorcism scene spot-welded onto it so it could be sold to the US as House Of Exorcism in 1975 and follow The Exorcist‘s 1973 vomit trail into the cinemas. Though both versions are included on the Blu-ray release – and House Of Exorcism is only worth watching as a sort of awkward and opportunistic curio – Lisa And The Devil was only released in its original form after Bava’s death in 1980. Making its debut ingloriously on US TV in 1984, it’s an intelligent and literate film and it deserved far better. Like Lisa running around the battered corridors of her own inferno, poor old Bava was just another unassuming captive being strung along by the puppetmaster.
While it has undeniably fantastic visuals and a brilliantly OTT ending, a slightly hallucinogenic, feverish atmosphere of decay and rot, and the sort of symbolism that makes film students go weak at the knees, Lisa And The Devil as a slab of celluloid entertainment is a frustrating and incomplete experience. Events unfold and details are revealed – and there’s plenty there to pick up on in your second or third viewing – but in knowing so little about the character of Lisa – who is less a role and more of a narrative tool – we’re not invested in her fate and in it purely for the lurid spectacle of Seventies filmmaking excess by one of the genre’s real masters.