Friday, September 5, 2014

Lisa and the Devil vs. The House of Exorcism

With "The House of Exorcism" featured as part of the lineup at next week's Drive-In Super MonsterRama, I thought this was a perfect excuse to gush about one of Mario Bava's most surreal works. If you're a huge Bava fan, or even just a TV junkie who watched a lot of cable movie reruns in the 1980s, you will probably already know this story, but in case you don't then read on.

"The House of Exorcism" began it's toad-vomiting celluloid life as another movie entirely. After a string of movies that did not do well at the box office, Mario Bava delivered a worldwide hit with the movie "Baron Blood", and producer Alfred Leone agreed to give Bava the money to finally make a project he'd been wanting to make for years called "Lisa and the Devil". Shot in 1973 with such notable acting talent as Elke Sommer ("Baron Blood"), Alida Valli ("Suspiria", "Inferno"), and Telly Savalas ("Horror Express"), "Lisa and the Devil" is one of Bava's most indulgent films, a dreamlike narrative full of cryptic moments that are never fully explained but which have an unsettling effect on the viewer. Sommer plays Lisa, a young tourist who becomes separated from the rest of her traveling party and finds herself alone in an unfamiliar city, where she has a bizarre encounter with a man who seems to mistake her for someone else. When he becomes aggressive, she pushes him and he falls down a long flight of stone stairs, apparently dead. Now convinced she has killed someone, Lisa runs off to find help in the apparently deserted city. When she finally finds other people, she's picked up by a married couple and their chauffeur, but after the car breaks down, they're forced to seek shelter in a nearby mansion. The mansion is inhabited by a Countess (Alida Valli) and her weird son Max (Alessio Orano), who is immediately smitten with Lisa and begs the group to stay the night. Overseeing everything is Leandro (Telly Savalas), the unflappable butler of the mansion, who just happens to resemble the fresco Lisa saw in the village square depicting the Devil carrying souls to the underworld. Nothing good comes of this arrangement.
"I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!"

"Lisa and the Devil" is a visual experience where the plot makes little obvious sense. There are recurring themes of mistaken identity, reincarnation, and characters who reappear as either corpses or mannequins, but the script never really states anything explicitly. There are several gruesome moments, but it's fair to say that "Lisa and the Devil" is a slow burn that never blazes. 

"Tell me the truth, does this hat make me look fat?"

"Mein gott, zis ees not Peck and Peck!"

Maybe that's why, when Bava finished the film and offered it to film distributors, nobody wanted it. With no companies interested in releasing the movie, it sat on the shelf until 1975, when Alfred Leone got the idea to try and recoup the film's costs by recutting it and creating an "Exorcist" cash-in, inserting newly filmed footage of Elke Sommer possessed and Robert Alda as an attending priest who attempts to exorcise Lisa's demon. Bava understandably at first refused to cut apart his Mona Lisa, and also objected to the content of the possession scenes, but eventually he got on board after Leone decided to direct the new scenes himself. The finished product, "The House of Exorcism", played American cinemas and drive-ins beginning in the summer of 1976. Although the new version was marketable due to its trendy possession theme, the new scenes with Elke Sommer shrieking in demonic ecstasy and spewing green bile are ridiculous, to say the least, and what we're really seeing is a series of over the top camp moments spliced into an art film. It does give the film a more concrete plot due to the constant narration as the demon speaks to Robert Alda and provides exposition, but it's ultimately meaningless. The arty qualities of "Lisa" never coalesce with the trashy puke-gasm that the possession scenes are obliged to give, so "The House of Exorcism" is one of the most schizophrenic movies you're likely to see in your lifetime. This in itself is a reason to be thrilled about it, not to mention the fact that the gorgeous Elke Sommer seems so committed to her character that she allowed herself to be made ugly for this trashy piece of exploitative filth. It's almost like performance art.

"Tell me your name!"
"I am known as Purloin!"
Fortunately, both versions of the film have remained in circulation for years, "Lisa and the Devil" playing on television frequently in the 70s and 80s and "The House of Exorcism" of course making the rounds in theaters in 1976 (and probably as the second or third feature at drive-ins for the remainder of the decade). IMDB claims that the original cut of "Lisa" premiered on television in 1983, but I distinctly remember watching it on TV late at night years before that, probably around 1977. The film made a deep impression on me, despite the fact that I had no idea what was going on, but I was caught up in its otherworldly atmosphere. "Lisa and the Devil" was the first Mario Bava film I saw, and actually may have been the first Italian horror film I ever saw as well. I remember being haunted by the eerie theme music, and also the bizarre ending of the film ("The House of Exorcism" unforgivably cuts the original ending and substitutes an obligatory but ultimately pointless scene where the priest performs an exorcism, not on Elke Sommer but on the house that contains the evil spirit haunting her). Even though "The House of Exorcism" is a grotesque mutilation of "Lisa and the Devil", you can still see a lot of the original beauty in this cut of the film, because Bava's outstanding cinematography is always present. Plus it's just really fun.

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