Often seen as the godfather of the Italian giallo movie and a pioneer of the modern slasher film, Mario Bava has made movies that deal with both the supernatural (Black Sunday, Kill Baby, Kill) and the evils of humanity (A Bay of Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon). And sometimes, he mixed the two with horrifying results. A perfect example of this kind of subgenre mashup is his surreal 1973 movie Lisa and the Devil.
Lisa and the Devil is about a young American woman named (of course) Lisa (Elke Sommer from The Astral Factor and Baron Blood) who is vacationing in Spain. While looking at a fresco of the devil carrying a dead body, Lisa is lured away from her tour group by the sound of a music box. She locates the source of the music, a small antique shop, and in it she sees a man named Leandro (“Kojak” himself, Telly Savalas) who is the spitting image of the devil in the fresco. Spooked by Leandro, Lisa runs from the shop and gets lost in the streets of the town. She is picked up by a car, owned by a rich man named Francis Leher (Eduardo Fajardo from Oasis of the Zombies and Nightmare City) and his wife, Sophie (Silva Koscina from the Hercules movies), and driven by their chauffeur, George (Gabriele Tinti from The Flight of the Phoenix), but no sooner is she riding in the car than it breaks down. The four travelers knock on the door of the closest villa and are invited in by the occupants, a blind old countess (Eyes Without a Face’s Alida Valli) and her son, Maximillian (The Most Beautiful Wife’s Alessio Orano). The minute Max lays eyes on Lisa, he believes her to be the reincarnation of his lost love. Lisa, however, is more concerned with the fact that Leandro, the devil-looking man from the antique shop, is the butler for the villa. As if that isn’t enough, George the chauffeur is having an affair with the rich man’s wife, sparking jealousy and betrayal between all of them. Lisa and her travelers are exposed to murder and mayhem as they are forced to spend the night in the secluded villa.
There are six writers who worked on Lisa and the Devil; aside from Bava and his producer, Alfredo Leone (Rabid Dogs), four other screenwriters – the writing team of Roberto Natale and Romano Migliorini (Bloody Pit of Horror, Kill Baby, Kill), writer Francesca Rusishka and actor Giorgio Maulini – all did uncredited work on the script. All of the cooks in the kitchen may explain Lisa and the Devil’s crazy smorgasbord of styles. There’s a little bit of everything in the movie; not only is it a cool combination of a slasher movie and a spooky ghost flick, but it’s got, among other things, a jealousy fueled love-triangle, a son with mommy issues, a damsel-in-distress who hallucinates threats to her well-being, and a fast-and-furious body count that proves to the audience that no one in the film is safe. By the time it gets to the lengthy and dialogue-heavy third act, the story is so surreal that the audience can’t help but wonder what the hell is going on with it. To add further confusion, the movie was re-edited with a handful of additional exorcism scenes and released as The House of Exorcism to cash in on the American success of The Exorcist, resulting in two different movies with identical casts and crews. The re-release just served to befuddle audiences even more with its random possession; Bava’s original cut of Lisa and the Devil was, at least, an organized chaos.
Aside from being chaotic and crazy, Lisa and the Devil is also surprisingly funny. The performances of Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas are brilliantly melodramatic, and keep the mood light in an otherwise horrifying film. Sommer spends most of the movie doing what she does best, which is looking pretty and screaming her head off. Savalas’ Leandro steals the show with his hilarious, almost slapsticky gags. In one scene, he is shown trying to fit a body in a coffin that is too short, so he just snaps the legs at the shin. In other scenes, Leandro carries a mannequin around with him that, in some shots, becomes a real actor playing dead. It’s all very surreal – and hysterical, punctuated by Leandro’s ever-present lollipop (a famous prop carried over to the film from Savalas’ Kojak character). The hilarity is not limited to Sommer and Savalas, however; for example, in one segment of the film, a character is run over by a car. Just the simple running over is tragic, but the perpetrator backs up, then runs him over again, over and over, until the tragedy becomes comedy. Unintentional or not, Lisa and the Devil is full of laughs.
Mario Bava and cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua (100 Rifles) seem to have had a lot of fun with the photography in Lisa and the Devil, too. Like many giallos, the film is shot in brilliant Technicolor, with bright reds and spooky blues that give the whole thing a comic book-style look. Paniagua makes creative use (and sometimes corny overuse) of reflections, showing important images flashing in rear view mirrors, cigarette case lids, puddles of spilt red wine, or any number of other shiny surfaces. There are also playful match cuts which carefully interchange images of live humans with those of mannequins or toy dolls, signifying how the occupants of the house are all just playthings in the mind of the devil. Although it tries to reel the movie in a bit, the cinematography in Lisa and the Devil is just as wacky and fantastical as the rest of the film.
The music for Lisa and the Devil was written by Carlo Savina (Fangs of the Living Dead, Feast of Satan), and it’s not the typical horror movie stab-stab-stab kind of stuff. The score is creepy and melodramatic, full of suspenseful full-orchestra classical music. The pieces feature string and wind instruments, with melodic themes that sound like they were lifted right out of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Toss in a couple of mellow gold A.M. radio female vocal styling pieces, and that’s pretty much the soundtrack to Lisa and the Devil.
Mario Bava remains one of the most influential filmmakers of the Italian horror movement. He is seen as a pioneer of both the supernatural horror film and the slasher movie, and, as Lisa and the Devil illustrates, sometimes he did it all in the same movie.