Thursday, 23 January 2014

Lisa and the Devil (1974) - Blu-Ray review

Lisa and the Devil is a movie I’ve written about before but now that I’ve had a chance to see it on Blu-Ray (in Arrow’s three-disc Region B release), and given that it remains one of my all-time favourite movies, it seems worth taking the opportunity to re-evaluate it. It’s a decade since I last saw the film and re-watching it has only increased my admiration for it.

After the success of Baron Blood in 1972 producer Alfredo Leone gave Mario Bava almost complete freedom to make his next movie in whatever way he chose. Sadly things did not turn out as either Leone or Bava hoped.

As is perhaps fitting for a movie about the Devil Lisa and the Devil was a very unlucky movie. It was a great success with audiences at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival but in spite of this failed to be picked up by distributors. A year later, with the movie still unsold, producer Alfredo Leone persuaded Bava to allow him to make major changes to the film, changes that involved not just recutting the movie but doing extensive reshoots. Bava initially was agreeable to this and did some of the reshooting himself but eventually decided that it had gone much too far and refused to have anything more to do with the process, leaving Leone to direct many of the new scenes himself. The result of the reshoots was a movie that would be released, very successfully, as House of Exorcism, but a movie that bore little resemblance to Bava’s original vision.

Leone is often cast as the villain for effectively trashing Bava’s masterpiece. This is a little unfair. The fact is that the horror market had changed dramatically by 1973. The loosening of censorship allowed horror film-makers to rely on sex and gore at the expense of mood and atmosphere and they took enthusiastic advantage of this new freedom (with results that were commercially successful but artistically disastrous). Audiences came to expect gore-fests and had little patience with subtle horror. Movies like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby made gothic horror seem old-fashioned and the mammoth success of The Exorcist in 1972 sounded the death knell for horror movies with period settings.

The result of these changes was that in 1973 no distributor was willing to touch a movie so  emphatically and deliberately old-fashioned in style as Lisa and the Devil. None of this was Leone’s fault and his only chance of getting any return on the movie was to turn it into something that could be marketed, such as an Exorcist rip-off.

The tragedy of Lisa and the Devil is that had it been released six or seven years earlier it might well have been a major success. The tragedy for Bava is that he did not live long enough to see his film rediscovered and finally earning the praise it deserved.

Lisa and the Devil was filmed in late 1972. Elke Sommer had starred in Baron Blood and she and Bava had gotten along well (probably because being a painter herself she understood a director who was more interested in the visuals than the characters). Sommer and Telly Savalas were signed to the lead roles, Sommer as Lisa and Savalas as the Devil. Bava had hoped to get Anthony Perkins on board as well but this idea fell through. Veteran actress Alida Valli was cast in the key role of the Countess with a strong supporting cast.

While the screenplay is credited to Bava and Alfredo Leone several other writers had been involved, most notably Roberto Natale and Romano Migliorini. Right from the beginning though this was Bava’s project and he seems to have been the one responsible for most of the key ideas.

The story itself is less important than the way it is told. Lisa (Elke Sommer) is a tourist in Toledo in Spain. In a square in the city she sees a fresco depicting the Devil transporting the dead to Hell. This establishes the movie’s major theme. She becomes lost and encounters a man who bears a striking resemblance to the Devil as depicted in the fresco. She will later discover that the man, who is buying a mannequin in an antique shop, is Leandro (Telly Savalas). And the audience will later discover that Leandro is the Devil. Leandro gives Lisa directions and she turns into a narrow street at which point the blurring of reality and illusion, of past and present, begins. She accepts a lift from a wealthy couple, the Lehars, in a vintage Packard limousine. The car breaks down and Lisa, the Lehars and their chauffeur are put up for the night in the palatial villa of a woman we know only as the Contessa (Alida Valli). The Contessa lives there with her son Maximilian (Alessio Orana) and her butler Leandro.

From this point on the narrative becomes less and less linear and more and more elliptical.  Lisa is apparently the exact double of a woman named Elena, a woman who had been involved in a perverse romantic triangle with Maximilian and the Contessa’s husband (and Maximilian’s step-father) Carlos.

The movie starts out quite clearly in the 1970s but from the moment that Lisa encounters the Lehars in their vintage limousine the time element starts to become doubtful. Perhaps Lisa has found herself in the past, or perhaps these other characters have somehow found themselves in what would be for them the future. Or perhaps we’re in a world outside of time as it normally understood (the broken watches and the clock without hands certainly suggest this). We may be in a world of ghosts, or even in Hell.

Bava is careful not to offer us any certainties on these matters. Dream and reality, life and death, seem to merge. This may be a dream of death dreamt by the living or a dream of life dreamt by the dead. Or a little of both.

The movie is liberally littered with mannequins, a fitting symbol for the blurring of the lines between reality and illusion. Leandro is a kind of puppet master and perhaps in truth we are all puppets manipulated by the Devil.

It’s quite possible that the people Lisa encounters in the Contessa’s house have been dead for forty years.

There’s a good deal of black comedy, more than one expects in an Italian horror film, but the comedy adds to the horror rather than defusing it. Leandro is a humorous kind of Devil and the idea that the Devil would have a sense of humour is entirely consistent with the mood of the movie.

The movie was to some extent inspired by Bava’s admiration for the novels of Dostoyevsky and the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. While the movie might be stylistically old-fashioned thematically it’s extremely modern. It deals not so much with the supernatural itself as with the nature of reality and the mystery of death. Bava was a religious man so it’s fair to say that it also deals with the question of damnation.

Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer were inspired casting choices. Savalas gives a career-best performance as the Devil with a twinkle in his eye while Sommer has exactly the right kind of slightly doll-like look.

Arrow’s Region B Blu-Ray offers an anamorphic transfer. While this is probably the best the movie has ever looked there are some minor problems. The picture is a little soft at times. Whether the Blu-Ray offers any significant advantage over the DVD (also included in Arrow’s three-disc package) is somewhat debatable. Either way the transfer is good enough to allow us to appreciate the visual brilliance of the film and that after all is what matters. Both Italian and English soundtracks are included. The English dub is excellent and there’s no real reason to prefer the Italian, especially given that Italian movies of this era were always post-dubbed anyway. Arrow have sweetened the deal with a host of extras including a commentary track by Tim Lucas and a booklet including an essay on the film by Stephen Thrower. Arrow’s release also includes the House of Exorcism version, with both movies on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The inclusion of both the English and the much rarer Italian dub is another bonus.

Lisa and the Devil had a limited theatrical release in Spain and then vanished from view for many years. Today it stands as not only Bava’s masterwork but also as possibly the greatest of all European gothic horror movies. Very highly recommended.

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