Review: Lisa and the Devil / Cert: 18 / Director: Mario Bava / Screenplay: Mario Bava, Alfredo Leone / Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Alida Valli, Alessio Orano / Release Date: Out Now
The great Italian director Mario Bava had his struggles and disappointments in his later years, never more so than with Lisa and the Devil – a film that, while not technically his last, has the feeling of a swansong. It's not his most accessible movie, but it shows this wonderful auteur bowing out in style.
This baroque and puzzling tale sees the eponymous character (Sommer), a tourist, getting lost on an excursion and having a series of increasingly bizarre encounters, which finally result in her spending the night in the splendid but intimidating abode of a blind Countess (Valli) and her son, Maximilian (Orano), who seems to mistake her for an old flame called Elena. Her presence triggers a re-enactment of some unresolved drama of infidelity, murder and lost love. Or so it seems – it's hard to be sure of anything, because, years before David Lynch and decades before Holy Motors and Berberian Sound Studio, the film twists and turns in accordance to an elusive dream logic.
There's a pervasive air of melancholy and unease, undercut with a vein of surreal, absurdist comedy: an elaborate feast is interrupted by heavy footsteps upstairs and a wine bottle crashing to the floor. As usual, moments of brutal violence act as a foil to the dreamy lushness of the visuals, but this this time they seem to come out of thin air – a wife repeatedly drives over her husband with a car, crushing him to a pulp, only to fall foul of a mystery assailant herself. It's cryptic, perturbing, challenging, but, as always with Bava, you come away with a haul of unforgettable imagery (a bunch of bloodstained cadavers sitting around a dining table, a skeleton laid out in a rotting four-poster bed) and it has sequences as fine as any he made. The last reel, in particular, matches for hallucinatory intensity anything conjured up by Dario Argento, the director who stole Bava's crown as Italy's prince of cinematic darkness.
The film wasn't a hit, and later on it was re-cut with new footage into one of those pasta possession flicks that rode the wave of The Exorcist. Both versions are present and correct in glorious HD on this release and treated to fascinating audio commentaries (including contributions from Elke Sommer), with a 'making of' tying everything together nicely. While you feel sorry for Bava, there's a certain fascination in seeing how the material was reshaped, and he would be delighted with the stunning transfers – the depth of Blu-ray immerses you in his strange, valedictory drama more completely than ever, and it's like you can touch the brocade on Alida Valli's dress.
Extras: Both version of the film – 'Lisa and the Devil' and 'The House of Exorcism' producer's cut / Audio commentary on 'Lisa and the Devil' by Bava biographer Tim Lucas / Audio commentary on 'The House of Exorcism' by producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer / Introduction to both films by author and critic Alan Jones / 'The Exorcism of Lisa' – the making of both versions of the film / Deleted scene / Original trailers