Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Director Report Card: Mario Bava (1972-1974)

19. Lisa and the Devil
“Lisa and the Devil” is rift with visual symbolism, more so then any of the director’s previous films. Cross paths, mannequins, heads, darkened forest, music boxes, clocks, white roses, and many more reoccurring items appear and reappear. There seems to be quite a bit of philosophical discussion rumbling under the surface of the film, about life, death, family, guilt, and acceptance. While all of this is well and good, the story is thematically jumbled. There’s almost too much going on here. Is this an Italian operatic take on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek?” An Oedipal story of guilt and infidelity? Or a very Bava-like story of curses, resurrection, and vengeful ghosts? It’s trying to be all of these things and the lack of focus hurts more then it helps.

What does help the film are Bava’s traditional obsessions. One of the main focuses of the film is the setting, an old gothic mansion. Architecture is such a strong reoccurring motif in Bava’s work. While the darkened gardens and older rooms of the mansion recall the Villa Graps of “Kill, Baby, Kill!” the wild wallpapers and labyrinthine decoration of most rooms are more modern. It’s a chilly sort of new gothic, a colorful dreamlike state of confusion and dread. Beyond the fantastic setting, what’s best about the movie is the music. The use of the dreamy “Concerto d’Aranjeuz” is hugely successful while Carlo Savina’s original music is equally gorgeous and melancholy.

Bava did not handle the cinematography, handing it over to Cecilio Paniagua due to contractual reasons. Despite this, a number of Bava style shots are in the film. A tracking shot that slides through the various rooms of the house is fantastic. The camera looms over several shots, drawling attention to the intense arrangement of artifacts in the rooms. The wax heads are by far the most interesting reoccurring symbols. A long pan out towards the end of the film, in a jungle-like bedroom, is my favorite shot. The movie does manage quite a few surreal moments of strange offness. Bava’s use of zooms are often rightfully criticized as his one visual flaw. But zooms are actually used interestingly here, drawling back harshly to emphasize characters’ reactions.

The cast is quite good. While Telly Savalas’ title devil is actually more of a supporting role, the sadistic gleam in his eyes goes a long way. Savalas has a fantastic monologue midway through the film, a great scene that seems to exist for no other reason to show off the actor’s ability. Elke Sommer is confused and frightened for most of the film as Lisa. Her best moment comes near the end, when she’s allowed to play amazed and curious as well. Alessio Orano is great as the anxious, neurotic son Maxmillion. His best moment comes when the ghost of his dead lover forces him to break down into tears and maniacal laughter during a slightly necrophilic love scene. Alida Valli’s role as the blind Countess is mystical and cold while Sylvia Koscina’s plunging neckline provides great eye-candy.

Bava seems to be intentionally spacing himself from his horror roots in this film. Its ghosts, murders, and reincarnation are window-dressing on a tale of dysfunctional family politics, repressed sexuality, and existential crossroads. It doesn’t work. It’s no surprise that the movie’s best moments are its most blatantly horrific. A car related murder is fantastically fierce. People are bludgeoned and stalked by a killer in a red bishop’s robe, in a great scene right out of a giallo.

“Lisa and the Devil” attempts to be a surreal fable and a Freudian nightmare. It is most successful during the beginning and the ending, where it lets its sweeping architecture and myriad symbols speak for themselves. It was an ambitious failure for Bava. His lack of focus prevents the crafting of a truly satisfying feature. [Grade: C+]

19.5 The House of Exorcism
I debated wither “The House of Exorcism” really warranted its own review or not, seeing as how it’s just a reedited version of “Lisa and the Devil.” Upon watching the recut for the first time, I decided the alternate take is amusing enough to discuss.

Thanks to Tim Lucas and another one of his wonderful audio commentaries, I am now aware that “Lisa and the Devil” was the result of Alberto Leone, Bava’s producer, giving him carte blanche to create whatever type of film he wanted. The result turned out to be unsellable. Two years later, Leone tried to salvage his funds by recutting the film into an “Exorcist” rip-off. Thus “The House of Exorcism” was born. Elke Sommers returned but there seems to be some confusion over who directed the new footage. Lucas credits a reluctant Bava while IMDb and other sources list Leone as having directed the new scenes.

The movie starts the same, cutting out Bava’s wonderful original credits, before Lisa collapses, possessed. Rushed to a hospital, Robert Alda’s priest character is brought into excise her demon. The extended footage of the original film is then presented as the possessed Lisa explaining her demon’s origin, a sort of internal monologue. This is exactly as awkward as it sounds. The "Lisa and the Devil" footage actually prospers somewhat from this treatment. Though it doesn’t help its coherence, it at least trims the fat some, leaving behind a visually impressive Bava best-of reel. Moreover, some explicit sex, nudity, and violence is edited back in.

But the new footage? “The Exorcist” worked not simply because it was vulgar, but because of its willfully blasphemous fury. This rip-off and all the others missed that point. Elke Sommers screaming profanity is often funny, especially the odd minced oats the screenwriters give her. (“From a cunt, you JERK!” had me laughing pretty hard.) Similarly, a scene of her coughing up green slime and live toads is quite narm-tastic. The only time the new footage ventures out of the boxy hospital set is the climax, where Robert Alda returns to the haunted house for reasons that aren’t well explained. The result is a bizarre, hilarious set piece involving rubber snakes and the least convincing on-screen exorcism perhaps ever filmed, which then ends in an abrupt, hilarious fashion.

You can really skip “House of Exorcsim” if you wanna’. It’s stupid, goofy, and completely unnecessary. [Grade: D]

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