The Movie Night Diaries looks at Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil, starring Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer. This 1973 supernatural horror film tells the story of Lisa, a young tourist traveling Europe who encounters the devil’s doppelgänger and an odd family whose macabre nightly ritual is to re-enact the death of their loved ones. Lisa finds out that she is the image of Helen, the lover of the family’s young son Max, who mysteriously disappeared from the house years ago. All is shown to not be as it appears in the old family estate when ghosts inhabit the house and the dead seemingly rise from their graves.
I celebrated Halloween this year with a viewing of both the International cut and Italian original of Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil. The International cut (a.k.a. The House of Exorcism) is an entirely different film with a possessed girl storyline added to a heavily edited version of the original. As is normally the case with these things, the original cut is superior — an eery, gory, and atmospheric horror film that explores familiar gothic themes with vivid and original imagery, while the International cut lacks coherence.
Telly Savalas’s lollipop sucking (yes… Kojak had just begun its original 5-year run on CBS in 1973) performance as the debonair and beguiling butler Leandro is pitch perfect. Leandro bears a likeness to a medieval image of Satan in the ruins of the old town courtyard, and he totes about mannequins made to look like the late members of the odd little family. Whether he is actually the devil or not is left to the audience to decide; after all, the mad happenings at the old house (in fine gothic tradition) are easily explained away as the consequences of material action — if you wish. Otherwise, he may just be the devil himself, wrapped in a human form sent to torment the cursed family for its crimes.
Lisa and the Devil succeeds in providing the atmosphere of a dark and supernatural horror yarn with the chill of a haunted house film. Its vivid colors and striking imagery will please most fans of Italian horror.
All of this is watered down in the The House of Exorcism with a bit of gratuitous sex thrown in on top. One wonders what the producers’ opinion of the International audience was that they should remove so much of the wheat of the original film while throwing us the chaff. This may sound a bit harsh, but I think that most of the atmosphere and mood that Lisa and the Devil so deftly cultivates is lost in translation. The possession storyline, which is difficult to accept after seeing the original, is so derivative of The Exorcist (released the same year) that one can’t help comparing the two. Elke Sommer is still featured as Helen/Lisa, but with a new possession angle added in. Aside from some impressive acrobatics, her performance accomplishes nothing on a level with Friedkin’s work with the young Linda Blair. They manage a cursing, vomiting pastiche of Blair’s iconic performance that is sure to disappoint fans of The Exorcist.
It is interesting to note that of the few film websites that I visited to research this piece all of them count The House of Exorcism as only an alternate title for Lisa and the Devil, when, really, it is best considered a different film altogether. In fact, Mario Bava is not credited as the director of The House of Exorcism, the credit instead going to “Mickey Lion” an alias that appears multiple times on Bava’s own page at the Internet Movie Database, as well as in the curriculum vitae of Alfredo Leone, the producer of both films.
The possession angle of The House of Exorcism is disappointing enough that I don’t think that you, dear reader, could be fairly called remiss if you skipped it altogether. In fact, considering all of the heavy editing of Lisa and the Devil, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to seek out only the International cut. Still, if your curiosity will only be satisfied by taking in both versions of the film, please check out Lisa and the Devil first as it will make The House of Exorcism a bit more comprehensible and not spoil any of the fun of the original cut.