Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.
My main complaint about Italian horror, particularly films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, is that it is long on style and short on coherent narrative. That’s very much true of the films of Dario Argento, a bit less true of those of Mario Bava. Bava still has some coherence problems at times, but he’s very much capable of putting together a story that more or less holds together. I was hopeful heading into Lisa and the Devil (otherwise called Lisa e il Diavolo), and there’s kind of a story here, but mostly it’s a bunch of set up and then a great deal of killing and blood that looks like red paint.
Lisa (Elke Sommer) is vacationing in Spain when her tour takes her by a fresco that depicts the devil, who looks quite a bit like Telly Savalas. This is not coincidental, because Lisa wanders away from her tour group and into a shop where she encounters a man named Leandro, who is played by Telly Savalas. She flees and encounters a man who claims to know her and calls her Elena. The fights with him, and he falls down a set of stone steps to his apparent death.
Still lost, Lisa encounters a car and more or less hitches a ride. The car includes the wealthy Francis Lehar (Eduardo Fajardo), his young wife Sophia (Sylva Koscina), and their chauffeur George (Gabriele Tinti), who takes care of the car and evidently takes care of Sophia as well. They drive on, but the car breaks down near a house out in the middle of nowhere. The group asks to stay, only to discover that the butler is none other than Leandro. Also living at the house are Maximillian (Alessio Orano), his mother the countess (Alida Valli), and Carlo (Espartaco Santoni), her second husband. It is again no coincidence that Carlo appears to be the man who accosted Lisa in town and fell to his death.
What follows is a lot of dream sequences, hallucinations, murders, and various head trips that are either a sign of Lisa’s fragmenting mentality or something far more sinister. Bava does what he can to make this is coherent as he can, with each of the different characters revealing a particular past that eventually all connects. There is a coherent story here, which is something that a lot of Italian horror movies don’t have.
There are a few interesting points about Lisa and the Devil that are worth bringing up. The first is that this film was not available in the U.S. for years. Instead, a few years after its release, it was recut with some added footage to imply that Lisa was possessed. Called The House of Exorcism, it was a ripped apart version of the original intended to capitalize on the craze started by The Exorcist. This version appears to be far superior in just about every respect.
Second, those readers old enough to remember Telly Savalas from his role as Theo Kojak on the television show of the same name will remember that one of his trademarks from the show was an ever-present Tootsie pop. The story is that Savalas had just quit smoking and used them as a way to keep him from putting a cigarette in his mouth. So it’s interesting that he’s frequently sucking on a lollipop in this, a nod to his television role, right? Actually, it’s the opposite. This came first, and the lollipops became his trademark starting here.
One of the better aspects of Lisa and the Devil is the casting. Honestly, casting Telly Savalas as a demon is pretty genius. I’m not really that familiar with the work of Elke Sommer in general, but she’s decent in this. The rest of the cast, with the possible exception of Alida Valli are fine, if interchangeable. Valli is good as a slightly disturbed and disturbing countess. She casts an odd, ominous shadow over the entire proceedings.
I also like the ending. The film redeems itself in many respects by having an ending that manages to tie at least some of the threads together. We get a good sense of what is happening with many of these people having lived some of these experiences before, but not everything is tied up. The Lehars and their driver don’t really seem to fit into any of this very well. They’re simply present and get caught up in things without having a clear tie to the story of Lisa and the inhabitants of the creepy old house.
Bava’s work, as always, is very stylish and interesting to look at. Not everything makes perfect sense, but it’s at least interesting to see, and Telly Savalas chewing the scenery is having a great deal of fun with his role.
Why to watch Lisa and the Devil: Telly Savalas as a demon? That’s just good casting.
Why not to watch: Like a lot of Italian horror, things happen and don’t always make sense.