Synopsis: While visiting Toledo, Spain, American tourist Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer) experiences a feeling of déjà vu when she sees an ancient mural of the Devil carrying away the dead. Hearing a familiar melody, she wanders away from her companions into a series of encounters with men who inexplicably recognize her from a past life. Hopelessly lost as night falls, Lisa begs a ride from a passing Packard, which breaks down outside a mansion where a young man (Alessio Orano) lives with his blind mother (Alida Valli) and a charming butler (Telly Savalas), who just happens to resemble the Devil from the mural! After a night of murder, necrophilia and horrific revelations, Lisa comes face-to-face with the secrets of her past identity and her connections to the bizarre rituals she witnessed.
Lisa e il diavolo 5.25
eyelights: its atmosphere. its locations. its cinematography.
eyesores: its performances. its incoherence. its staging. its dullness.
“I told you he’d be back.”
After finding box office success anew with 1972’s ‘Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga‘, Mario Bava was very keen to make a project that had been on his mind for years. This movie was ‘Lisa e il diavolo’. Thankfully, he was given free hand by producer Alfredo Leone, with whom he’d long collaborated.
The picture revolves around Lisa, a tourist visiting Toledo who finds herself separated from her tour group and wanders the city’s eerily empty streets until she gets a lift from a wealthy couple. When their car breaks down, however, they wind up stranded at a strange family’s mansion for the night.
They may not make it out alive.
Despite Bava’s creative control, it’s difficult to defend ‘Lisa e il diavolo’. The picture, which was originally released in 1973, is a bit of a mess: though it’s rich in atmosphere (filled as it is with deep shadows and all of these large, silent, empty spaces), and it certainly has artistic merit, it’s rather sloppy.
For starters, there’s the script, which is credited to seven people. Seven. Though it’s easy to reduce its core plot to just a blurb, the picture also involves a mysterious butler, a subplot revolving around Carlos, a deceased member of the family, and Lisa being confused with a woman named Elena.
The script is so opaque at times that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what the heck is going on; it’s only at the end that light is finally shed. And even then the picture doesn’t explain much of what’s just taken place; it forces the audience to try to piece it all together with minimal help.
That’s another problem, aside for its opacity: the picture often just doesn’t make sense.
- Why is Lisa alone in these Toledo streets? Even though she got lost, you’d think there’d be people around. Someone. Anyone.
- Who is Leandro, the butler, and why does he look like a local artist’s rendition of the Devil? Is it merely a coincidence? If it is, then why even make a point of it? If it isn’t, then why is the Devil so damned lame and impotent?
- Why is Leandro so obsessed with mannequins that he carries them around and talks to them?
- If Carlos is dead, then why did Lisa get harassed by him on the street? Did she kill him when she pushed him? If so, how did the family already get a hold of his body?
- Why is Lisa so damned jumpy? I mean, there’s being nervous, and then there’s losing one’s !@#$, which is what Lisa does.
- Why does everyone talk to Lisa as though they’ve known her from before – but then not explain themselves? And why wouldn’t she ask them?
- Why would Lisa fall under Max’s spell if they’ve never had any real interaction? Random, thy name is Lisa.
- Who is this fifth visitor that the mother insists came with the wealthy couple, their chauffeur and Lisa, but that no one has seen and is never revealed in the movie?
- Who is the woman that Max secretly brings cake to? Why is she crying?
And on and on and on.
Ultimately, it seems as though Lisa is really just Elena come back from the dead. But how does that make any sense, in that she’s come to Toledo with at least one friend. So… is she possessed by Elena? Is she Elena’s reincarnation? Or she a ghost? If so, why did she travel to Toledo with a friend?
The picture is also rife with utterly absurd scenes that elicit laughter:
- At one point, after the death of her lover, the chauffeur, Sophia runs over her husband when he insists that they leave. The problem with the scene is in the staging, with Sophia going from 0-60 in a split second as Francis walks around the car. Then she proceeds to roll over him back and forth. It’s super cheesy.
- Leandro is given a monologue, in which he speaks to his mannequins and tells us some of the backstory. Is it exposition, or just ridiculousness? I certainly got nothing out of that unduly lengthy scene.
- The final confrontation between Max and his mother is utterly ridiculous because it leads to him killing her – and then her “returning from the dead” (though it’s obvious by then that it’s merely Leandro walking around with a mannequin of her). Somehow, this is enough to scare Max to such a degree that he falls out of the window. Just tumbles out. Doh! Stupid windows!
The performances don’t help one bit: none of the actors turn in a solid performance, but they’re also hampered by Elke Sommer as Lisa, over-emoting again like a failed high school drama student. Meanwhile, Telly Savalas transforms Leandro into a cartoon character, contrasting heavily the others.
Still, there are some terrific aspects to ‘Lisa e il diavolo’ – but they’re all aesthetic ones. For instance, the choice of locations offer fairly striking imagery – especially the empty streets and the massive mansion. And Carlo Savina serves up one of the most polished scores of Bava’s whole career.
But the picture is drab and incoherent. it’s filled with interesting ideas that don’t quite gel, and it lacks zest. I can’t quite say that I hated it, but it felt long, nearly endless. And, in the end, I derived very little satisfaction out of seeing it. In fact, it left me a little bit frustrated.
I’m not sure that I’ll see it again.
Post scriptum: the picture was a washout at the box office at the time, and producer Alfred Leone decided to have new scenes filmed and had it the whole movie re-edited into something called ‘The House of Exorcism‘. This controversial move alienated Bava, critics and audiences alike.
Date of viewing: July 9, 2017