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Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism (Blu-Ray Review)

One of Mario Bava’s seminal works released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber

 Details
Director : Mario Bava
Starring: Alida Valli, Elke Sommer, Robert Alda, Sylva Koscina, Telly Savalas
Type: Color
Year: 1974
Language: English
Length: 95 min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Audio: English: LPCM Mono
Subtitles: None
Disks: 1
Region: A

Back in 2003, Warner Brothers producers attempted the daunting task of adding a new chapter to The Exorcist. Still considered one of the scariest films in cinema history, its shoes were already big. Add to that a couple of forgettable sequels, and the studio’s project’s weight more than doubles. So, after fully shooting one version of this fourth entry—it was deemed too weird and obtuse for today’s audiences by Warner’s producers, and the entire film was scrapped and re-shot, to include those “traditional” elements we’re all familiar with in horror films.

Violence, gore, nasty make-up and a plethora of special effects rather than dread were what Warner believed would put theater-goers in seats and appease horror fans. A shallow, commercial approach to be sure, but now, two versions of the same film exist—for better or worse.

This wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. 30 years prior, there was another devil-themed film that was standing under the long, looming shadow of The Exorcist.

Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1974) encountered the same post-release “tinkering” to cater to what’s considered popular at the time. Lisa was a subtle, eerie, metaphorical film, but with the release of The Exorcist and its subsequent success, producers decided to take some “artistic liberties” with the material by removing some scenes, adding others and soon, The House of Exorcism was released to the masses.

Kino Lorber presents us with both versions of Bava’s film in a new release, giving audiences a chance to see the film that was and what it eventually became in certain markets, ultimately leaving it up to you to decide which version you believe fares better.

The Film

Lisa and the Devil stars German sexpot Elke Sommer as Lisa, a tourist in Spain, getting lost in the maze-like streets and alleys after being briefly distracted by a fresco of the devil whisking souls to hell. In her efforts to rejoin the friends she’s vacationing with, she encounters Leandro (“Kojak” star Telly Savalas—complete with trademark lollipop), who coincidentally looks exactly like the devil in the fresco. He tries to offer directions, but Lisa remains hopelessly lost. That is, until she hitches a ride with a couple of aristocrats and their chauffeur  The car breaks down outside an old villa, where a peculiar matriarch and her son reside—and wouldn’t you know it, their butler is none other than the creepy Leandro.

From here, the film turns into a bizarre, almost dream-like thriller, as bodies and odd coincidences begin to pile up around Lisa, who bares a striking resemblance to a lost love of the matriarch’s son. All the while, the mysterious butler seems connected to the gruesome murders in a peripheral way.

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Bava put a lot of thought and soul into Lisa and the Devil, and it shows. The film’s themes and mystery might be giallo-like on the surface, but it’s truly as labyrinthine as the city Lisa was lost in. We’re constantly worried for her well-being  and feel as lost and confused as she does, thanks to a powerfully vulnerable performance by Sommer, who proves here she’s much more than just a pretty face.

All of this is orchestrated by Bava in a very lucid, eerie way. There are echoes here of films like David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive (2001), where the things you see and experience appear to be more like intricate pieces of a puzzle. When the image becomes clear, you’re still left with enough room to come to your own conclusions about why these people wound up at this mansion. Fate seems to be working overtime in the lives of these characters, who come to grips with their own obsessions, greed, desire and jealousy.

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Always experimental and ahead of his time, Bava had created a horror picture that you could analyze and be afraid of. It wasn’t cookie-cutter by any means, and unfortunately, producer Alfredo Leone felt its strange qualities would be lost on audiences. Indeed, almost to validate this fear, distributors largely ignored the film, leaving it to twist in the wind.

So without Bava’s involvement, Leone shot additional footage with Sommer and television actor Robert Alda as a priest, re-edited much of the original Lisa and the Devil, relegating it to mere flashback footage, and created what many have considered a huge slap in the face to Mario’s film—The House of Exorcism.

Here, instead of being drawn into a strange, murderous plot with satanic overtones, Lisa is simply possessed by the devil, and Alda is the priest sent in to exorcise her. The film is as base as it gets—nasty make-up, projectile vomit (both pea soup and—if you can believe it—live frogs), levitation, crude religious blasphemies and contorted body angles. Pretty much every cliché the demonic possession sub genre has come to bare in order to capitalize on the massive box office success of The Exorcist released the year before.

Ironically, The House of Exorcism, for all of its derivativeness and hasty production, was a modest box-office hit.

And what of Lisa and the Devil? Shelved and forgotten for nearly 10 years, before it finally resurfaced in the early 80s in its intended form. Sadly, Bava never got to see his original vision and most personal project reach an audience.

Video

Both Lisa and the Devil and The House of Exorcism are given the 1080p-AVC encoding treatment of their 1.78:1 widescreen presentation. The HD transfer from the 35mm negatives retains the film grain, and remains untouched by any digital manipulation or edge enhancement. The colors are bright and vibrant, giving the presentation a great look overall with minimal hairs and specks.

Whether or not that’s an improvement seems to be up for debate in certain circles. There are those who seem to prefer Anchor Bay’s transfer from its 2007 release, which allows for a crisper, albeit slightly darker cut of the film, over this brighter, warmer one from Kino. As is the case with many of Bava’s films, the colors often serve a purpose, and to mute them in any way seems to override the director’s intentions.

Audio

The English LPCM 2.0 Mono tracks sound great. Very little by way of hiss or pops is heard in either of the films, and everything from dialogue to Carlo Savina’s score sounds nice and crisp, with no levels overpowering each other. Speaking of the soundtrack, when watching The House of Exorcism, some will be surprised to encounter the percussive strains of Stravinsky’s The Right of Spring during the opening credits, which replace Carlo Savina’s original music. No other language options or subtitles are provided for either film.

Extras

Bava expert Tim Lucas gives the first of two audio commentaries. His track is for Lisa and the Devil, and it’s one of his best, which is really saying something. It likely has a lot to do with the fact that Lisa and the Devil was such a personal project for Bava, so there’s a lot to get into here regarding the director’s intentions, the production, the film’s themes and metaphoric imagery, and how the film’s overall failure at the time had such a tremendous impact on Bava’s esteem. It’s a fascinating and essential track that I’m glad new collectors of the film can enjoy.

The second audio commentary is with producer Alfredo Leone and star Elke Sommer for The House of Exorcism. Sommer chimes in with some fun anecdotes about the film’s production and her memories of the shoot, but Leone is really the primary source of info on this track. He answers a lot of questions regarding why this alternate version of Bava’s film was produced, making sure to point out the scenes that were shot without Bava’s involvement. He also gives a lot of insight into his relationship with the director over the course of their careers, and does an admirable job defending a version of the film that wears its box office intentions on its pea soup-covered sleeves.

Both commentaries were ported over from previous DVD releases, but since they’ve been long-since out-of-print, it’s nice to see them retained here for new collectors.

The newest supplement here is an interview by Daniel Gouyette with Bava’s son Lamberto called Bava on Bava (18:15), in which he reflects on his father’s work, his own involvement in this particular film, and the various other projects on which he worked with his father. It’s quite fascinating, and a welcome new addition to the extras, even if it has only a little to do with the actual films presented here.

Lastly, we have trailers for not only Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism, but the other Bava films picked up by Kino Lorber: Hatchet For the Honeymoon, Baron Blood, and Black Sunday. The House of Exorcism also has a Radio Spot.

Curiously missing from this otherwise well-rounded edition of Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism are some Photo/Poster Galleries, filmmaker filmographies, and a deleted sex scene that were all included on the 2000 release by Image Entertainment. Small items, sure, but the hardcore completists might take issue with their absence here.

Bottom Line

Two sides of the same coin. Kino Lorber is giving both films a chance to see the light of day on blu-ray, and it’s up to a new audience of horror fans to decide the following: Was Bava’s thought-provoking giallo Lisa and the Devil a victim of criminal underappreciation, or was Leone’s decision to strip the film of its existential elements in lieu of commercialized shock value a worthwhile choice?

Either way, you’re given wonderful new HD transfers, great audio and some solid supplements to trek through while making your own decision between the two evils.

~ by Jason Marsiglia

About Jason S. Marsiglia

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