Freudian Nightmares: ‘Lisa and the Devil / The House of Exorcism’

Casual horror film fans usually identify Italian horror cinema with films directed by luminaries such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. However, it’s safe to say that these two directors were heavily influenced by the macabre aesthetics of Mario Bava, the first and foremost master of spaghetti horror. Even though Bava is better known for Black Sunday (1960) and Planet of the Vampires (1965), Lisa and the Devil (1974) may well be his most inspired film in a directorial career that spanned 33 years and 37 movies.

However, because of its dream-like structure, nightmarish plot, surrealist atmosphere, and lyrical staging, Lisa and the Devil may not provide a fulfilling viewing experience to those unfamiliar with Bava’s artistry. On a personal side, I was utterly bored and sorely disappointed the first time I watched this flick. But a few years later, Lisa and the Devil has become my most favorite Bava film. Arguably, it takes considerable proclivity and serenity to fully appreciate the many intricacies and morbid elegance behind this criminally underrated horror film.

Lisa and the Devil begins with the arrival of Lisa Rainer (Elke Sommer) to the city of Toledo, Spain. Lisa’s tour group stops before a medieval fresco depicting the devil carrying sinful souls to Hell. Lisa wanders away from her group when she hears music coming out from a small curiosities store. The melody comes from a macabre music box that plays the beautiful Adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

Composed in 1939, Concierto de Aranjuez is known for its rhythmic melody that captures the majestic elegance of the gardens of the Aranjuez Palace, near Madrid. In the words of the composer, the concert captures “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains”. And indeed, it’s impossible to listen to the Adagio without feeling being transported to a magical place. As such, these lyrical scenes in Lisa and the Devil suggest how Lisa is conveyed to another world.

This allegory is reinforced when Lisa leaves the store through the door of a passageway that closes behind her. Unable to go back the way she came, Lisa ends up wandering the solitary and labyrinthic streets. At some point, in clear allusion to Alice in Wonderland (1951), Lisa passes through an archway that looks a lot like a giant keyhole. Clearly, from this point forward, one cannot expect that Lisa’s endeavors will be grounded in our physical world. Instead, the film appears to offer a poetic portrayal of a metaphysical hell, where logic breaks down in nightmarish ways and sinners are punished in intricate ways.

Indeed, Lisa and the Devil reveals that the music box is the property of Leandro (Telly Savalas), a rather peculiar man who bears a strong resemblance to the devil portrayed in the medieval painting. Furthermore, Leandro is carrying a life-sized puppet in the shape of Carlo (Espartaco Santoni). As we find out later, Leandro has a large collection of puppets that resemble all the characters involved in this macabre tale of unreciprocated love and murderous jealousy. As such, these images not only epitomize the Prince of Darkness carrying the souls of sinners, just as shown in the fresco, but also signify the intricate games played by the devil to punish tormented spirits.

Utterly lost in the intricate streets of the medieval city, Lisa ends up in the mansion owned by a blind countess (Alida Valli), who lives with her troubled son Maximilian (Alessio Orano). In an interesting turn of events, Leandro is revealed to be the butler of the countess. As eventually revealed, the arrival of Lisa at this house is no accident. Indeed, Lisa appears to be the reincarnated soul of Helena, who had an extramarital affair with Carlo, the late husband of the countess. To complicate things even further, Maximilian was also in love with Helena, and in a rage of jealousy he killed both adulterous lovers.

The arrival of Lisa and the appearance of Carlo’s ghost suggest that this macabre love story will be repeated one more time. As such, Lisa and the Devil depicts a chilling hell where sinners are condemned to repeat their mistakes and relive their tragedies once and again, ad nauseam, until the end of time. The fact that the soundtrack of Lisa and the Devil is made almost exclusively of the Concerto of Aranjuez and its variations, further reinforce this reading.

As most Bava films, the visuals and narrative of Lisa and the Devil boil down to a gothic story portraying a grim Freudian nightmare. Indeed, the film successfully portrays the annihilation of the patriarchal figure, a domineering mother imposing her strong will on her child, and the strong emotional response exhibited by Maximilian as a result of childhood traumas. In addition, Lisa and the Devil features dream-like images and it takes place in an old creepy mansion located in the outskirts of a medieval town.

But then again, one cannot deny that, notwithstanding its cinematic beauty and lyrical plot, Lisa and the Devil may be an extremely difficult film to follow. As mentioned before, it may take several viewings to properly appreciate Bava’s magnificent movie. As a consequence, one should not be surprised at the nightmarish tragedy behind the release of Lisa and the Devil.

As the legend goes, after failing to secure a distribution deal, producer Alfredo Leone decided to re-shoot and re-edit Lisa and the Devil to make it look like a film in the vein of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Hoping to cash in on the popularity of Friedkin’s groundbreaking film, Leone completely reconstructed Lisa and the Devil to feature the story of Lisa’s possession and the efforts of a priest to perform an exorcism. The resulting travesty was aptly renamed House of Exorcism and was an unfathomable commercial and critical disaster upon its American release in 1975.

For those discriminating horror fans, Redemption Films has released a nice looking Blu-ray disc presentation of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil. The audiovisual quality is top notch, as its common in this high definition format. Fortunately, this home video presentation offers a really attractive set of extra features. First of all, we find an insightful audio commentary with the “video watchdog” and Bava expert, Tim Lucas. However, there’s not much else that remains to be said about Bava and his films after the publication of Lucas’ magnum opus: Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007). In addition, the Blu-ray disc includes House of Exorcism. Even though this is a terrible film, it’s fascinating to see how the avid producer, who happens to provide an audio commentary for this film, reconstructed Lisa and the Devil.

By showcasing a dream-like imagery and lyrical storyline, Lisa and the Devil may not be an easy film to watch. This is a gorgeous film that takes place in a metaphysical hell where logic breaks down in nightmarish ways. But then again, its completely ambiguous storyline leaves the viewer pondering long after the it’s over. Mysterious, creepy, and beautiful, Lisa and the Devil is required viewing for the serious horror fan.

RATING 8 / 10