And now, another bit of musing on Mario Bava, brought on by a recent screening of Lisa and the Devil.
Coming in 1972, this was late in Bava’s career, and from a period when seeing his films the way he intended became very difficult. Until recently, when the original print resurfaced, this has been most commonly seen under the title The House of Exorcism, an exercise in butchery by producer Alfred Leone, which not only removed much of Bava’s footage, but replaced it with a ridiculous Exorcist rip-off. Fortunately, Bava’s original film has been restored to us. It is a prime example of that moment in European cinema where the distinction between horror film and art-house production vanished.
There is something of a plot here, but anyone looking for something linear and coherent is going to be disappointed. The film has a narrative in the same way that nightmares and poems do: fragmented, unpredictable, perverse, and liable to head off in any direction. In as much of a nutshell as is possible, what we see is tourist Elke Sommer, having just seen an ancient mural of the devil hauling off the damned, is drawn away from her tour group by a haunting melody. Following it, she winds up in an artisan’s shop where she encounters Telly Savalas, who happens to be the spitting image of the devil in the mural. Becoming lost, she falls in with a strange couple whose car breaks down near the home of an even stranger family, where who should be the butler but Savalas. Events become more and more bizarre and inexplicable, as passions explode and corpses pile up, but sometimes those corpses are wax dolls, and sometimes they’re not.
Just as the linear-minded will be put off by the oneiric storyline, so the gorehound will likely lose patience with the slow build to horror. The first half of the film is more like a delirious gothic romance than a horror film, but the result is that when the killings begin, they feel like even greater violations. But at the same time, the depradations feel more and more appropriate. As the film progresses, its pictorial beauty becomes more and more extreme. By the end, Sommer appears to be moving through a series of lush paintings. The transgressive climax occurs when when the deranged male lead drugs her senseless and has sex with her motionless body while the long-rotted corpse of his former lover lies in the bed next to them. The scene is drenched in warped romanticism. The line between beauty and horror is not simply erased here. Instead, the two are presented as being one and the same.
Bava’s artistic achievement here, perfectly embodying the concept of terrible beauty, is exactly the sort of thing the horror film is uniquely suited to do. For that reason alone, the film is more than worth multiple viewings.
Oh yeah, and this is also, it seems, the first time Savalas deployed those trademark lollipops.