Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Accountant (2016)

*. From murky beginnings, the autism spectrum diagnosis really took off in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it became so common/popular that it eventually shed any sense of being a disorder and instead became a marker of special genius. Individuals “on the spectrum” were not just different, but better; not “neurotypical” but homo superior. Shakespeare, it was said, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. Soon celebrities were lining up to claim their place. Could it be long before the autistic became superheroes?
*. Not long at all. In The Accountant this change in the way we look at autism is absorbed into the maw of the cultural maelstrom that we might call, for lack of a better word, superheroism. Our hero Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) may seem like a (very) mild-mannered and sexy accountant but in reality he’s a highly-trained killing machine (crack shot, master of the martial arts) with advanced math skills and a penchant for fine art. Was James Bond on the spectrum too? He is now.
*. I’ll leave aside the question of the film’s presentation of autism. It’s certainly hard to call it out for presenting any negative stereotypes, though I have to wonder if the message of autism as being a special gift isn’t going a bit far in the other direction.
*. I’ll also leave aside any further discussion of The Accountant as a superhero movie. Suffice to say it checks all the boxes: giving us the essential origin story and introducing us to the supporting characters we will surely meet again in the sequels.
*. This leaves us with the movie itself. I thought it was surprisingly bad.

*. The cast isn’t bad. Affleck doesn’t have to work very hard to sell the murderer-savant, though in several scenes I thought he was starting to look disturbingly like Steven Seagal. J. K. Simmons knows the drill and performs. Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and Jon Bernthal also know the drill, but seem not to be too happy about the limitations of their characters. Kendrick in particular has the look of someone who can’t believe how little she is being called upon to do.
*. The script lets everyone down. I didn’t know what Braxton’s job description was. I didn’t understand (and really didn’t care) what kind of a bad guy John Lithgow was supposed to be. A psychopathic philanthropist?
*. Despite being vague on details like these, it was perfectly clear how everything was going to ultimately work out, and the ending of the movie just runs out of steam and treads water for the final act. I was left wondering why it was taking so long to tell such a simple story.
*. In sum, I can’t think of anything really nice to say about this one. It’s just another superhero franchise start-up. The only wrinkle is that John Wick has been bitten by a radioactive spider and is now really smart as well as deadly. The action sequences are nothing special, and the final shootout is a total yawn, with the mooks just getting blown away like metal ducks at a carnival. It seems to want to give us some kind of positive message about kids with learning disabilities or behavioural problems, but if the takeaway is that we should seek to empower such children by sending them to bootcamp and ninja school then I don’t think that’s going to prove very helpful.
*. On the other hand, surveys have found that accounting is one of the happiest professions, with accountants reporting enviable levels of job satisfaction while enjoying excellent pay and high social status. Young people who are good at numbers should be encouraged to take it up.

Point of No Return (1993)

*. I didn’t have any expectations that Point of No Return would be as good as Luc Besson’s Nikita, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.
*. It should have been good. They stuck to the original’s script remarkably closely, at least through the first couple of acts. The changes they made are for the worse, but they are mainly cosmetic, basically just making it more Hollywood (in a bad, and literal, way). Nikita is now Maggie and her love interest is a photographer not a checkout clerk. She actually blows up the hotel room she brings the room service to. She and her fiancé go to New Orleans not Venice for her first undercover kill. The final target isn’t an embassy but some mansion in the hills overlooking L.A.
*. The end of the movie, however, is just a total fudge. Maggie inexplicably falls apart on her final assignment but somehow gets out of it without the assistance of a berserker Victor. We don’t get the scene where the boyfriend (what was his name? J.P. Yeah, J.P.) tells her that he knew about her double life all along. We find out that her handler Bob (Gabriel Byrne) was still in love with her. Victor the Cleaner is disposed of in a very silly, Hollywood way.
*. The cast is hit and miss, but overall I would rate it as strong. I really like Bridget Fonda and she should have been up to this part but she’s horribly misused. There’s no moment of agony when she opens up the present of the gun in the restaurant, but she breaks down in the kingpin’s lair. That makes no sense. Nikita at least had a coherent character arc. As for the rest of the names, Miguel Ferrer is as enjoyably sleazy as usual. Gabriel Byrne seems even sleepier than usual. Anne Bancroft is a strong presence that is wasted. Harvey Keitel starts off in good form as a nerdy version of Jean Reno’s Cleaner but is then simply dropped off a cliff. Tarantino would bring him back as a clean-up man the next year in Pulp Fiction.
*. So they had a good script to work with (meaning the original), and a decent cast, and they still came up with this. I blame director John Badham, who seems to have no feel for, or even interest in, the proceedings. The action and suspense sequences here all fall totally flat. Meanwhile, I could name a dozen individual shots in Nikita that stand out as so well composed and embedded as to have become nearly iconic. Point of No Return hasn’t a single one. Badham didn’t even keep any from the original!
*. Writing about this movie is making me hate it more. Because it’s so close to the original it’s one of those remakes where you have to wonder (and in my case I can only wonder) what your response would be to it if you hadn’t already seen Nikita. Would I have enjoyed it more? I like to think I wouldn’t have just because it’s such a lousy piece of filmmaking. Having seen Nikita first only made it seem worse.

Nikita (1990)

*. Along with a lot of other people (albeit not so many French film critics) I was pretty much blown away by Nikita when it first came out. What surprised me on this latest re-watch is how it hasn’t missed a beat despite having had many imitators, including a remake (Point of No Return) and a television series.
*. A less happy reflection is that despite all of his promise on display here, Luc Besson never came through. From what I’ve seen, Nikita may still be his best movie.
*. Obviously he’s infatuated with the character of the Manic Pixie Asskicker, his main protagonist, but I still prefer Anne Parillaud to Milla Jovovich or Scarlett Johansson in this role. And while he would go on to work with much bigger budgets I think Nikita manages to do more with less.
*. I mentioned that French critics weren’t as thrilled by Nikita, which may have something to do with Besson being hailed as Mr. Hollywood. I don’t know how fair that is. Nikita is a genre movie and Hollywood does define genres, so there’s that. Even Hong Kong action films were “Hollywood” to a large extent. But Besson does have a signature style even working within genre conventions. I mean, Point of No Return is, at least until the very end, a very close re-working of the same material and compared to Nikita it’s just dead.

*. One of the things that impresses me about Nikita is how stripped-down it is. A movie like this could have spent forever dealing with Nikita’s personal history and training, but Besson knew this was immaterial, inessential. So his heroine has her past erased and her training is foreshortened to the point where it seems almost comic. She’s already a master of the martial arts and is handy with a gun, which is simply given to her seemingly on Day One. Of course it isn’t Day One — her leg, for one thing, has had time to heal — but it seems like her training has just begun.
*. The other thing that stands out is the sense of style I mentioned earlier. It’s style employed with intelligence and restraint. There’s nothing over-the-top about Nikita, and I especially love how assured Besson was to run that whole hotel scene and not have any payoff. The American version was not so confident.
*. Anne Parillaud is great as the tough-but-vulnerable action hero and you couldn’t go wrong with this supporting cast. Tchéky Karyo is an actor I always enjoy watching. Jeanne Moreau is class, and Jean Leon is Victor the clean-up guy, a performance so good they had to bring him back. Who can forget that tub scene?
*. In his review Roger Ebert references the Pygmalion story (one “for our own violent times”) but I was thinking of Vertigo. Either way it’s part of that male fantasy of molding the perfect woman (or weapon) to your own specs. It’s a nice touch to have the two men abandoned at the end wondering what happened. Maybe Nikita was just a dream.
*. This is one of the best action films of the ’90s, but like I said earlier Besson never really built on it. I find this very hard to understand. Yes, he made some other good movies but there was so much promise here that was left unfulfilled. Why was it such a creative dead end?

Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.

Murder 101 (2014)

*. I’m not sure what they were thinking. On the most basic level it’s a slasher flick, complete with a slaughter of co-eds at a sleepover. But there are no good kills and indeed there’s no gore at all aside from the bodies discovered with the killer’s signature version of the Glasgow smile.
*. It’s also a kind of psychological thriller along the giallo model, but the story bumps along so clumsily that there’s no keeping track of the red herrings and the final explanation of who the killer is, and his motivations, is so baffling that I’ll confess I completely failed to understand it.
*. Perhaps a second viewing would clear things up a bit, but that’s not something I want to do. The pacing is slow, the dialogue stiff and the whole thing rather dull. A sense of humour might have helped, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a comedy. Or, for that matter, as a kind of meta-horror film along the lines of Scream or Behind the Mask. Sure most of the characters are laughable, but I don’t think they’re meant to be laughable. When the kids start to question whether the cute new criminology professor is really a professor, it’s absurd. But then you realize that he doesn’t act like any professor you’ve ever seen, so maybe he isn’t. And as for the FBI agent . . . does he even exist? This is just one of the questions I was left with at the end.
*. I try to come up with something nice to say about every movie I watch, but it’s hard for this one. I suppose what sticks in my mind the most is how confusing it all is. The killer (or at least one of them) quotes chunks of Hamlet apropos of absolutely nothing. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear. The twist (or at least one of the twists) at the end introduces a superfluous hint of incest. Instead of wrapping things up, the final scene just adds another layer of mystification without explaining anything. The experience is a bit surreal. But not in a pleasant way.

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

*. Believe it or not, there’s some dispute over who has the bragging rights to having launched the sub-genre of Italian cannibal horror flicks that ran for about a decade in the 1970s and early ’80s. There actually weren’t that many of these movies, but seeing as each was released under a bewildering variety of names it always seemed like there were a lot more than there really were. “Ferox,” by the way, is Latin for fierce or ferocious. The film was also released as Make Them Die Slowly, among other titles.
*. The two main claimants to having kicked things off are Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. I think most people who follow these things (I hesitate to call them scholars) give Lenzi the nod for having made The Man from the Deep River in 1972. It was, however, Ruggero’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that really raised awareness of the so-called “cannibal boom.” In any event, by the time of Cannibal Ferox the conventions of the cannibal film were pretty much set and Lenzi wasn’t going to make any changes to them.
*. So, once more into the jungle, dear white people. This time we have two groups of doomed travellers. Mike and Joe are small-time drug pushers who leave the Big Apple when things get too hot, and end up hunting for emeralds among the tribes of the Amazon. If that seems a stretch, so is the idea that the subsequent murder of a junkie in Mike’s old apartment will set off an international manhunt to track him down to what was then the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Mike and a badly wounded Joe are joined by a trio of explorers: ethnographer Gloria, her brother Rudy, and a superfluous pair of breasts named Pat. Apparently Gloria is looking to prove that cannibals don’t really exist. She doesn’t seem very well-informed, but then she doesn’t speak the language of the country she has traveled to either. Nothing good will come of this.
*. Nothing good does. Mike and Joe went full Kurtz on a tribe of natives but were overthrown and hunted down. It is as they were trying to escape that they met up with Gloria and her pals, who then find themselves in the same bloody boat. They are captured, tortured, and killed. Gloria alone survives to tell the tale.
*. There are numerous cutaways to local fauna, and the natives killing and eating animals. I don’t know what the point of these is, but they are a staple of the genre. Perhaps they’re just meant to show how “natural” cannibalism is. But since wild animals don’t know how to perform for the camera these sequences all seem pasted on. The piranha attack on Rudy is particularly silly.
*. This brings us to the moments of unintentional humour. After the piranha attack, Rudy escapes from the river and screams for the natives (!) to help him . . . while he has one (1) piranha attacked to his leg. And he is sitting on dry land. This is ridiculous. Even worse is the pig trap that Gloria falls into which looks like it could easily be climbed out of. There she is tormented by a baby pig that looks terrified and about as dangerous as a puppy. That the pig is later butchered by Mike only makes the silliness distasteful.
*. The usual political message gets short shrift, coming entirely in Gloria’s speech to Pat: “What a goddamn fool I was! Thinking I had to leave New York to find the reason behind cannibalism. Do you realize it’s us, the so-called civilized people who are responsible for their cruelty? Us and our superior society. . . . Violence breeds violence.” Fair enough, I guess, but then why does Gloria go back to NYC and write up a false report of what happened? Just to get her doctorate from the good liberal thinkers at New York University?
*. Basically the only point of these movies is to build up to a few scenes of shocking torture and death. They’re exploitation flicks, and Cannibal Ferox was marketed as “the most violent film ever made” and “banned in 31 countries.” So with that billing you have to deliver some video nastiness beyond watching natives kill and eat turtles and lizards.
*. For what it’s worth, the big scenes here involve cokehead Mike having his penis and then the top of his skull cut off, and Pat being hung up with hooks through her breasts. If that latter bit of depravity makes you think of A Man Called Horse (1970) you shouldn’t be surprised at the connection. Lenzi was inspired by that film and its influence was obvious in The Man from the Deep River.
*. Is it entertaining? Not really. Some of the dialogue is unintentionally funny in a crude way. The gore isn’t too bad, but it’s really only three very quick scenes. The plot is a total mess, wasting a lot of time following the police investigation back in New York. This has nothing at all to do with the main story, as Gloria will later be rescued by a pair of seedy monkey poachers who show up out of nowhere.
*. The cult cachet of these movies has gone up in recent years, leading to their being released on DVD with commentaries and other special features. Eli Roth even made an homage to them in 2013 (The Green Inferno). But really, they’re very poorly made and not all that interesting. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all but you’ve probably seen enough.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

*. OK, first of all I just want you to know that I get it. I’m aware of the fact that comic books and video games are now our dominant cultural templates, and that today’s blockbuster movies have to speak their language. I also realize that such movies aren’t meant to be thought-provoking or intellectually challenging. They are all about CGI effects and lots of action. If they don’t make sense then that’s your problem because who told you to think about any of this?
*. I get all of this. But still. Do you think the brain trust behind Assassin’s Creed might have come up with a better idea for this movie than a quest to find the apple from the Garden of Eden? Apparently possession of this apple (which, it turns out, has been hidden in the tomb of Christopher Columbus for the last 500 years!) will rid the world of free will, sending us all back to a state of docile prelapsarian innocence. There will be an end not only to war, but all human suffering. And want. And climate change. Don’t ask how. Don’t ask any questions at all. Don’t even think.
*. This is a premise that I would be embarassed to have written. It’s a premise that Dan Brown would have been embarassed to have written. It’s really hard to overstate just how stupid it is. I think if you got a group of 8-year-olds of average intelligence to brainstorm an idea for a blockbuster movie even they wouldn’t be able to come up with an idea this dumb.
*. If only they could have dialed it down. What would have been wrong with the Templars looking to recover the Maltese falcon? Why does the fate of the entire world always have to be at stake in these movies?
*. The people looking for the apple are the Templars, who are apparently still quite a going concern in the twenty-first century. If they get their hands on it there will be world peace but at the admittedly steep price of submission to a one-world (Templar) order, overseen by Charlotte Rampling. Scary. Opposing the Templars are the assassins. They have a creed, which consists of articles like “nothing is true, everything is permitted, and assassins work in the darkness to serve the light.”
*. I’m not even going to bother making any more jokes about this. Basically, pitting Templars vs. assassins is just the vampires vs. werewolves set-up from the Underworld franchise. The plot is a dumbed-down version of The Da Vinci Code. The action is the usual comic book/video game fare. Our hero jacks into a virtual-reality device with the Jungian name of the Animus, allowing him to access genetic memories of his assassin ancestors and relive past battles. In effect, he’s playing a video game. We’re watching someone play a video game in a movie based on a video game. He’s also kitted out with blades on his wrists that turn him into a medieval Wolverine. This is all stuff we’ve seen before.
*. Director Justin Kurzel and leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were just coming off working together on Macbeth. Does that seem like a big jump? It isn’t. Their Macbeth was terrible too.
*. Fassbender poses a lot without a shirt on, thrusting his chest out. I guess he’s been spending some time in the gym. Jeremy Irons does his usual villain thing. Cotillard’s character (she’s Irons’ daughter) seems entirely superfluous. People run around on rooftops and jump from heights. There are a bunch of fights that don’t look very interesting.
*. I’ll confess I’m not a gamer and I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games. I don’t see how that makes any difference though. Indeed, not being a fan or otherwise invested in the franchise I may have been predisposed to cut the movie a little more slack.
*. For what it’s worth — and the near universal consensus is that it’s worth very little — Assassin’s Creed is considered to be one of the better video game adaptations to film. This may be true. What I wonder is why even bother moving in such a direction. To cash in on a successful franchise’s brand awareness, sure, but do the producers plan to actually make use of the differences between the two media to make something new, or are they just cashing in by making a derivative and inferior product? Thus far it seems they’ve been going for the latter, and I have no problem extending that observation to Assassin’s Creed.
*. I can forgive brainless comic book action. What I can’t condone is how dull a movie this is. They should have cut at least half an hour from the running time. Since there is absolutely no uncertainty about where any of this is going, and not even an attempt at creating characters we care about, they should have kept things moving a lot faster. As it is, scenes play out predictably and at tedious length, and the silly Animus machine becomes a repetitive device. Then, to cap things off, the ending is surprisingly anti-climactic. Of course they had to leave things open for the sequels, but I was still left open-mouthed at the final scene. Was that it? Not that I wanted any more, but was that all there was? This movie is a sugar crash without any rush.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

*. First the back story. Mario Bava was riding (relatively) high after the success of Baron Blood and so was given a green light to basically do whatever he wanted next. Lisa and the Devil was the result, but it wasn’t seen as being commercial enough to find a distributor. So it was recut and some footage was added to make it into a devil-possession film that would cash in on the success of The Exorcist. This movie was called The House of Exorcism. Lisa and the Devil never had a wide release anywhere, and it’s really only been rediscovered recently with a deluxe DVD edition.
*. I don’t want to say anything more about The House of Exorcism here, as it’s really another, later movie and I don’t think seeing it provides any insight into Lisa and the Devil.
*. If you give a director, especially an older, established director, a bit of freedom, does it make sense to expect him to do something radically different than his usual? I don’t think it does. Bava was the filmmaker he was by this time, and while Lisa and the Devil is a little more bizarre than his usual fare we’re still very much in Bavaland. There’s the garish use of colour, the zooms, the mirrors, the mild exploitation in the form of gratuitous skin (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina’s bosom yearning to be free), the family psychodrama, and of course the mannequins. I don’t know what Bava’s thing for mannequins was, but he really gets to indulge it here.
*. Even the basic plot, while weird in its uncanny neo-gothic way, isn’t that far afield from Bava’s usual territory. What mixes things up is the odd frame to the story. Is it all a dream? Is Lisa dead at the beginning, making the film an odyssey like that of Canadace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls? I don’t know if things are worked out enough for us to be able to answer questions like these. I’m still not sure as to whether Lisa is just a random victim, a tourist having a resemblance to Elena, and or if she really is Elena. And I’m not sure if Bava knew either.

*. As the events slowly draw us into more surreal territory the atmosphere takes over. This is a good thing, as Bava’s plots were rarely his strongest suit while atmosphere was something he possessed in spades. After a while, and not a long while at that, I found myself wishing it were a silent film, or at least without any dialogue. I don’t think the dialogue gives us any necessary information, and without it I might have imagined I was lost in Buñuel’s Spain (which is where in fact this film was shot). I can’t think of any Bava film that makes such overt use of symbolism, with recurring elements like the keyhole arch Lisa passes through and the broken pocket watch. Even the mannequins fit with the surreal motif, and I’m only sorry we missed seeing Telly Savalas’s Leandro going full Buñuel and measuring Elke Sommer’s feet.
*. Usually when a director is given creative control over a project we’re encouraged to view the results as being more representative of their most abiding preoccupations and the peculiar bent of their imagination. I’m still not sure what Lisa and the Devil tells us in this regard, as it’s really a farrago of elements that don’t cohere that well thematically or tonally. It’s tempting to see Bava as Leandro: the stage manager of the whole farce, though forced to play the role of underling to the decadent, moneyed family. The actors, meanwhile, are transformed into mere dolls to be arranged into the proper positions. Even Sommer’s big sex scene has her unconscious throughout, only slightly more flexible than the skeleton she’s lying next to.
*. Is this the real Bava then? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a plumbing of someone’s unconscious. And while I wouldn’t rank it among my favourite Bava films, it does have goofy charm (introducing us to Kojak’s lollipops) and unfolds an elliptical dream logic that’s as smooth as a silken dress or tapestry. As with any dream, however, it’s hard to tell how much is surface and how much is depth. I find it weightless and mad, but nevertheless essential.