*. 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.