This is a very sad tale of a director who wanted to be a writer, a producer who had to become a director, and a dream that became a mess.
Moreover, it is a sharp juxtaposition between then and now. In 1972, Mario Bava was an Italian director of some small renown, directing successful movies in both the Horror and Western genres. When I say "successful", I mean they made a tidy though never large profit. Mario was a workman's director as he could be counted on to make a film that would sell to distributors.
Alfred Leone was an American who wanted to produce movies in Italy and after a period of time, he and Mario became good friends. Alfred so loved Italy, in fact, that he would change his name in the credits to the more Italian sounding, Alfredo Leone. After the success of BARON BLOOD and a Bava sex comedy (disappointing to all who expected more nudity), Alfred funded Mario's personal project, a Horror movie Mario dreamed of directing for decades. LISA AND THE DEVIL was that movie.
The movie starts with typical Bava oddness, whereby, during the opening credits, a gloved hand deals cards on a blood red surface. We see a shot of actor Telly Savalas smiling at us and straightening his tie, then it's back to more card dealing.
When the movie actually begins, I'm not in the right mood for a Horror movie at all, and wouldn't be surprised if the film was a musical or a comedy - or even a musical comedy.
Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer: A SHOT IN THE DARK, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, BARON BLOOD), is on vacation with her younger friend and, as part of a tour group, is looking at an outdoor fresco depicting the devil carrying souls from this world and into hell. For no apparent reason, Lisa suddenly leaves the group to wander the stone alleyways of the old city.
She enters what appears to be an antique gift shop. The shop owner apparent is talking to another man who is dressed all in black. His back is to Lisa, but when she speaks, he turns and we can see that the man's face is remarkably similar to the devil on the fresco (remarkable is right. That fresco is hundreds of years old so its only coincidence that it looks like the late Telly Savalas). He offers pleasantries at first, but the shocked look on Lisa's face causes him concern. Lisa, thinking she has seen the devil from the fresco, runs outside, immediately going left when she should have gone right. Soon she is lost in the maze of the city and strangers aren't helpful.
She meets up with Telly's character from the shop again. He's holding a full size doll/mannequin that he purchased from the store. Desperate, Lisa asks for directions and while the two speak, the doll Telly holds creepily goes from being a mannequin, to a wide-eyed corpse, and back to a mannequin again. This doesn't escape Lisa's notice and makes her all the more desperate to return to her tour group.
Eventually, Lisa is about to cross over a bridge and as she does, a man who looks identical to the mannequin/corpse approaches her, calling her Elena, and speaks of love. Lisa, more frightened than ever, fights off his advances to the point where he falls down some stone steps unconscious - or perhaps dead. Lisa, totally at wit's end, runs away screaming for help in the empty city.
Night finds Lisa in a dark back alley, crying. The headlights of an old antique car shine on her and she hitches a ride with a wealthy couple who sit quite coldly beside each other. The car rattles and grumbles and the chauffeur says that a water hose is damaged.
They pull up next to a large castle and the wealthy man in the car hopes that they can use the phone inside to call for help (Shades of The Rocky Horror Show - which opened as a stage musical in London the following year!). They knock on the door and a bald man in black answers with a stare (double shades of The ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW - which opened as a feature length film three years later!).
The stranded motorists ask to use the phone only to find that there isn't one. That said, they are invited in because tonight is a rather special night (Triple Shades!). There is going to be a ceremony (Quadruple shades!!!). What's more, the son of the house, Max (Alessio Orano: THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN) asks, nearly begs Lisa to stay.
We learn that Telly Savalas' (CAPE FEAR , HORROR EXPRESS) character is the butler, Leandro. The household of Max, his seemingly blind mother, and an unknown "5th guest", all have their very lives run by Leandro, who is far more than he seems.
LISA AND THE DEVIL is such a mixed bag of both very good and very lost.
The tale of Lisa's confusion, and of having her very reality turned inside out, is fascinating. The people who come into her life, calling her by another name and the plot itself is otherworldly enough to remind Horror Thriller fans of THE TWILIGHT ZONE original TV series. Telly plays his role of Leandro as Satan might play with toys: toying with the lives of the living. Leandro is the story's Iago, keenly aware of just what to say and when to say it, to achieve the maximum harmful result. Leandro is a puppeteer who pulls the strings of all lives that enter his presence.
Yet there is a prevailing nonsense in the way that Lisa, despite her fear and confusion, falls for the love of both Carlos and Max.
So much time during the course of the film is spent away from Lisa that the movie should have been titled as a story that happens to a group of people: an ensemble piece. This movie is clearly not about Lisa, she is just one of many characters who all have ample time and lives to explore.
All said though, the movie apparently turned out exactly the way Mario Bava wanted it.
Except that no one would buy it.
Distributors liked it but felt that it was on too different a level for the Bava audience they'd built up for years. Bava's audience, they felt, expected gore and violence (like BARON BLOOD) and nudity. In the 1970s, Bava had neither Horror conventions or the Internet in which to appeal to his audience directly. Bava also didn't have the juice of being a world famous director so that he could get interviewed in magazines the way an Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Wise could. Bava stayed, and was virtually trapped in, low budget movies.
So that was the problem. As a movie producer, Alfred Leone couldn't sell Mario's movie and wasn't wealthy enough to fight for it. Moreover, because Leone's pockets were only so deep, he really needed his money back from LISA AND THE DEVIL. Alfred wanted Mario to do some re-shooting and re-editing but in Italy, unlike the U.S., the director has final say over his picture. Mario thought it was perfect and, though he both liked and respected Alfred as a friend, didn't think much of Alfred's suggestions for making LISA AND THE DEVIL saleable.
1973 rolled around and Alfred asked Mario to watch the movie, THE EXORCIST, which was new and quickly becoming a world-wide hit. Mario saw it and thought nothing of it, but Alfred begged Mario to make his movie more like THE EXORCIST. The last thing in the world Mario wanted to do was butcher his favored brain-child, but after a year of hope, it was clear that no one would ever buy LISA AND THE DEVIL.
It broke Mario's heart to do it, but he allowed Alfred to re-shoot some scenes - mostly with Elke Sommer - who agreed to work for free. An entire second storyline involving demonic possession was grafted onto the first. Alfred got his friend, Robert Alda (actor Alan Alda's real life Father), to play the part of a priest. Telly Savalas was unavailable for pick-up shots, busy working on his hit American TV show, KOJACK.
Thus, in 1974, a parasite movie was made from its host. The original LISA AND THE DEVIL became Alfred Leone's version of Mario Bava's movie, called THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM. And I say that it's Alfred's because Mario couldn't bear to direct it. He would set up all of the camera shots, then leave the room and let Alfred direct the grafted scenes, wrote by a flock of writers, some of whom never wrote before or since. Mario Bava's name was changed to Mickey Lion for English speaking countries so as not to destroy the brand. Alfred gave the distributors what they wanted, gore, gross, and extra nudity with lots of foul language. None of it makes any sense, but Elke, determined to help her friend Alfred get his money back, gamely played her sorry part like a champ.
It's all awful though. Terribly horrible without even the saving grace of being so bad it's good. That said, nudity in mainstream movies was still a novelty and at 33, Elke Sommers was still hot stuff.
Promised Elke nudity, blood and gore, foul language, and a movie that starred the then hot Telly Savalas, made THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM a hit - even if no one went to see it twice.
Alfred got his money back, Mario butchered his labor of love, and after the release of THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM in 1974, the two men never made another movie together. In the commentary track on the Anchor Bay DVD, Alfred sounds, at turns, both defensive of what he did, and terribly apologetic toward the late Mario.
See, by 1972, Alfred had a method: he would make a profitable movie, and then nearly spend himself into the poor house to fund the next one, trying to build his stack of cheese. He was a large version of living from paycheck to paycheck and every gamble only worked if he won. He could never afford to lose.
In between LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Alfred was able to procure other funding for one final Mario Bava and Alfred Leone film, RABID DOGS (the payday from which funded the pick-up shots for THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM). But on the commentary, I had the feeling that Alfred would go to his grave, sorry that near financial ruin forced him to destroy a friendship with a man he admired so much as Mario Bava.
Film making, as a business and an art, is littered with many examples of heartfelt projects like LISA AND THE DEVIL. It is one of many cinematic warnings that a director must always think of the audience first, and that a producer should never try to direct his director's film.
LISA AND THE DEVIL gets two shriek girls. THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM gets nothing as it is beneath contempt.
|Feo Amante's Horror Home Page, Feo Amante's Horror Thriller, and feoamante.com are owned and
Copyright © 1997 - 2019 by E.C .McMullen Jr.
All images and text belong to E.C. McMullen Jr. unless otherwise noted.
All fiction stories belong to their individual authors.