When is a movie two movies? When new footage gets tacked on to an existing film so that it can be marketed as a new movie. That cheap ploy was the fate of Lisa and the Devil, Mario Bava's artiest film.
Let's be fair: Nobody was ever going to go see this movie unless they were tricked into doing so. That's not a knock against its quality. It's a fine film but, in terms of marketability, one that is neither fish nor fowl. There's no linear plot: It's a series of surreal episodes that are full of symbolism, existentialist musings, and more doppelgangers than a David Lynch movie. This is far too high-minded for the guys who snuck a twelve-pack of Carling Black Label into the drive-in to watch this as a second feature to Messiah of Evil or The Satanic Rites of Dracula. The arthouse crowd might appreciate these elements, but they can get snobby about gore films. Plus, there aren't so many of those: You couldn't make a living off of those guys, not in the days before DVDs and the Internet and its long tail. They screwed up the movie, but at least someone got to see it. The additional material is as fun as it is wrong.
Lisa and the Devil begins as a group of tourists spill off of a bus in a European town. The tour guide points out a church whose side is painted with a huge fresco that depicts the devil carrying away a soul. Lisa, played by Elke Sommer, wanders into a store where a man (Telly Savalas), whose face is identical to that of the devil from the painting, purchases a mannequin.
Lisa becomes disoriented and can't find her way back to the town square where her tour bus awaits. The town is nearly empty of people and full of the sound of howling wind. Its stone walls and streets are forbidding and are set at strange, off-kilter angles. This is accentuated by the way the camera work is slanted, which creates a disorienting, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like feel.
The one person Lisa encounters is a man who knows her and who appears identical to the mannequin in the shop. They talk and then argue, and he falls down a flight of stairs when Lisa shoves him. His watch falls to the ground with a broken face, and this image will recur several times throughout the movie.
Lisa never finds her bus and is caught in town after dark. She catches a ride with a wealthy couple and their chauffeur. The car breaks down outside of a castle, where the mysterious man from town is the butler. He introduces himself as Leandro, and the family provides a place for the stranded travelers to stay for the night.
The castle's occupants include a young man, Maximilian, who seems familiar with Lisa. Another element common in Bava's films, the infirm matriarch, is present in the form of Maximilian's mother, the Countess, played by the great Italian actress Alida Valli. She is blind, but she senses things that the others cannot see.
The characters begin to connect in odd ways. Of Lisa's traveling companions, the woman, Sophia, resembles and at times dresses like Lisa. Sophia carries on an affair with George, the chauffeur, who resembles Maximilian. Lisa is surprised and confused by Maximilian's attention and by his statement that he's glad she's back. Maximilian possesses a lovely sketch of Lisa, but with the name "Elena."
Lisa is menaced by sightings of the man/mannequin from town. He is named Carlos, and he is in some way connected to Lisa. Carlos also resembles Sophia's husband, who is advised to leave when George is murdered. A chain of death follows.
Then things get weird. We still see many of the elements of Bava's gothic horror work. Fear is tied to places, such as the church wall with its huge fresco, the empty town and the strange mansion. Tolling bells are heard. These appear in many Bava films as a sign of death, and their presence in the very first scene is perhaps the first clue to what's going on.
This is a "big reveal" kind of movie, but only for Lisa, so let's call it a "small reveal." The audience knows the deal within about five minutes, but Lisa doesn't catch on, and probably doesn't want to, until the film's final frame. There's no real plot or resolution here. Images, symbols and metaphors tell the story instead of a linear series of events. This is more poem than story. Which is fine, but be ready for a different way of watching a movie. There's some opinion that this is Bava's best movie, and it's certainly his most self-consciously artistic. It feels slightly incomplete, and it's put me to sleep a couple of times, but it's a unique work.
Those who dote on Lisa and the Devil think of House of Exorcism as the worst kind of atrocity. Distributor Alfred Leone wanted to recoup some of the spurting arterial money-bleeding that was this film, so he shot new footage that served as a wraparound story that gave the movie a possession theme. In the new version, Lisa is possessed by a demon during the opening scene at the town plaza. The events of the film are then explained as related to the possession.
This is a crass tactic designed to cash in on the subject's popularity in the wake of The Exorcist. It actually worked. Financially, anyway. As a movie, it is a vile abomination that destroys Bava's message. It is stupid, artless and should never have been made.
Now let's look at its good points. As brain-dead as the new material is, it does contain a couple of laughs, albeit crude ones. This is not to say that Lisa and the Devil is as serious as a heart attack...but a heart attack would be levity by comparison. A moment of humor and a semi-linear plot are not the worst things that could happen to that movie.
It's remarkable how game Sommer is for the possession sequences. She has no self-consciousness about wearing pea soup or spouting obscenities, and she doesn't shy from the role's physicality. It looks like she's having fun, and that in turn is fun to watch.
The extra scenes introduce a couple of new characters. Lisa gets a new friend who accompanies her to the hospital and ties the plaza scene to the hospital scenes. That's actually just another crass tactic: She's played by Leone's daughter. Then Lisa gets an exorcist, a priest played by Robert Alda. And what's an exorcist without doubts and conflicts? Anna, a naked woman from his past, shows up to tempt him.
Anything left in that twelve-pack?