Lisa And The Devil (1971)

Lisa And The Devil first published by

“I find that invariably, Lisa, there’s a very simple explanation for almost everything. Don’t you agree?”

The speaker is Leandro, played by Telly Savalas with a jovially eccentric manner and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Leandro is a mysterious jack of all trades – a wrangler of life-size dummies, a butler, an undertaker, a secret smoker, and possibly the devil himself – and he is already habitually sucking on the lollipops that would, two years later, become Savalas’ trademark on television’s Kojak. His words, addressed to the lost tourist Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer), suggest that there may after all be a very simple way out of her sense of disorienting entrapment – or perhaps, when he says ‘almost everything’, Leandro may be playfully suggesting that Lisa’s predicament is the thorny exception.

After an opening credit sequence featuring a tarot deck, the first scene of Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil shows Lisa with a bus tour group in Toledo, looking at a medieval fresco of “the devil carrying off the dead”. Lisa strays off into an antiques story, where she sees Leandro, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the devil on the mural, purchasing a moustachioed dummy and a wooden carousel that depicts five carved figures being led on a merrily circular dance by a scythe-bearing Death. If Leandro is the fresco come to life, then that dummy and carousel will also eventually find their living analogues, in a film where all artworks – including the statues, engravings and paintings at the villa where Lisa ends up – serve as mises en abyme, reflecting and encapsulating in their plastic forms the human dramas unfolding around them. Conversely, all the ‘living’ players will prove to be mere props and puppets in an eternally recurring melodrama-cum-tragedy whose events are as fixed as the details in a painting. For here Bava has created an immaculate Technicolor hall of mirrors that is also a diabolical labyrinth and a house of cards – an aesthete’s dream where it is all too easy to get caught in the design.

“I’ll be right back” is Lisa’s first utterance in the film, as she excuses herself from her companion on the tour. Yet after losing her bearings, she ends up accepting a lift in the mist from a well-to-do couple (Sylva Koscina, Eduardo Fajardo) and their chauffeur (Gabriele Tinti) – and when the car breaks down, all four of them seek refuge in a dilapidated villa, welcomed by the lonely man-of-the-house Maximilian (Alessio Orano) despite warnings from his mother the Countess (Alida Valli) that they should leave at once. Here, amid mystery and murder, some – including the mysterious fifth guest Carlo (Espartaco Santoni) – insist that Lisa has indeed come right back, even if he keeps addressing her by a name other than Lisa.

The results play like a swooning mix-up of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961) and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960) – with the presence of Valli, and some eventually damaged visages, clinching the reference to Franju’s haunting modern fairytale (Savalas would later star in Jess Franco’s 1988 reimagining Faceless). In its setting full of broken – or stopped – clocks, Lisa and the Devil tells a timeless tale of love and death, while blurring the boundaries between them, and updating their never-ending ravages to the Seventies jet set. Just don’t confuse it with The House of Exorcism (1975), its heavily revamped recut (with new scenes from another director) designed to cash in on the craze for The Exorcist (1973). That later version, disowned by Bava, is best avoided.

Summary:  Mario Bava’s elegantly perverse mystery traps its heroine in its design.

© Anton Bitel