Monday Movie: Lisa and the Devil, by David Bax
October’s over. We’re supposed to be moving on, throwing away the jack-o-lanterns and removing the skeleton cut-out from the front door. We’re supposed to be focusing on the awards season ahead or joining our fellow film buff friends in Noirvember. And, by all means, we should do these things. But let’s not forget that just because October’s over is no reason not to make time for horror movies, cinema’s most rich and exciting genre.
Some of the best movies ever made are horror films and some of the best of those were made by Mario Bava. Most lists of Bava’s best work will include Black Sunday, Black Sabbath and Blood and Black Lace at or near the top. You’ll probably have to scroll down a ways to find 1973’s Lisa and the Devil. I would argue, though, that this lovely, strange, terrifying, phantasmagorical film is ripe for reappraisal.
Elke Sommer plays Lisa, a vacationer in Spain who breaks off from her tour group and goes into a little curiosities shop where she sees a man with the exact same face as the fresco of the devil out in the courtyard (Telly Savalas) buying a life-size ventriloquist dummy. So, yeah, Lisa and the Devil is scary pretty much right off the bat. Things only get worse for Lisa when, in her terror at this brief encounter, she gets hopelessly lost in a city that seems to be getting stranger and less populated by the minute. She eventually encounters a wealthy couple and their driver (all also lost) and together they take refuge in an eerie mansion populated by a blind woman, her erratic adult son and a butler with the face of Satan and a collection of life-size ventriloquist dummies.
Due to instances like Black Sunday being heavily edited to remove gore for its American release, Bava has always carried with him a hint of a reputation as a splattermeister. And make no mistake, when the chaos finally breaks loose in Lisa and the Devil, the results aren’t pretty. Still, above all, Bava was a classical stylist who understood the value of good narrative pacing. So even as Lisa’s travails in the mansion take on more and more of the rationally illogical nature of true nightmares, the viewer is swept along ever forward by a firm but gentle hand. Sometimes this is comforting until Bava takes advantage of that comfort and the invisible hand suddenly seems to be pushing you, not guiding you, toward something inevitable and monstrous.
Lisa and the Devil ought to be more often mentioned among the best Bava films and therefore the best horror films and therefore the best films. It’s good watching no matter the time of year.