LISA AND THE DEVIL And (Later) Some Pea Soup

Mario Bava's most personal film was wrecked by producers - or was it improved?

We're incredibly excited to partner with Fandor, a streaming service with the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world. With a catalogue this diverse and provocative, it was both easy and very, very hard to choose a handful of titles to discuss here on BMD.

I have put a lot of effort in my attempt to love Mario Bava as much as his reputation suggests I should. The movies are definitely nice to look at, and he admirably never kept returning to the same well over and over (unlike say, Dario Argento, who I like a lot more but also made something like five movies about a creative type of person getting caught up in a murder mystery), but the movies themselves leave me cold more often than not. The ones I like most are the ones you don't hear about as much - my favorite is probably Shock (his final one), while his revered titles like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath didn't elicit much excitement in me. I tend to like the movies his work INSPIRED more often than not - Planet of the Vampires is pretty good, but I don't love it like I do Alien (hell I might even like Prometheus a bit more), and Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) was an admitted influence on Friday the 13th - guess which one I pull off the shelf more often?

And that brings me to the curious case of 1972's Lisa and the Devil, said to be one of his most personal films and his attempt at leaving schlocky horror behind in favor of something more artistic. Like most of his others I find it most useful as an example of how a horror movie can look just as if not more gorgeous than a lavish period piece, due to the confounding story and shortage of traditional horror elements, but in this particular case the producers and distributors agreed with me (well, not specifically me, as I wasn't born yet). After nearly two years of having no luck getting the film sold due to its lack of exploitative elements, producer Alfredo Leone recut the film and shot new scenes in a transparent attempt to cash in on THE horror film of the moment, The Exorcist. Bava even shot some of these scenes himself (he refused to do the harder nudity and anything where Elke Sommer's character used profanity), though ultimately he took his name of the film. And so that's how Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil became Mickey Lion's The House of Exorcism.

Watching both versions back to back (as you can on Fandor, along with most of Bava's other genre films) is kind of fascinating. Neither version makes a lot of traditional sense, but in Exorcism's case, it's the FUN kind of incoherency that the Italians excelled at during this time, even with films that weren't re-shot/re-edited on a whim. Lisa and the Devil is straightforward as far as the timeline is concerned, but in Exorcism's revised take, after the opening (which is more or less the same except for a different, much less interesting opening title sequence) Lisa (Sommer) is suddenly knocked out and possessed, at which point she is taken to a hospital and (best as I can tell) relates the rest of the original version's narrative as a flashback. Every now and then we cut back to the hospital, where she is engaging in blatant copycatting from Exorcist, right down to the spitting of pea soup. With her in these scenes is a new character, a priest (of course!) played by Robert Alda, who eventually attempts something like an exorcism in the film's climax to justify the title.

But here's the thing. House of Exorcism actually runs a few minutes shorter than Lisa and the Devil, and that's with around 20-25 minutes of new footage. So that's about a half hour's worth of Lisa footage that's been excised from a narrative that didn't make a heck of a lot of sense to begin with. I mean, it wasn't exactly hitting Southland Tales levels of impenetrable, but if you could offer a clear synopsis from a single viewing and answer any question one might have about its plot without adding "I assume..." or "My guess is that...", you are some kind of cinematic savant. It GENERALLY makes sense, kinda, but the specifics can definitely trip you up, and that problem is exacerbated now that a few key moments have been shortened or removed entirely. Some characters (particularly Max, the Norman Bates-y male lead) are trimmed considerably, making some of their actions look like the result of total psychotic behavior instead of something that was being slowly built up to.

But like I said earlier, this makes it a lot more fun. If Lisa and the Devil is arthouse horror, than House of Exorcism is pure "grindhouse" fare, the sort of thing you watch at midnight, perhaps with a libation or three, laughing at the baffling plot turns and out of nowhere Exorcist ripoffs (I'm not sure Leone understood that the graphic profanity coming out of Linda Blair's mouth was horrific because it was a little girl - seeing an adult woman say the same kind of stuff isn't as shocking, it's just goofy). The one thing that remains consistent in both versions is Telly Savalas' delightfully offbeat turn as a butler who is also the devil (and also a lollipop enthusiast, of course); not counting the new ending, which replaces Lisa's, I don't think any of his major scenes or character beats were left out. I've tried to find a definitive list of the changes between both versions but have come up short - if anyone can point to one I'd be very grateful. Some of Lisa's shortened runtime can be attributed to merely speeding scenes along (such as Max's final confrontation with his mother), but there are whole chunks that were removed in order to make time for the new scenes with Alda.

See, watching back to back, it's hard to remember exactly what's missing when you just saw it. Your mind fills in the blanks (and again, some of the scenes are just sped up, an even harder thing to gauge the specifics), and the new footage proves to be a distraction when trying to tally such things. But also I've never seen one without the other; I can put on the longer cut of T2 or whatever and instantly spot the changes, because I wore out the theatrical version as a kid.  But in this case, I never saw either version until I got them both, and both of my viewings of Lisa were followed by a viewing of House to compare. I'd have to watch Lisa several times, and exclusively, and THEN watch House by itself five years later or something in order to have a definitive list of differences, I think. That said, I find it amusing that House is the version most people know, as Lisa was never even really released (just a few festival screenings) until 1983, when it started showing up on cable in its unaltered form. Given that the film makes even less sense as House, it must have been truly exciting for its fans to see a different, more coherent version of the film they had watched multiple times.

Bava wasn't the first or last filmmaker to see his film gutted and reshaped due to meddling producers who wanted to protect their investment, but it is rather sad and ironic that of all of his films, THIS is the one that was given that unfortunate treatment. An attempt to rise above the more exploitative horror that was prevalent at the time and provide him with a ticket out of that arena ended up being one of the schlockier entries in his filmography (I am not sure if the pseudonym worked at hiding his involvement, given Lisa's existence as a festival film - certainly it didn't take much to know "Mickey Lion" was in fact Mario Bava), and more or less ended his career. He'd make only two more films, Rabid Dogs (aka Kidnapped) and Shock (aka Beyond the Door II), both of which also had production issues and were completed by others. Thus, Lisa and the Devil, a film he actually made free of interference and is thus presumably exactly what he wanted, would be his true final film - you don't need to be a die hard fan to appreciate that it was thankfully saved and readily available today. You don't have to buy a bootleg or some expensive limited edition blu-ray set (ahem, Halloween 6) to see it - even if you might end up preferring the one you had all along.

Fandor makes it easy for you to find the right film to watch. With the biggest handpicked collection of the most-talked-about indie films from around the world, there’s always something great to watch, whatever your mood, on almost any device.