Monday, January 25, 2010

Lisa and the Devil (1974), Or Telly Savalas Owns Us All

Dearest friends, the Duke of DVD bids thee welcome. Won't you come in, sit, and let us talk of all things Mario Bava? After many reviews of his work, I thought nothing he could do would surprise me. I was wrong! So very, very wrong. Lisa and the Devil is his masterwork, in my humble opinion. An unfettered look into Bava's mad-genius mind in which the plot doesn't matter so much as the camera, which serves as an unblinking eye, showing us sights that range from the amazing to the macabre.

I should start by mentioning that Lisa and the Devil stars two of the most talented people to ever grace the silver screen. First we have Elke Sommer, whose "talents" are on display for all to see. Next we have Telly "Motherfucking" Savalas, who exudes an almost child-like glee in this movie. You can really tell he was having a blast, and he easily steals every scene he's in. I've seen him in a lot of movies, from war movies to westerns, but this is, in my eyes, his best performance.

Lisa and the Devil has a rather interesting production history as well, which I'll get into later, but suffice it to say I am agog.

Let us explore, shall we?

Our movie opens in an old Spanish town where a tourist by the name of Lisa Reiner is vacationing with a friend. A tour guide is leading them through an area filled with baroque churches and other buildings. The guide takes them to a fresco on a church wall which depicts the Devil Himself, doing something devilish. Lisa is enthralled by the painting. At that precise moment, she hears some haunting music coming from a nearby alleyway. Telling her friend she'll be right back (yeah sure!), she heads to investigate.

Coming around a corner, she finds a shop on a deserted street. It's filled with all manner of thing, from handwoven tapestries to life-like mannequins (basically, it looks like the Vicar's drawing room). A dapper bald man stands with his back to Lisa, conducting business with the store's owner. Business that involves a life-like dummy. More on that later. The music, it turns out, is coming from a rather awesome music box of sorts that has small figurines that rotate on top of it. Lisa asks the owner if it's for sale, but he informs her that the gentleman here has already purchased it.

"Excuse me, is there anything in this shop that isn't an apparatus for smoking hashish?"

That gentleman turns around and... it's Telly Savalas, exuding charm, dashing, cunning, sex, and machismo in one all-engulfing wave that ripples outward through the screen like an ocean of burning testosterone. Lisa is stricken immediately with Soaked Panties Syndrome(tm) as well as the notion that Telly looks exactly like the fresco'd Devil, which Bava shows to us using super imposition. She backs out of the shop in horror, and starts to head back to her tour group. Or rather, she tries to. The twisting alleys get her confused in no time, and suddenly she's lost. The streets are deserted as well, except for a few slack-jawed yokels who offer no succor.

"I'm just here to get my RealDoll upgraded with an extra-tough O-ring."

Bava does a masterful job here of situating his camera to give us the maximum feeling of claustrophobia, as experienced by Lisa. The alleys are narrow and the walls surrounding them at all times are high. We get long shots down deserted cobblestone streets where not a soul is seen but Lisa, hurriedly walking, trying to get to safety. She looks increasingly more frazzled as her journey takes her further and further into desolation. Dust swirls off street corners, and no animals are seen at all. Lisa is truly lost and alone, and we feel it along with her.

"Have you seen my lollipop, baby?"

A few turns later and she runs into Telly again. He just happens to be walking through the same area as Lisa, carrying his disturbingly life-like mannequin and that music box from earlier. She asks him for directions and he points her off down another alley, which she quickly takes, as his oozing manliness is too much for her to handle without getting weak-kneed and giddy. A few turns later and we have what is just the start of this film's inherent fucked-up-ness: Lisa runs into a guy, who is basically the mannequin that Telly was carrying earlier! He seems to think she's an old love of his named "Elena". Lisa tries to get away from him, but he insistently grabs her arm. She shoves him away and he tumbles down some stairs, knocked unconscious by the fall. His pocketwatch slips from his coat and breaks nearby. Lisa flees in horror, realizing her day has gone from bad to worse.

Night falls soon thereafter, and Lisa is still lost. Slumped against a wall in yet another deserted alley, she is defeated. Suddenly, car lights appear on the horizon. A fancy old car pulls up as she flags it down. She asks for and is given a ride. The people in the car turn out to be Francis and Sophia Lehar, being driven by their hunky chauffeur George. The car is overheating but still drivable, so George takes off. Very quickly Lisa realizes the tension in the car between the other three people. With everyone casting sidelong glances at each other, we can quickly see that George is making googly-eyes at Sophia, which Francis pretends not to notice.

Driving Miss Daisy 2: Drive Harder

The car journeys for some minutes more before finally tanking out completely, a fact that Sophia seizes upon to complain loudly that Francis just has to have his classic cars. While George raises the hood and tries to make it work again, a gate opens outside an estate that they stopped in front of. Surprise surprise, it's Telly's estate! He quickly talks them into coming in to stay for the night, saving the car work for the morning. Lisa doesn't believe in fate, apparently, and begins backing away as soon as she sees Telly. Her flight is interrupted by a strange, handsome young man who apparently lives in the house as well. Using his piercing blue eyes, he talks her into coming in the house.

As it turns out, Telly is in fact the butler of the house! Dressed to the nines in full black-tie regalia, he cuts a striking figure. Wearing white gloves and a coat with tails, he fairly struts around as he leads the party through the opulent estate, around impressive gardens and statuary. The manse is certainly impressive. One can tell immediately that Telly is into this role, so different from his other films at the time. He has a barely restrained grin at all times, and a twinkle in his eye and a bounce to his step.

The estate, it turns out, is home to the Contessa and her son, Maximilian, the dashing young whippersnapper that got Lisa to come inside. The travelers are shown rooms to freshen up in. Sophia and George waste no time hooking up for a bit of the ol' in-and-out, which Bava shows us via a killer reflection shot off a makeup case. Lisa showers (off screen, unfortunately) and sets about combing her hair. A noise makes her look out the window, where she sees the dummy man again!

Fleeing out into the estate, she sees the dummy man lumbering towards her; she runs again, right into the arms of Max. He soothes her, says it's good to have her back, which she frowns at but doesn't pursue. He leads her back to the house. We see that the dummy man is once again in mannequin form, being carried around by Telly for who knows what nefarious reason.

"Sure, you can drive a car, but let's see how well you drive me!"

A sumptuous meal is prepared, and everyone sits to eat. The Countess arrives late to the party, and speaks cryptically about some 5th visitor that no one else has seen. Max calms her somewhat just as Telly brings out a multi-tiered cake and a bottle of red wine. He drops the wine, shattering it on the floor, which gives Bava an excuse for another insanely awesome reflection shot of Telly's face in the red wine. Genius! Max begs off with a piece of cake, taking it to someone upstairs. He enters a hidden room via a secret door among a row of mirrors upstairs. The room is dank and we can hear some woman moaning and sometimes giggling. Very creepy! He offers the cake to someone on a bed shrouded with dark linens hanging from the ceiling. We don't see who it is.

"Would you care for some fava beans, or perhaps a nice Chianti?"

Meanwhile, post-repast, the chauffeur George is attempting to repair the car. Telly watches, sucker in mouth. As most fans of his know, Telly Savalas is well-known to affect a lollipop at most all times. This started with his work in the Kojack detective tv series, which the great Wikipedia in the sky tells us came about because he needed something in his mouth in lieu of a cigarette for a certain scene. It worked so well that it became a trademark of Savalas's (just like talking with a lisp and holding his hand out to be kissed, not shaken, is a trademark of the Vicar's).

The others, meanwhile, are relaxing in the parlor. Sophia is tired of waiting and is itching to leave. The Countess arrives, Telly in tow. It turns out she's blind! Given no indication of this before at dinner, the guests are as surprised as we are. She asks to "see" Lisa, having Telly describe her as she feels her face. Elsewhere, Max is looking through some old diaries and we see his love Elena looks exactly like Lisa! He burns the picture, apparently moving on with his life now that Lisa's arrived.

"Yes, and her boobs are this big."

After being groped by an old blind woman, Lisa is tuckered. She retires to her room, whereupon she has a fanciful dream, featuring her in a ludicrously low-cut dress (huzzah!) and also featuring a heaping helping of classic Bava slow-motion and dream-like soft focus. She runs through the sunlit estates, coming to a pavilion, where she meets none other than dummy man! They begin to make-out. Lisa suddenly wakes up to find Max in her room, watching her sleep. He whispers sweet nothings to her and suddenly they begin to kiss. The camera rotates around and we see that she is in fact kissing the mannequin guy! Recoiling in horror, she flees once more.

Outside, Sophia comes looking for George, who is nowhere to be seen despite the car running. Calling his name, she turns to find her husband giving her the ol' stink-eye. She starts to go but he grabs her arm. She says to him "If this is your way of being a man, I'm not impressed!" to which he retorts "You slut!" then backhands her, a training tool useful for all slut interactions. As she falls away, she catches the door handle, pulling it open to reveal a murdered George! His throat has been punctured.

The murderer is swiftly revealed to be the Countess, as we see a quick shot of her holding a pair of bloody scissors. Telly the butler quickly arranges a cart to carry the body off as Sophia mourns. Telly wheels it away, with everyone following in sort of a small funeral procession. Bava's mastery is in full effect here, giving us silhouettes of each person passing behind a pair of stained glass windows. Amazing! We next seen a scene where the mannequin man, who is some old family ghost apparently, is watching through the shroud at whomever is in the secret room.

Bava showing us how it's done.

I must talk about a singular perfect scene involving Savalas and the rich guy. The rich gent is talking about leaving while smoking a cig, and Telly asks to bum one. He uses the man's lit cigarette to light his own just as the Countess comes down the top of the stairs behind them. Seeing her there, he quickly shoves his own cigarette in between the rich guy's fingers, waves the smoke away while saying very loudly "Can you please put that out sir, the Countess doesn't like the smoke!!", then he quickly whips a sucker out from his glove and pops it in his mouth! Genius!

Lisa meets Max out in the garden, where the Countess interrupts them. Lisa heads back to the house while the Countess admonishes Max, telling him to not get involved. Lisa happens across a ivy-covered building, where she looks through a window and sees Telly, busy setting out decorations for what appears to be George's funeral (which is bizarre in and of itself--why have a funeral for George at the estate?!). A wreath covers most of the corpse, but we can see the coffin it is lying in is too small for the body. Telly notices this as well, and unceremoniously breaks the corpse's ankles so that it now fits! He finally removes the wreath, revealing to us and Lisa that the body is instead that of mannequin man!

Lisa flees back tot house, running into mannequin man once again (WTF I say!). He again calls her Elena and professes his love. Lisa runs in horror back to the house. Meanwhile, the rich couple has had enough and is leaving. With the car running, Sophia climbs in first, and as Francis heads around the front of the car, Sophia seizes her chance and slides quickly over to the driver's seat, slams it in drive, and floors it. Francis barely has time to scream as the car plows over him. Slamming it into reverse, Sophia backs over Francis, then runs over him again, over and over, crushing his corpse further into the muddy ground. The effects used here are sublime.

Francis suffers what is known as the "Sicilian Divorce"

Sophia heads back into the house, where she is confronted by an angry Max, who uses a brass pole to club her to death in a rather brutal fashion! We cut to Telly who is in a room surrounded by mannequins. He's working to repair the mannequin man we keep seeing, which has a busted face. Lisa walks in and is suitably horrified once more. She leaves and runs into Max, who takes her up to the secret room behind the mirror. He tells her this is Elena's room, his former love. Pulling back the curtain, we and Lisa are horrified to discover that Elena is a skeleton, dressed in the low cut dress we saw Lisa in during her dream.

"Miss, does this rag smell like chloroform to you?"

Max drugs Lisa with a chloroformed rag, then puts her on the bed beside Elena's body. He strips Lisa, and Bava's camera gives us shy, partially obscured shots of Elke Sommer's awesome breasts and stomach. Seriously, I'd eat a plate lunch off her supple nude body. Max takes his own clothes off and begins kissing the passed-out Lisa. In an obvious nod to necrophilia, Max mounts Lisa and begins to go to town, but can't perform because he's crying like some sissy. Max flees in anguish, running to where his mother the Countess is. They get in a big argument, which culminates in Max stabbing his mother with a spiked candelabra.

Max flees the scene, heading to the dining room, where all of the visitors (and Elena's corpse) are arrayed around the table, mannequin-esque in their silence. They all stare at Max, who freaks the fuck out. Suddenly, his dead mother comes shambling into the room. Max backs away, and falls out a window, where he is impaled on top of an iron fence. The mother's body slumps over as Telly grabs her from behind, saying with a smirk "They just never stay put!"

"Spam for dinner, again?"

Lisa wakes up from her chloroform lunch. Still naked, she looks around to see that everything is grown up and decayed. The whole house and estate is covered in vines and decay. She dresses and walks out to the front gate, where a group of schoolgirls are tossing a ball around. The ball bounces over by Lisa, who picks it up and offers it to one of the girls. Another girl in the group tells her to stay back, that only ghosts live there, the house having been abandoned for over 100 years! The girls run away, leaving Lisa alone. She wanders away from the house and very quickly finds the same plaza where she started the film, under the Satanic fresco. She hails a cab, and asks the cabbie to take her to the airport.

Now in her seat on the plane, Lisa lays back and rests her eyes, weary from all that has happened to her. The plane takes off. She wakes up sometime later to find the plane deserted! Wandering around and finding no one, she heads upstairs to first class. Arrayed before her in various seats are the other guests of the house, all dead and mannequin-like! Seeing them stare at her with their dead eyes, she flees in horror, heading up to the pilots cabin. She knocks furiously on the door, pleading to be let in. The door unlatches and slowly swings open to reveal Telly Savalas, lolly in mouth, wearing a Captain's uniform! He turns slowly around and gives her that sly smirk and calls her "Elena." The camera pans back to Lisa, who is suddenly dressed in that low-cut dress from her dream. Her features are ashen and we see that she is now mannequin-esque as well.

Lisa has now become Elena. She slumps dead to the floor. Fin.

"What's that awful smell? Oh wait, it's me..."

Whew. Sorry to gush so much, dear friends, but I just couldn't help it! Bava's mastery of the camera was in full effect during this movie, demonstrating a filmmaker at the height of his powers. Bava's international success with Baron Blood had caused producer Alfredo Leone to give Bava carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted, and this was the result. Lisa and the Devil is like the journey into a twisted mind's nightmare, where nothing makes sense and we, along with the protagonist, are swept breathlessly along, not knowing what is coming next but unable to look away.

The movie ended up being a commercial bomb, despite getting critical praise at Cannes. This was mainly due to lack of distribution. Apparently theaters assumed the general public wasn't ready for necrophiliac overtones, a sweaty, lollipop sucking Telly Savalas, or the pert nipples of Elke Sommer. How little did they know! It was ultimately re-edited by Leone and new footage was cut in making it into a possession movie, turning it into a cheap attempt to capture some of the Exorcist hoopla at the time, and calling it House of Exorcism. The original Lisa and the Devil wouldn't be released until 2 years after Bava was called back to Hell.

To me, the movie was deliberately confusing, striving to make little sense to the viewer, who would be as off-put as the players in the movie. The film also dwelt heavy on decay, loss, and death. Bava's camera loved to linger on shots of dead bodies, or mannequins, or mannequins of dead bodies. It would appear to me that Lisa really is Elena, and that the whole trip to Spain is some sort of personal Hell that she is trapped in, forced to relive the events of her life over and over. One can easily pretend that in that final shot of Elena/Lisa slumping against the wall of the plane would then be cut to her arriving anew in Spain to see the fresco, the cycle starting over.

If I could, I would invent a new rating system just to give this movie a higher rating than others. Wait a fucking minute, I'm the Duke of DVD! I indeed have that power (along with the ability to drop a woman's panties at 30 paces, and to consume enough spiced rum to kill a mule and still be able to operate a motor coach). So, in the wake of that revelation, I give Lisa and the Devil 4 Fucking Thumbs Up! This film deserves to be in the ultimate pantheon of MAD movie greats.

"Who loves ya, baby?!"


dfordoom said...

Definitely Bava's masterpiece, and possibly the greatest eurohorror movie of them all. It amazes me that so many horror fans dislike this movie.

Samuel Wilson said...

Duke, Savalas is an awesome character actor whether playing Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (It would be with him in it), crazy soldiers in numerous WW2 films, a Cossack in the awe-inspiring Horror Express or the mildly troubled title character in Redneck. Lisa's butler fits quite nicely into this pantheon of roles, his atypical obsequiousness only proving his range. Savalas doesn't get enough credit from cult movie fans, but you're a noble exception.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Duke, I'm surprised that image of Telly from the frankly awesome poster art is not currently emblazoned in tattoo on the Duchal back, if not the necks of all your House Staff. :) Savalas is one of those actors with so much natural charisma, he just overwhelms the screen and the audience with his innate Savalasness.

I'm very much enjoying your series on Bava, which has already exposed some gaping holes in my gothic horror education. Can't wait to see where you take us next. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

Al Bruno III said...

I am ashamed to admit I have never seen this particular film. I have to track it down as I have seen more of Bavas early films than his later ones.

Your review makes it sound very interesting- like the more surreal works of Robert W. Chambers and Thomas Ligotti.

Three questions;

1.) Do you think that the film MANNEQUIN is in many ways a thematic sequel to this film?

2.) You state in the review "It's filled with all manner of thing, from handwoven tapestries to life-like mannequins (basically, it looks like the Vicar's drawing room)" Can you just admit its a REAL DOLL and be done with it?

3.) How is it Telly Savalas manages to look sexy bald while I manage to look like Cousin Fester with gout?

Anonymous said...

The ballo di Bava continues!
Well done, sir. Your effusiveness - and that of your commentors - makes me realize I've made a grave error by not yet sitting down with this one. I'll amend that mistake henceforth. Many thanks.

The Duke of DVD said...

@dfordoom - No self-respecting horror fan could ever dislike this movie. Anyone that does should have their Fan of Horror license revoked and be publicly spanked by the Vicar.

@Samuel Wilson - Savalas does indeed deserve all possible accolades. Also, I must see this "Redneck" of which you speak.

@Vicar - I exist to serve, my dearest friend! If I can just claim one convert to the Church of Bava then my crusade will have not been in vain.

@Al Bruno - 1) Yes, "Mannequin" is an obvious attempt to cash-in, as it were, on the international success of "Lisa and the Devil". However, they failed miserably because Andrew McCarthy isn't worthy of removing the sweat from Savalas's balls with his bloated tongue.

2) I had a lot more fun with this movie when I started to pretend that all mannequins contained therein were Real Dolls.

3) Uncle Fester is dead sexy! As long as you can impress friends and the random passer's by with lighting a bulb using only your mouth then you have it made!

@Geo - Watch this movie. NOW!

dfordoom said...

"As long as you can impress friends and the random passer's by with lighting a bulb using only your mouth then you have it made!"

Very few women can resist a man who can do that.

Gene Phillips said...

A most exemplary review, Sir Duke!
I agree that this is Bava's best, but though it's hardly got a story as such, I have to ntoe that I don't think (as you wrote) that Alida Valli's blind character kills anybody. I seem to remember it's her son.

One of my favorite bits of perversity here is that we find out that the woman Lisa looks like ran away with whatisname's father, and that the Valli character starts acting like she and whatsisname should get together. Whoahhhh--

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