Originally published November 2, 2015
The 70s were a remarkable time for horror films. Most of the movies are still relevant today because they spawned a franchise or people can’t get enough of them. Jaws, The Exorcist, Halloween and Alien are among them. Each created a subgenre on its own in our beloved horror universe. But, there were other horror movies, shameless rip-offs, made only to cash in on the money the originals earned. Piranha, Abby and Galaxy of terror are just a few of them. Inside this big pile of … hmm… copies, one peculiar film emerges from director MARIO BAVA (Black Sunday), under the name LISA AND THE DEVIL, or was it HOUSE OF EXORCISM, no wait, it is LA CASA DELL ESCOTISMO, or whatever the hell it’s called nowadays. There were basically two versions of the same movie, one for the fans of the Exorcist and one for the fans of Psycho. Why were there two versions? Although it has its premiere in Cannes, it couldn’t run in theatres if it weren’t attached to some big ol’ popular film of that time. Here I analysed the version which is leaning more to the side as a rip-off to Psycho. In it, the fragile flower Lisa (Elke Sommer) visits Spain and gets lost in the city after hearing some mesmerizing melody out of a music box. She gets picked up by some rich folks, but eventually, the car dies in front of an old mansion, where crazy people live. Long story short, the devil has all the cards in his hand. The movie is Bava’s most personal film he ought to make, not caring about quality or logic. Today this highly atmospheric and creative effort is considered a true gem in Bava’s filmography and it really is as bizarre, as it is adventurous.
The character of Lisa is very odd. She is annoyingly quiet throughout the movie, has the least amount of dialogue and most important of all, she doesn’t seem to have the strength or confidence to stand up for herself, so she just gives in to the situation at hand to avoid any kind of trouble. So, she either ends up making out with Maximilian or with Carlos, two complete strangers. Just so she can avoid conflict.
Later on, in the movie, she summons up a flashback scene, to her other self ‘Elena’, and she goes through a raping sequence, with both of them not being in control of their bodies. Elena/Lisa feels drawn to this eerie location and to these strange men, but she can’t quite figure out why.
In that weird scene, the devil is manipulating her. He put Lisa under a spell, so she would be drawn to these men and this mysterious location. THE DEVIL/LEANDRO (Telly Savalas, best known as Kojak, the lollipop sucking detective, first brought the lollipop as a character trade inside this very movie, and then re-used it later in series named Kojak), has a nifty little game going on.
He pretends to be the butler in the mansion, but actually, he controls every person inside it. Each person is cursed to be a dummy. Sometimes he wakes them up to be a human again, so the others would think they have a hallucination. His goal is to lead everyone to the brink of their sanity, so they would kill each other off.
Lisa: ‘But it can’t be, he spoke to me.’
The Devil: ‘It’s quite possible that he spoke to you. I mean, this is Senor Carlos’
Although he is the devil, he still has to follow protocol. He can’t kill his victims himself, but he can lead the others to do the dirty work for him and then afterwards, he can collect their souls. So yes, the butler did it again!
THE OPENING SEQUENCE
What the movie is about is explained in the title sequence. An unknown card dealer with white gloves deals with a certain set of tarot cards. Each card represents one actor that is inside the film. Three things are painfully obvious:
- The movie represents a game
- The dealer with white gloves controls the game (later on we find out, the Devil/the butler Leandro has white gloves on)
- The characters are on tarot cards, which represent their fate
If the Devil plays his cards right, he can win the game and he gets to decide which destiny the characters will face.
SOAP OPERA MOMENTS
The movie contains so many soap opera features. First off, the story is just as exhausting as a 150-episode run of a Mexican soap opera. Everyone is cheating with everyone and that gets really confusing, so here are some guidelines.
The blind COUNTESS (Alida Valli) has a husband, CARLOS (Espartaco Santoni), who is the stepfather of MAXIMILIAN (Allesio Orano). It’s unknown what happened to the first husband of the Countess.
Maximilian was engaged to Elenor a.k.a. Elena, but Maximilian’s problem with impotence led her straight into the arms of a more potent and more masculine fellow, his stepfather Carlos.
In a fit of rage, Maximillian murdered both of them, and since then, the mother and her son arrange funeral ceremonies for their beloved ones, so they can escape getting caught for murder. It’s a vicious cycle they repeat over and over until the Devil gets all the souls he needs.
And as moral support, three guests, that mirror the problems of the mother and the son, are also invited to join the ‘Hell’-club.
The rich couple FRANCIS LEHAR (Eduardo Fajardo) and his wife SOPHIA LEHAR (Sylva Koscina) with their chauffeur GEORGE (Gabriele Tinti) picked up Lisa, who’s wandering lost in the streets in the middle of the night. They take her for a ride, but the car broke down ten feet away from the Devil. Bummer.
Sophia is cheating on her husband Francis with George, but the husband is well aware of it. During the evening, poor ol’ George successfully repairs the car, successfully satisfies Mrs Lehar and successfully dies after being murdered by the Countess.
Devastated by the loss of her lover, Sophia drives now with the repaired car over to her husband. She even confirms his death by running over his body once more, aaaaand she did it again. Let’s do it one more time just to be sure! And again. Jesus. I think that is enough…no? Ok, let’s do it one last time. But karma is a bitch. After pulverising her husband, she gets around the corner and gets bitten by a metal candlestick. Maximilian killed her. He’s good at math, he put two and two together and figured, since Sophia’s husband went through the wringer, he will eventually go down the same road with Elena. So he killed the one responsible for the adultery.
And what do you know, Evil still won in the end.
OTHER SOAP-OPERA TREATS:
- THE ZOOMS. Oh, the zooms. If someone is staring, ZOOM. If someone is holding an object, ZOOM. If someone is saying an important fact the audience should know, ZOOM.
- Maximilian laid his heart out for Lisa, telling her poems of his never-ending love, the pain, the joy, how she has to stay and how they both will run away together. And to give a special touch to his epic love confession, he points out A WHITE ROSE in the dark, ‘this is the last rose of the season. It lingered on and waited for you.’
- The most fascinating SPECIAL EFFECT the production could afford was a reflection of the characters on surfaces like a puddle of wine, or the glass door and on the surface of the cigarette holder.
- THE OVER CONFIRMATION OF INFORMATION. Everything has to be explained multiple times so the moviegoer, who’s already asleep, can absorb the information needed to move on to the next scene in the picture. There is a fresco on the wall of a church, which shows the Devil, who’s carrying a corpse. The drawing of the Devil is so specific; you guess right away it is the guy Lisa met. But no, the drawing seemed very vague to the producers of this movie, so, why not over impose it over the actor’s face, so the audience can get the hint.
- The RUNNING through the streets, down the hallways, up the hallways, up the stairs and through the mansion. It lasts too long and it doesn’t really serve a bigger purpose than to show how incredible the streets or the interiors of the mansion look. If the audience has seen it once, there is no need to repeat it four more times.
Lisa turns away from her tourist group and gets lost. In an alley, she sees a PASSAGEWAY that is a shape of a keyhole. It represents the portal into another world. Once passed, there is no turning back.
The world where she crosses over has no time reference. It can be the past or the future. It is all the same because it repeats itself. CLOCKS in that world don’t need hands. Everytime the audience spots a clock, the hands are broken off or they are nonexistent.
The MUSIC BOX the Devil carries with him has six porcelain figures on top of it, representing the six people in his game. Each figurine is a character in the movie. The figure of death is obviously representing the Devil, the beggar or farmer is representing George, the king and queen are Francis Lehar and his wife Sophia, the tall dark-haired man is Carlos and the princess represents the main star, Lisa. The figures all spin in circles, as a metaphor for the state the characters are in and the repeated process with no escape or end in sight.
REFERENCES TO HITCHCOCK’S PSYCHO
Maximilian is in fact a lot like Mario Bava’s version of Norman Bates. In fact, Anthony Perkins was offered this role, but he turned it down because it was too similar to Psycho.
Maximilian killed his mother, just like Bates did.
He keeps the skeleton of his ‘once’ girlfriend in his bed, similar to Bates, who keeps the skeleton of his mother in the basement.
Maximilian hears the voices of his dead girlfriend which render him impotent and Norman hears the voice of his mother who controls him as if she is still alive.
There are a few superimposed pictures in this movie that give a subtle hint that the whole charade is played out by the same person, like the fresco with the Devil, which is a reference to Psycho at the end of the movie, where the skull of Norman’s mother is superimposed over his face.
Although engaging, the movie doesn’t feel like one of Bava’s films. Visually underperforming, Bava’s trademark is barely there. It also doesn’t show any sign of his cleverly constructed stories. It feels like it’s someone else’s work. The most disappointing thing about it is the missed opportunity to have played with the two main characters; Lisa and the Devil. They barely talk to each other. The movie is only entertaining, because of Telly Savalas’ fantastic performance.