A misguided sense of marketing can be an amazing thing. It can lead promising individuals down a dark path wherein they sell their own souls just to keep the holy dollar rolling in — while guiding others to cater to the most obscenely heinous of gimmicks in order to gratify patrons that would probably do better without anyway (e.g. Beer Pong Tuesdays at a wine bar). And then there are those horrible folks that decide to change somebody else’s work just so they can cash in on a topical craze. During the ’70s, many a shady film distributor would re-title a motion picture under their control and advertise it locally according to the current demand of a specific region.
As such, there were many movies falsely promoted as something they were not. One of my favorite examples is a rare opening for Amando de Ossorio’s epic Tombs of the Blind Dead, which had been given a new prologue in order to sell the flick as part of the Planet of the Apes franchise. Seriously, it happened. This even occurred on television quite a bit. Most networks were so afraid of offending viewers or causing any controversy back then (as opposed to now, where they air reality shows), that they would shoot new footage. A perfect example of this (and a favorite, as well) was the bizarre NBC version of Two-Minute Warning, wherein the film’s sniper — who was just a nutjob in the original — was now a patsy for a group of art thieves!
But if there’s one excellent, quintessential example of what can go wrong when somebody exercises their right to do whatever the heck they want in order to make a quick buck or two, it would be the US premiere of Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il Diavolo) — or, as it was called in the States, The House of Exorcism!
But before we go walkin’ into The House of Exorcism, we must first explore Lisa and the Devil. By this point in his career, filmmaker Mario Bava — who made an ultra-impressive debut with Black Sunday — was losing ground on a daily basis. Many of the features he made in the late ’60s failed to generate a lot of favorability near and far, thus causing his American backers, AIP (American International Pictures), to kick the poor fellow to the curb. In 1971, he produced a feature called Twitch of the Death Nerve. It repulsed just about everyone around, with the exception of those who frequented sleazy grindhouse and drive-in theaters for a good decade after the film was initially released, thanks to one of those underhanded distributors I mentioned earlier kept re-titling and re-releasing the movie (ironically, it also spawned the birth of the slasher genre).
So, in 1974, Bava — given full reign to do whatever he wanted to by his producer pal Alfredo Leone — made Lisa and the Devil. Here, Elke Sommer stars as a young woman named Lisa, who ventures into a small Spanish village (Toledo, as in “Holy Toldeo!”) via a tour bus, only to run into a strange man (Telly Savalas) who bears a striking resemblance to a mural said to depict the Devil on one of the town’s walls. From there, there is no escaping the man (or the community itself) — who wanders about with a lollipop in hit mouth and a full-sized male moustached mannequin under his arm: a dummy who seems to come alive at times. Both seem to haunt her, but something resembling salvation soon arrives in the presence of a passing vehicle containing an older rich fellow (Eduardo Fajardo), his (hot) younger wife (Sylvia Koscina), and their young chauffer (Gabriele Tinti) — whom the wife is blatantly having an affair with).
The foursome arrive at the remote estate of a blind, anti-social countess (Alida Valli) and her handsome young son, Maximillian (Alessio Orano) — who just happen to employ the mysterious man with the mannequin (Savalas, in case you lost track), whose name turns out to be Leandro. From here, things go from bad to worse: jealousies from all sides of the dinner table begin to emerge in Bava’s already surrealistic setting — with a dumbfounded Lisa caught in the middle of it all, trying to comprehend why passions are emerging from out of nowhere. Soon after that, Lisa and the others start to wonder why the mansion’s inhabitants are being brutally murdered — and more importantly, by whom.
Alas, Lisa and the Devil ultimately failed to become even a modest hit at the box office in Italy — and no one at Cannes felt like picking it up for a US release, either. And so, somebody took the artsy Italian horror film about a small group of damned, doomed souls and turned it into a cheap Exorcist rip-off.
Only in America, right, kids?
Well, kind of. The culprit behind such an atrocity was not your average shifty American distributor: it was actually producer Alfredo Leone himself! Realizing that American audiences would only be confused to the nth extreme over Bava’s romantic nightmare, Leone convinced his writer/director partner to make the whole thing more marketable for the US — a country that had exorcism on the brain due to William Friedkin’s unexpected 1973 hit about demonic possession. Mario reluctantly agreed to assist, but soon left the bastardizing re-shoot over his own personal feelings. Though he stylized the art of violence, he was completely against such vulgarity as profanity and excess sexuality. Thus, Leone kept shooting new scenes with returning performer Sommer and a newly-hired Robert Alda, who was cast as a priest.
And so, The House of Exorcism came to pass. This time ’round, we find a possessed Sommer drooling some funky gunky green goo out of her mouth and into her hospital bed (a convincing set piece if there ever was one [cough]), with the original footage — what’s left of it, that is — now being used as flashback material, wherein we learn how Lisa came to be possessed by Il Diavolo. As all this takes place, a highly embarrassed Father Alda attempts to ward all the bad, malicious, meanie evilness away.
Sadly, the only thing anyone succeeded in scaring off was the audience. The House of Exorcism — Alfredo Leone’s awful 1975 re-edit of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (which was credited to director “Mickey Lion”) — was seen by critics and the public alike as a cheap clone of The Exorcist, and Mario’s initial conception had to wait a whole quarter of a century before it was seen in its original uncut glory in the US thanks to a VHS and DVD release by the folks at Image Entertainment. Of course, by then (2000), the impressive array of work Bava had left behind (who passed away in 1980 from natural causes at the unnatural age of 65) had become popular with an entire world full of a younger generation that knew a good thing when they saw it (what’s that expression about artists only becoming successful after they die?).
Thirteen years after the first “official” release of Lisa and the Devil, Bava is just as alive to his fans as ever. This time, the UK-based company Arrow Video — who have been delighting horror and exploitation movie lovers with many a well-timed, well-made home video release — have given Lisa and the Devil the full HD treatment. And they even threw in The House of Exorcism to boot.
Presented in an impressive 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer, Lisa and the Devil looks truly beautiful here, showing off Bava’s hallucinogenic colorful world accordingly. Some shots are rather soft looking (some more than others), most of which is deliberate in order to convey the nightmarish reality Lisa finds herself in. Though the occasional flaw is noticeable here and there, detail is exceptionally fine — especially if you compare it to the old Image DVD (which was quite inferior, even for a Standard-Definition release), and contrast is as good as it’s likely to get until the next best re-mastering/home video thing comes along. Likewise, the alternate cut of the film, The House of Exorcism, shines as well as a polished piece of crap can.
LPCM 2.0 audio tracks are provided in both English and Italian for Lisa and the Devil, and deliver us unto Bava’s dreamy evil quite admirably. The House of Exorcism features an LPCM 2.0 English only audio option, and two tracks of English subtitles are provided for Lisa and the Devil: one for those who wish to view the feature Italian-language version of the film and English (SDH).
Like their excellent release of Black Sunday (which was released the same day), Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo of Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism contains a number of goodies, beginning with intros to each cut of the film by Italian horror guru Alan Jones. Next up is the documentary, The Exorcism of Lisa (in Italian with English subtitles), which was originally seen on an Italian DVD release of the movie in 2004. Lisa and the Devil also has a deleted scene to offer (a somewhat steamier sex scene between Sylvia Koscina and Gabriele Tinti), which is a partially-silent rough-cut. Two trailers for The House of Exorcism in all their hokey glory are featured, as is an interesting look at the unfinished music-only trailer for English-speaking audiences.
Audio commentaries are also provided for both movies. Lisa and the Devil is accompanied by Bava biographer Tim Lucas (or Video Watchdog fame), while The House of Exorcism gets all kinds of talked-over by Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer themselves. Both tracks were included in a previously-released Bava box set from Anchor Bay. Lastly, there’s a radio spot for The House of Exorcism, and an illustrated booklet as penned by film critic/author Stephen Thrower, and the BD/DVD case comes with reversible artwork by Graham Humphreys.
In short, I have to take my hat off to Arrow Video once again for another excellent release of a (now-)classic Bava film on Blu-ray, though most US owners will have to take note: this is a Region-B title. Sure, there’s an equally nice-looking Region-A Blu-ray out there from Kino Lorber Films, but it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that this one does. I suggest you start saving your pennies for that multiregional Blu-ray player today — because this one comes Highly Recommended.