REVIEW – Lisa and the Devil (1974)

LisaandDevilFilmJuice have my review of Arrow Films’ recent re-release of Mario Bava’s post-gothic fantasia Lisa and the Devil (a.k.a. House of Exorcism).

This review probably makes most sense when read in concert with my review of Bava’s earlier film Black Sunday. As I pointed out in my review, Black Sunday‘s Gothic imagery works solely because the film is shot in black and white. Lisa and the Devil deploys a similar set of Gothic tropes (skeletons, ghosts, sinister mansions) but because the film is shot on Eastmancolor (the successor to Technicolor), the film lacks any real atmosphere meaning that the Gothic imagery feels forced and slightly silly. One explanation for Bava’s decision to revisit Gothic tropes on colour film is that the sense of artificiality is intentional and used as a means of drawing our attention to the fantastical and unreal nature of the world the character has inadvertently entered. Indeed, while the film is ostensibly about a young woman who is lured to a sinister mansion by the Devil, one could also read the film as a meditation upon Bava’s career as a director. After all… how many women did the great horror director lure into Gothic mansions as a part of his job?

This feeling of artificiality is fiercely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and both works feel like products of an aging creator reflecting upon the theatricality of their own lives. However, while Shakespeare clearly identified with the aging wizard Prospero, Bava appears to identify with Savalas’ satanic butler, a character forever fussing with cheap special effects and grease paint in an effort to control what people see and how they feel. The melancholic nature of this identification is even more evident when Lisa snaps out of her reverie amidst wax dummies and ruined buildings: when the film ends, the audience picks up their stuff and leaves while the reality of the film decays in their minds and nothing is left but ghosts.

Another reason for picking up this dual format release is that Arrow Films have consulted a collection of critics who really engage with the fact that this film was released in a number of different places and a number of different forms.

One of the most prominent vestiges of auteur theory is the idea that a director’s final cut of a film is somehow more authoritative than alternate versions. Though rooted in the cult of the director-as-auteur, this vision of the creative process owes much of its popularity to Ridley Scott’s very public dissatisfaction with the original cut of Bladerunner. When the director’s cut of Bladerunner was finally released, people noted the improvement and internalised the idea that a ‘director’s cut’ is somehow better than a standard cut. Though certainly romantic, this idea actually has very little basis in reality.

Firstly, many films (including Lisa and the Devil) were cut and re-cut for multiple markets in a bid to extract as much profit as possible from the production process. Rather than shooting a film and putting all of their eggs in a single aesthetic basket, many exploitation film directors would shoot extra scenes that allowed them to produce alternate cuts tailored for particular markets. Thus, while the soft-focus and lack of real violence and sex suggest that this cut of Lisa and the Devil was made for TV, House of Exorcism contains a lot more sex, a lot more violence and an exorcism framing device that allowed producers to target the mid-70s American marketplace. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ version of Lisa and the Devil, there are only variations on a theme.

Secondly, directors have been known to revisit films at different points in their career. Indeed, while the director’s cut of Bladerunner may be closer to Scott’s original vision than the theatrical cut, it seems unlikely that each of the subsequent re-editions of the film are somehow more authentic than the last.Similarly, while Apocalypse Now Redux contains more material than the original theatrical cut, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Apocalypse Now Redux is somehow more authentically ‘Apocalypse Now-y’ than Apocalypse Now. A further example of this type of thing is Ruggero Deodata’s decision to provide an alternate edition of Cannibal Holocaust with all of the animal cruelty taken out of it. On one hand, this is clearly a more authentic rendering of the director’s feelings about his own film but it seems strange to suggest that this new cut is anything more than a publicity-generating afterthought.

Thirdly, more and more films are being produced with home release editions in mind. The most obvious example of this type of thing are the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies but one could also talk about the more sexually explicit home release editions of American Pie and films like Get him to the Greek which included additional scenes and different takes of scenes that appeared in the theatrical version.

The extras on this dual-format release go into considerable detail about the production history and how entirely different films were extracted from a single shooting schedule. Aside from providing a fascinating insight into how European exploitation films were made, these extras also confront head-on the idea that there might be a single, correct version of any particular film. There are no ‘more authentic’ cuts… only better ones.