By the late 60’s, a series of commercial failures caused Mario Bava to lose his deal with American International Pictures, but the successes of Twitch of the Death Nerve and Baron Blood turned his fortunes around. Now, he was allowed to make movies without studio interference.
Bava was allowed to create Lisa and the Devil as a non-commercial film, but it flopped in Italy and the U.S., where it would be retitled House of Exorcism with twenty minutes of the film cut and a new scene with Elke Sommer and Robert Alda would rip off The Exorcist. Producer Alfredo Leone wanted this new footage to have profanity and strong sexual content, which Bava refused to do. He even tried to get Sommer to not be in these scenes and dropped out of the film. The re-edited (that’s being really fair to what is a hack job) version also flopped. For a much more in-depth telling of this story, please visit Groovy Doom.
So what is Lisa and the Devil about? Well, Lisa is a tourist who wanders away from a guided group tour to explore an antique store where Leandro (Telly Savalas, who if you ever get the chance to visit Pittsburgh, is featured in an epic photo in the Hollywood Bowl area of the famed Arsenal Lanes bowling alley) is purchasing a dummy. She looks at the man — who looks just like a demon she saw in a fresco — and runs. She then meets a mustache wearing man who recognizes her, but she bumps him into falling down the stairs to his death (or maybe not).
Lisa can’t find her way back to her tour, so she follows a couple and their driver (who is secretly dating the wife), but they break down at a mansion where Leandro coincidentally (or maybe not) works as a butler for the blind Countess and her son Maximilian, who begs his mother to let them stay.
The mustache man may (or maybe not) still be alive, as he stalks Lisa. There’s also a mystery guest in the mansion who may be a prisoner and Lisa may (or maybe not) be Elena, Maximilian’s long-lost lover. And oh yeah, the mustache guy is really Carlos, the Countesses second husband and Elena or Lisa (or maybe not) was sleeping with him.
This next part needs some careful wordsmithing. Carlos — that’s mustache man’s name — is being prepared for burial by Leandro while still being alive. Lisa freaks out as he tries to take her away from the mansion, but he’s killed by Maximilian, but then he’s not even real, but the dummy Leandro bought at the start of the movie.
If that made you say, “What the fuck?” then get ready. The young driver loverboy is killed while fixing the car, but Leandro offers to cover it all up if he can take care of the body. The husband demands that his wife leave with him, so she runs him over with the car. Then, she is murdered by Maximilian. Whew.
Lisa is knocked out by all of this and Leandro dresses her like Elena. Turns out he is a demon indebted to the Countess and Maximilian and forced to help them play out their lives again and again and again, using dummies to represent each of them. As Lisa arrived and interrupted his shopping for new dummies, her real form must now become Elena. But wait? Isn’t Lisa Elena? That’s what Maximilian thinks, as he takes her to the secret room, where we learn that Elena’s corpse and ghost are the mystery guest. He drugs Lisa and starts to rape her when the ghost laughs at him, causing him to stop and tell his mother what he has done: he killed Carlos for betraying his mother by sleeping with Elena, but imprisoned her rather than letting her get away. When his mother tells him the only next logical step is to kill Lisa, he kills her instead.
He then finds every dead person all gathered at a table for dinner. His mother tries to kill him, so he jumped out a window and is impaled on a fence. Leandro appears behind the dead bodies.
Lisa escapes, but not before she sees Leandro refuse to accept a doll of her. On an amazing 1960’s plane, complete with spiral staircase, she discovers that the entire plane is empty, except for the pilot — Leandro. She collapses and becomes the dummy that he carries back to the house.
Lisa and the Devil was Bava’s dream project turned nightmare. The end result — which didn’t play in wide release in the director’s lifetime — is a waking dream of doom, dread and predestined death. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a straight narrative, but it’s a strong film for those seeking to explore and be mesmerized.