Lisa (Elke Sommer) is a young woman holidaying with a friend in an unnamed European city. When Lisa gets very lost in the town's winding backstreets, she ends up taking a lift with an aristocratic man called Francis Lehar and his young wife, who is having an affair with their chauffeur. The quartet break down in the countryside and are taken in by the strange residents of an old house – creepy young Max (Alessio Orano), his stern mother (genre favourite Alida Valli) and their lollypop-sucking, mannequin-carrying butler Leandro (Telly Savalas).
Mario Bava's beguiling gothic horror was for many years only known in a truncated, messily recut edition called House of Exorcism, which was released in the US to cash in on the success of The Exorcist. Stripped of that version's gratuituous and nonsensical exorcism sequences it proves a strangely intoxicating film. From the very earliest scenes, shot in glaring daylight as Lisa stumbles upon Leandro in a mannequin shop and proceeds to lose herself in the labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a disorienting, dreamlike feel. A mustachioed man approaches Lisa, calling her Elena and proceeds to take a fatal tumble down a set of steps. Lisa accepts a lift from a stranger, even though she has no idea where they are going and her friend is presumably wondering where she's got to. Things get even weirder in the old house – Max talks to her like an old lover, the mustachioed chap keeps reappearing and the chauffeur is found with his throat cut – but Lisa never looks more than slightly confused.
Elke Sommer, beautiful but never the cinema's best actress, is a lot more effective here than in Baron Blood, the film she made with Bava a year earlier. Her detached expression and flat delivery contrasts nicely to the hammier performances of Eduardo Fajardo and Sylva Koscina as Francis Lehar and his cheating spouse. As we learn (or sort of learn) Lisa is the spitting image of a girl called Elena who lived in the house a hundred years ago, and Sommer succeeds in conveying the sense that Lisa belongs there, even if she doesn't know why.
Telly Savalas is both charming and unnerving. Leandro is the only character who doesn't seem to have a care in the world, and as the film develops it becomes clear that the others are just pawns in some game he's playing. The film's title suggests that he's the devil, and who knows, maybe he is; that's as open to interpretation as anything here. Lisa and the Devil was one of the last genre films Savalas made, as 1973 was also the year that Kojak made him a huge TV star.
Bava is at he top of his game technically – some of the earlier scenes feature the jarring zooms favoured by his fellow countrymen around that time, but these are quickly replaced by more lavish camerawork once Lisa and party reach the house. Bava really makes use of the huge rooms and high ceilings, shooting from above and gliding his camera across the marble floors, while cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua produces a series of striking lighting effects that were possibly an influence on Argento's Suspiria four years later. There's a sort-of twist at the end – plus an even more bizarre final scene on an aeroplane – but those foolishly holding out for answers ain't gonna find them.
Aka: La Casa dell'esorcismo, The House of Exorcism, The Devil and the Dead
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.