Films That Haunt Me: LISA AND THE DEVIL

I’ve talked about Mario Bava a few times on this blog, but it’s time I gave special attention to one of his lesser-known and more poetic creations. Colorful, chaotic, and the epitome of liminal, this is the story of LISA AND THE DEVIL.

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One thing to know about Bava films: disregard the title, the American distributors don’t know what they’re doing. This film has little to do with the devil. (Though the film was re-shot and re-edited to contain some half-assed exorcism scenes after the success of “The Exorcist.” DO NOT watch that version.) It feels more like a ghostly fairy tale, about a woman on vacation who stumbles on a mysterious villa… where the inhabitants begin experiencing bizarre, hallucinatory deaths. She’s caught in the middle of a nightmare, one that becomes supernatural, watched over by the butler (played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas) who may be more than he seems.

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Confusing? Yeah. In great Italian horror tradition, Bava does not pay particular attention to a plot. Regardless, the events unfold eerily and intoxicatingly, filmed in gorgeous Gothic Technicolor. Their lack of clarity adds to the spectral atmosphere of the film, in which everything seems like a hallucination. It’s a ghost story with notes of reincarnation – a tragedy acting itself out during a night of horror – but the story itself is not what gives the film its weight.

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Like all Bava films, the environment – production design, lighting, camera movement – is the real star. The villa in this film is stunning, full of secret rooms and vaulted ceilings, mist-covered grounds that resemble a graveyard. The uncanny images contained within echo the best of Lynch and Bunuel; along with Lisa, we run through corridors filled with lifelike mannequins, premature burials, and skeleton brides, haunted by the sense that all of this has happened before. Bava evokes the nature of a recurring dream in a deeply impactful way. It is nothing short of atmospheric genius.

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The attention to image and tone is elevated in this film by the presence of an underlying theme, something that usually goes missing in Bava’s films. The ghostly villa and its inhabitants, even the main character, pervade a sense of loneliness and desperation – something all the best ghost stories manifest. It’s a lyrical but disturbing hymn to crushing fate and the death of the soul.

The sensory beauty of the film may vanish from memory after the credits roll, but because of this melancholy undercurrent, one will remember the images for a long time – even if they can’t recall where they came from.

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