“Most things aren’t that easy to mend.”
Took me a while to get through this wonderfully put together release from Arrow Video which includes two versions of the film, director’s commentaries for both, and an accompanying booklet plus a making of documentary. Rarely seen in its original form until 1983, Lisa and the Devil was re-edited by producer Alberto Leone after it failed to attract any distributors at the Cannes Fim Festival. Leone added new footage to cash in on the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The resulting farrago became The House of Exorcism, a notoriously awful production in need of an exorcism with only the ghost of Bava’s original intentions remaining. Thankfully the devilish influence of Leone was removed by an American network television channel who screened Lisa and the Devil as Mario Bava originally intended.
Lisa (Elke Sommer) is part of a group of tourists admiring a Fresco painting of the Devil carrying away the dead. She is led away from the crowd by the sound of music into the back alleys of the city and loses her way. Lisa enters an old antiquarian shop to ask for directions and meets Leandro (Telly Savalas) who is purchasing a life-sized dummy of middle-aged man. Unsettled by Leandro, whose likeness is uncannily like the Devil in the Fresco painting, Lisa tries to find her way back to the square. Instead she encounters Leandro again in maze-like streets, then a man who shares a resemblance to the dummy he was carrying. As darkness falls she grows increasingly lost, until she hitches a lift in a chauffeur-driven vintage car to a house in the country. Instead of reaching safety Lisa finds herself haunted by memories of a past life. Leandro is there too working as the butler, a wry, amused presence watching over the occupants of the big house as if he has seen this all before.
Mario Bava is usually given the backhanded compliment of being a great horror film director though he is so much more. A former cameraman, Bava’s eye for detail and his mastery of the technicalities of directing helped him create a lush visual style. Bava is less concerned with coherence than with creating a mood, often with a dreamlike logic and a talent for ending his films with unforgettable images. A recurring theme in the Bava’s work is the ruination of beauty; of things dying and decaying. There is a sense of loss in his films and a belief in death being a transformation into something beyond our understanding which is affecting regardless of whatever kind of film Bava is directing.
Lisa and the Devil is Bava’s purest film, a stylish gothic fantasy with a magnificent score by Carlo Savina. Sadly for many years it was only available in its fragmented form as House of Exorcism in which a demonic possession plot investigated by an American priest (Robert Alda) alters the meaning of the original movie completely. Bava’s ambiguity is replaced with the certainty of Lisa’s innocence as a Linda Blair style demonic possession takes over her. The latter is worth watching out of interest just to see how Leone carried out what he considered a salvage job on a movie he couldn’t sell. In 1974 Lisa and the Devil seemed a little out of time in an era where the Devil was launching profanities and green puke from a child’s mouth. It may have taken a few years but it is good to see some things can be mended.
“That, my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.”
Based on a book by the film writer and Hitchcock expert Stephen Rebello Hitchcock deals with the production of Psycho and the director’s battles with the studios to get the film made. To be honest I was dreading Hitchcock fearing another My Week with Marilyn (2011, Simon Curtis) debacle with famous actors giving awkward impersonations of film stars from days gone past and there is an element of that here. Neither Anthony Hopkins or Scarlett Johansson remotely resemble Hitchcock or Janet Leigh respectively. Hopkins gets the voice and mannerisms right but you never feel for a moment you are watching anything other than a performance. James D’Arcy however is a great fit for Anthony Perkins if a decade to old for the delicate tormented star but it is a lovely performance though sadly he’s only in a handful of scenes.
Another problem is the lack of drama present in this story. Hitchcock’s approach to making Psycho may have been unusual but it is not extraordinary. The attempts to portray Hitchcock as a busted flush and a tired old man don’t ring true. There was conflict yes with the studio but not overly so and nobody died during production. Hitchcock’s marketing of the film was ingenious but doesn’t really come across here. Yet despite these flaws Hitchcock has a playfulness which carries it even though I suspect you would learn more about the Master of Suspense’s approach to directing Psycho by watching Gus Van Sant’s much maligned but fascinating shot-by-shot remake.
Hitchcock opens with notoriously insane Ed Gein killing his own brother. Robert Bloch’s novel ‘Psycho’ is a salacious adaptation of Gein’s life. A mummy’s boy who became increasingly disturbed after her death, Gein began to exhume corpses from his local graveyard to use their body parts for household objects. Eventually Gein murdered at least two more people. Gein (Michael Wincott) reappears throughout Hitchcock as a manifestation of Hitch’s id and it is a pity director Sacha Gervasi doesn’t take more risks rather than the conventional biopic approach the rest of the film follows. John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay is more interested in the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) and her importance as a producer which is fine but the scenes of them sniping at each other over breakfast turn the middle part of the film into a domestic chore.
While there is a gallows humour Hitch would have approved of McLaughlin and Gervasi never delve deep into his psyche or offer much insight into the creative process. The obsession with Hitchcock’s leading ladies is dealt with briefly but not with the same relish as the recent HBO TV movie The Girl which was undone by the ludicrous casting of Toby Jones and the faux classiness that has infected that channel’s recent output (Game of Thrones apart). Hitchcock is better value but if you’re really interested I’d recommend reading Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho instead.