Lisa and the Devil (1974, Mario Bava)

“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. 

Hitchcock (2012, Sacha Gervasi)

“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. 

Films of 2012 – Part 2

10) Goon (Michael Dowse)

The presence of American Pie alumni Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy suggested another gross-out comedy but Goon is so much more. Based on the book ‘Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey’ by former player Doug Smith and Adam Frattasio it is as much about a young man’s search for a place in the world as it is about him punching people during hockey matches. There are great supporting performances from Alison Pill as a local drunk who attracts Doug’s attention and Liev Schrieber as an ageing enforcer with a realistic outlook on why guy’s like him are needed. It is William Scott’s movie though and he is a revelation as the tough guy with a tender side. 

9) Electrick Children (Rebecca Thomas)

An updating of the Virgin Mary story with a Fundamentalist Mormon teenager apparently becoming pregnant after listening to a cassette tape of a recording of Blondie’s ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ and heading for the city. Thomas comes from a Mormon background and pleasingly Electrick Children never patronises the lifestyle her protagonist is escaping from. Thomas also conveys a beauty, a wonder at everyday items; music, cars, hanging out, and the gaudy neon lights of Vegas. Loved its strange near apocalyptic ending too, “Let’s go back to the beginning…” 

8) Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

Continuing Cronenberg’s fine form after the underrated A Dangerous Method, this adaptation of Don Dellilo’s novel is mostly faithful though it moves the action away from the shadow of 9/11 to the recent economic crisis as Robert Pattison’s dead-eyed businessman moves through New York on an odyssey to feel something, or anything at all.
7) Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

Some commentators described Magic Mike as being lightweight Soderbergh but I disagree. There is a lightness of touch certainly, but the serious stuff is there in the background. It deals with the same themes as the low-budget and rather dull The Girlfriend Experience (2009), the economic crisis, the experiences of those working in the sex industry, their personal relationships, and hopes for the future, but with a charm and humour missing from the earlier film. Also Matthew McConaughey is far more terrifying as the master of ceremonies here than in his other cowboy hat wearing performance from last year in William Freidkin’s Killer Joe. 

6) Tabu (Miguel Gomes)

Inspired by Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas this also presents an exotic love affair. In a contemporary wintry Lisbona human rights lawyer checks in on her elderly neighbour and promises to find a man she once loved. The lady dies before he can see her so he narrates the story of their love affair which Gomes presents in the style of a silent movie, with no dialogue only voiceover and 1950’s pop songs. Blissfully melancholic, with Tabu Gomes emerges this year as key figure in world cinema.

5) Detachment (Tony Kaye) 

Detachment is easily one of the most pretentious films of 2012 (its protagonist is called Barthes for Christ sake) yet it works thanks in part to a soulful performance from Adrien Brody. Director Tony Kaye takes the familiar story of a substitute teacher connecting with their students and kicks the Albert Camus out of it. It is rare films are this impassioned and genuinely attack the subject they are dealing with. 

4) The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)

Marketed as a thriller with Dafoe’s archetypal mercenary travelling to Tasmaniato hunt down the last remaining Thylacine yet it abandons this setup for much of the film as he becomes a surrogate father to two children and surprises himself by wanting to fulfil this role. Like The Grey its about connecting to those around you, our own impermanence and the inevitability of death, about the  by Browse to Save”>landscape enduring while people or in this case whole species come and go. There is more than a touch of Peter Weir style mysticism about The Hunter, of something intangible being expressed with a  by Browse to Save”>great deal of subtlety.    Full review here. 

3) Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

I’ve never subscribed to the theory Wes Anderson’s films are cold. They always seem have plenty of heart under their beautifully designed surfaces. Moonrise Kingdom is his most affecting film yet. As a rebellious khaki scout and his sweetheart set forth on a great adventure into the wild pursued by the bewildered and melancholy adults there is a strong feeling of nostalgia for a place only Wes Anderson knows the way to. 

2) The Grey (Joe Carnahan)

Nobody expected a film as relective or as haunting from the star and director of The A-Team. The premise is pure B-movie, a plane crashes and a dwindling group of survivors must fend off the attentions of ravenous wolves but Joe Caranahan makes us care about these people. Its protagonist collects their wallets and lays them out at the end just before the final conrontation between man and wolf which tellingly Carnahan never shows. Who do you love? What is keeping you here? The Grey is the action/horror film as memento mori. Full Review here.

1) Holy Motors (Leo Carax)

Leo Carax’s dreamlike odyssey through the possibilities of cinema, performance, and human experience. Holy Motors is playful, surprisingly funny, and filled with loss. No other contemporary actor could deliver the kid of athletic protean performance Denis Lavant brings here. Lavant mixes the chameloenic abilities of Lon Chaney with the joyful physicality of Douglas Fairbanks. Holy Motors is one of a kind. And Kylie Minogue sings a ballad written by Neil Hannon which channels Michel Legrand and like the film is perfect, just perfect.