Super 70s Sunday - House of the Devil


While some Italian horror features are easily categorised there are plenty which are not as simple to digest, and are instead nightmarish and perplexing. Mario Bava's most personal feature comes under this latter description and is certainly not what you'd call a commercial release. After finding success with a variety of previous efforts he was given free reign, and this twisted ghost story was the result. It retains all his signature style and shock value, but is certainly not one to see before having watched the earlier films he directed in the '60s. The striking images, weird characters and eerie atmosphere play against what is a dream like narrative where the actual plot seems almost secondary to the series of strange goings on.

Wandering off from her tour bus in Torino, Lisa (Elke Sommer) comes across an artisan's store. She asks the proprietor about a sinister clockwork model that's on display but she's told it's not for sale, and that it belongs to a sinister man Leandro (Telly Savalas) who is purchasing some kind of creepy wax doll. Noticing that the customer's features bear rather too much similarity to a fresco depicting the Devil the tourists were viewing moments earlier, she makes a sharp exit. However here right at the start is where the film ceases to follow any kind of standard story structure as she becomes lost in a deserted maze of streets.

In a panic she finds the people have vanished, and she then runs across another mystery man who seems to be the same wax mannequin brought to life. Why is this and how does he know her? Somehow unable to reach her tour group which was just seconds away earlier, she hitches a ride with a less than happily married couple and their chauffeur. But their journey faces a delay, and they all end up spending the night at a nearby mansion... which of course is where Leandro happens to be working.

He's revealed to be a housekeeper employed by a blind Countess and her reclusive son, and no matter what Lisa tries it seems she's being funnelled towards spending time their in company. Here things get stranger with flashbacks, murders, and noises from secret rooms. How do the mansion inhabitants seem to recognise Lisa? Is it all some kind of trip into a broken past memory or a weird purgatory scenario? What's up with the weird funeral imagery and all those wax figures? No solid answers are ever provided, it's all up for speculation as things become more sordid and disturbing.

It's not all completely opaque though, and the dark history of the household is revealed as things go on. Secret affairs and hidden deaths are slowly alluded to as things become more and more uneasy. The melodrama between the main cast is less interesting than the strange behaviour of Leandro, and Savalas gives an eccentric performance which steals the show throughout. He's constantly eating lollipops and attending to the creepy waxworks who continue to be living people during some of the more bizarre moments.

He gets the most enigmatic dialogue and seems to be enjoying himself no matter how much blood is spilled between the visitors. It's entirely his show if the animated intro credits didn't make this obvious. His identity and motivations are never explicitly stated but it's always the most intriguing element of the story however you choose to interpret the characters and events.

While piecing all this together is certainly an interesting experience, contemporary distributors did not seem to see the appeal. Like many international releases form this period it was re-cut with new footage. This second version renamed House of Exorcism tries to insert a new plot altogether, which amusingly is actually far less coherent. The structure is completely undone by the addition of scenes which suggest Lisa is in fact recalling a past event to a priest. Tied to a bed she constantly swears at him and vomits green slime.

This attempt at making this into just a William Peter Blatty another ripoff is by no means subtle and the result is just a big mess with a new ending to cap off the ridiculous new storyline. It's one for the curious completists only. Maybe you'll get a laugh at how stupid and shameless it all is, but really the original cut is the one to see, even if it's not one of Bava's true greats. However in its intended form it's still essential viewing, particularly for those looking for something a little different.

Lisa and the Devil 3/5 -- House of Exorcism 1/5