While Italian horror features are often easily categorised under the standard genres, there are plenty which are not easily digested and are frequently nightmarish and perplexing. Mario Bava's most personal feature comes under the latter description; after having a variety of success with previous efforts he was given free reign to do whatever he wanted. The resulting ghost story retains all the signature style and shock factor, but is certainly not one to see before having watched earlier films he produced. It's certainly not a commercial release. The striking images, weird characters and eerie atmosphere are playing 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 where a sinister figure (Telly Savalas) is purchasing some kind of wax work and discussing it's clothing. Asking about a creepy clockwork model she's told it's not for sale and belongs to this man. His features bear rather too much similarity to a fresco depicting the Devil the tourists were viewing moments ago, and she makes a sharp exit. However here right at the start is where the structure ceases to follow any kind of standard storyline 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 mannequin brought to life. Why is this and how does he know her?
Savalas is revealed to be a housekeeper called Leandro who works for a nearby recluse and her son, and no matter what she tries it seems that Lisa is being funnelled towards being in their company. Somehow unable to reach her tour which was a few seconds walking distance 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... were Leandro just happens to be working. Here things get stranger with flashbacks, murders, and noises from secret rooms. The other inhabitants also seem to know Lisa; a blind countess and her son Maximilian. Why is this? Is it all some kind of broken trip into a 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 does get revealed as things go on. Secret affairs and hidden deaths are slowly alluded to as things become more uneasy. The melodrama between the main cast is less interesting than the strange behaviour of Leandro, as Savalas gives a weird eccentric performance which steals the show throughout. He's constantly eating lollipops and attending to those creepy wax figures (who continue to be living people in jump cuts and other scenes). He gets the mist enigmatic dialogue and seems to be enjoying himself no matter how much blood is spilled between the visitors. It's his show as the animated intro credits make obvious. His identity and motivations are never explicitly stated but it makes for the most intriguing element of the story.
While piecing all this together is certainly an interesting experience, contemporary distributors did not seem to see the appeal and it was re-cut with new footage. This version renamed House of Exorcism tries to totally undo the story and insert a new plot altogether. Amusingly it's actually far less cohesive and the structure is undone by the addition of scenes in which Lisa is in fact recalling a past event to a priest. Tied to a bed she constantly swears at him and vomits green slime. The attempt at making this into a William Peter Blatty 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, but maybe you need a laugh at how stupid and shameless it all is. For me the original cut isn't a classic. The straightforward but more satisfying films Bava made over the years contain the true greats. But its original intended form it's another essential viewing nonetheless, and one for those looking for anything a little different.