The House of Exorcism / La Casa dell’Esorcismo (1975/1976) ***
Lisa and the Devil was a heartbreaking experience for Mario Bava, no two ways about it. It was his most personal film, and one which in some respects he’d been working on subconsciously since the beginning of his career, yet the only person who really seemed to appreciate it was producer Alfredo Leone. The movie’s inability to attract buyers except in Spain and Portugal was a major blow for Leone, too, for he’d put a lot of money into the project by contemporary Italian standards— not Dino De Laurentiis money, to be sure, but certainly far more than he’d spent on Knives of the Avenger or Baron Blood. He simply couldn’t afford to leave that kind of capital tied up in an asset that wasn’t earning him anything back. But something remarkable happened during the year or so after Leone gave up trying to interest anyone in the movie he considered to be Bava’s masterwork: first The Exorcist made all the money in the world, and then a bunch of cheap copies of it collectively made all the money in the world all over again. Hang on a second, Leone thought… Lisa and the Devil was a film about a woman losing her soul to Satan, right? And that’s kind of what happens in demonic possession, right? So what if Bava found some way to add an exorcism scene to the climax? Then Leone could rename it something like The House of Exorcism, and maybe some cigar-chomping toad like Sam Arkoff would finally buy the fucking thing.
Naturally, Bava wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea. If it was true that Lisa and the Devil was his masterpiece, then Leone was now asking him to vandalize it. The director knew and accepted how things worked in the movie business, though, and at least professed to think of himself as a craftsman rather than an artist. Craftsmen don’t get all high-horsey about the purity of their vision when the product they deliver won’t perform according to spec, so Bava put aside his feelings about the assignment, and got to work rebuilding Lisa and the Devil into an Exorcist knockoff. (Or at any rate, he put his feelings aside at first. Escalating friction over the details would eventually drive a wedge between Bava and Leone, permanently spoiling both their professional association and their friendship.) I won’t try to argue that the result isn’t markedly inferior to the original version, or that The House of Exorcism’s success in finding takers where Lisa and the Devil could not doesn’t represent a deplorable victory for the lowest common denominator. But it’s a far cry from there to the common critical assessment that The House of Exorcism is devoid of value except perhaps as a kind of long-form trailer for its harder-to-find source film. It does fill the latter bill, certainly, but the contortions necessary to create compatibility between Lisa and the Devil and the possession movie template make The House of Exorcism an Exorcist cash-in like no other.
Like the original version of the story, The House of Exorcism begins with Lisa Reiner (Elke Sommer, from Severed Ties and Percy) touring some old Spanish city where one of the more noteworthy architectural features is a Medieval fresco depicting the Devil carrying damned souls away to Hell. Shortly after seeing the fresco, she visits an antique shop at the same time that the proprietor (Franz von Treuberg) is consulting with a spiffy-looking bald man (Telly Savalas, of Capricorn One and The Killer Is on the Phone) about a creepy, life-sized puppet. Lisa flees the shop when she realizes that the bald puppeteer looks exactly like the Devil in the old fresco, and that’s where The House of Exorcism begins diverging from its source material. Rather than following Lisa down the suddenly unfamiliar street, the camera now stays in the shop, where the two men cryptically discuss some business that surely bodes ill for her. Evidently she looks as much like somebody named Elena as Baldy resembles the painting of Satan, and that similarity makes her suitable for the same mysterious undertaking as the sinister puppet. The shopkeeper produces a wax head presumably sculpted in Elena’s image, and when Baldy strikes it with his hand, Lisa collapses on the pavement in some kind of seizure. The girl from the tour group whom she’d befriended (Kathy Leone) can’t seem to get anyone among the gathering crowd to do anything but gawp at Lisa’s suffering, but when a priest called Father Michael (Robert Alda, from Holiday Hookers and The Devil’s Hand) comes forward, the onlookers become more responsive. Soon enough an ambulance is on the scene, and Father Michael stays with Tour Group Girl as she accompanies her strangely ailing new friend to the hospital.
If you’ve seen The Exorcist or any of its derivatives, you already know that the doctors there aren’t going to find anything physically wrong with Lisa. You also already know how her symptoms are going to progress: growly voice, violent tendencies, creatively foul mouth, inexplicable facial ulcerations, malicious psychological mischief directed against everyone who tries to help her, and eventually even a few paranormal abilities. Trusting Tour Group Girl’s assessment that the patient was nothing like this before, the lead doctor puts in a call for a psychiatrist, but Father Michael finagles permission to look the woman over while they wait for the shrink’s arrival. You see, when the doctor explained dissociative identity disorder to him, it put the priest in mind of something rather more in his own field— demonic possession. But while it turns out that Lisa is indeed possessed, the evil spirit inhabiting her is no devil, but the soul of a woman named (that’s right) Elena, who died 50 years ago. Elena had been part of a grotesque incestuous quadrangle involving her husband (Alessio Orano, from Premarital Experience and The Killer Must Kill Again), her mother-in-law (Alida Valli, of Eye in the Labyrinth and Eyes Without a Face), and her husband’s stepfather (Espartaco Santoni, from Feast of Flesh and Exorcism’s Daughter). The family melodrama culminated in a killing spree at a dilapidated villa not far from the place where Lisa had her seizure. Ever since then, the four sinners— together with three equally sinful strangers (Eduardo Fajardo, from City of the Walking Dead and Exterminators of the Year 3000, Sylvia Koscina, of Hercules and Deadly Sanctuary, and Gabriele Tinti, from Caged Women and Emanuelle, Queen of Sados) who got caught up in the affair’s bloody endgame— have been reliving that night over and over again in the afterworld, literally creating their own Hell. Well, Elena is sick of it, you hear? She’s getting out, and Lisa has unwittingly furnished her with just the vehicle she needs in order to do so.
That’s where about 75% of Lisa and the Devil comes in. If Elena’s soul is in Lisa’s body, cursing at Father Michael and attacking the hospital staff, then it follows logically enough that Lisa’s spirit must be in Hell, taking Elena’s part in the eternally reenacted drama of a perverse family destroying itself. But I think we’re meant to believe that this cycle of the infernal time loop ends up being different, simply because it isn’t really Elena playing the part of the woman coveted equally by her impotent, insane husband and her insistent pussy-hound stepfather-in-law. While Lisa’s soul drifts through the edited highlights of Lisa and the Devil in the next world, Father Michael squares off against Elena in this one, struggling to drive her out of Lisa’s body. At first, the latter contest plays out according to the familiar model, with Michael chanting prayers and brandishing the symbols of his vocation while Elena attacks his psychological weak points. Her best trick is to appear to him in the guise of his former wife, Anna (Carmen Silva, from The Hand that Feeds the Dead and How It Was that Masuccio Salernitano, Fleeing with Trousers in Hand, Managed to Stay Healthy), whose hideous death in a flaming car wreck drove Michael into the priesthood in the first place. But as Father Michael comes to understand his opponent better, he realizes that he’s going about this all wrong. It isn’t Lisa that needs exorcising, but the ruins of the villa where Elena and the others lived and died. Cap that cosmic sewer, and the route whereby the restless damned may influence the material world will be cut off. There’s one thing Michael hasn’t considered, however. As much trouble as he’s having asserting his holy authority over one depraved human spirit, does he really think he’s up to battling the Devil himself?
It feels weird to be defending, if only conditionally, such an unapologetic dumbing-down of a film whose greatest strength lay in its equally unapologetic braininess, but here we are just the same. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone with a choice in the matter watch The House of Exorcism instead of Lisa and the Devil, the rebuild does make for a worthwhile supplement to the original. For one thing, precisely because The House of Exorcism is so much more linear and literal, it almost functions as a kind of Cliff’s Notes to Lisa and the Devil, spelling out much of what Bava had deliberately left opaque and ambiguous the first time around. Viewers who are easily frustrated by extremely slippery narratives might even benefit from tackling The House of Exorcism first to assure themselves that there really is an understandable story buried in the original cut somewhere.
This version is also of interest because it uses alternate edits and indeed alternate takes of a few scenes, in such a way that comparative viewing helps to map out the limits of what Bava considered to be acceptably poor taste. Take, for example, the sex scene between Sylvia Koscina and Gabriele Tinti. In Lisa and the Devil, it’s quite demure, shot not just at a discreet distance, but also through a screen of partially obscuring objects among the bedroom décor. The House of Exorcism uses a much more explicit take shot during the original period of principal photography at Alfredo Leone’s insistence, which he intended to hold in reserve for distributors who wanted a hotter cut of Lisa and the Devil for markets with laxer censorship. Having already taken a bath on Bava’s preferred cut, Leone not unreasonably decided that it couldn’t hurt his chances of selling the rebuild if he substituted the more explicit take from the get-go. Similarly, The House of Exorcism features gorier versions of some of the murders, although with them it’s merely a question of reinstating a deleted close-up here and there. I can’t decide whether or not to be surprised that Bava, like the MPAA ratings board, apparently had bigger hang-ups about sex than he did about violence.
But the most illuminating thing about The House of Exorcism is just how well it works as something it was never intended to be. In all fairness, there are a few points where the Exorcist-isms come across as silly and nonsensical. To most damaging effect, there’s no obvious diegetic reason why Elena should comport herself so much like Pazuzu while inhabiting Lisa’s body, and neither Bava nor Leone (who oversaw the final cut of The House of Exorcism, as Bava was no longer speaking to him by that point) is able to supply a non-obvious one, either. It’s too plain to see that possessed Lisa snarls curses and projectile vomits olive slime merely because the formula required those two boxes to be checked off. I also think the temptation of Father Michael with the apparition of his dead wife is in the wrong place. That should have been Satan’s weapon against the priest, used to combat the climactic exorcism at the villa of the damned. And of course the elegiac melancholy of the recycled footage is a poor match, tonally speaking, with the defiantly earthy new material. Nevertheless, if I had seen this movie in ignorance of its history, I would have been very impressed to see an Italian Exorcist knockoff straying so far from the model, in such an imaginative direction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another possession movie deal directly with the subjective experiences of the possessed, so the central conceit of Lisa and the Devil becomes arguably even more startling with all the standard-issue divines-and-demoniacs business wrapped around it. The same goes for the movie’s spin on the exorcism itself. Extracting a ghost from a person by driving the Devil out of a house mixes the tropes up nicely. And finally, kudos are due to Elke Sommer for give her all to an alternate take on a project she’d finished some two years previously. The new scenes set in the hospital had to be incredibly hard work (it looks like Sommer is doing her own wrestling and contortionism in at least some of the shots that call for them), and morale on the set can’t have been very high given the nature of the undertaking. All in all, there’s enough good in The House of Exorcism that I’m not surprised Bava’s next film was another possession story designed as such from the ground up, just as he’d previously made Twitch of the Death Nerve to develop more fully an idea he cooked up out of sheer frustration while shooting 5 Dolls for an August Moon.