The House of Exorcism (1975): restrospective review

House of Exorcism Elke Sommer and Robert Alda
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over?  In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for  U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in  a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
house_of_exorcism_poster_01THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Lisa and the Devil (1973) – Horror Film Review

This is probably the last great horror film from Mario Bava (director of Gothic classic BLACK SUNDAY and the seminal giallo thriller BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) Unfortunately, LISA AND THE DEVIL, did not reach U.S. audiences in its original form for decades. When producer Alfredo Leone was unable to secure U.S. distribution in 1973, he added exorcism footage and retitled the film HOUSE OF EXORCISM. The revamped version, which is copyrighted as a separate movie, was released to U.S. theatres in 1976.

LISA AND THE DEVIL tell of a tourist (played by Elke Sommer) who loses her way in Italy and winds up at an isolated house filled with eccentric people, where strange things are going on. As the dream-like story develops, we get hints that there is an unseen presence lurking in the house, something to do with a tragedy that occurred years ago, involving the death of a young woman. Flashbacks suggest that Sommer’s character may be a reincarnation of the deceased lady, but there are other interpretations as well. Telly Savalas plays a butler who works behind the scenes, arranging mannequins who bear a striking resemblance to the various characters in the house. Could he be the Devil of the title, and is he manipulating everything as some kind of shadow-play for the benefit (if that is the word) of Lisa?
There are few clear answers, but that is all part of the fun with this film, which presents its narrative with a glorious stylistic verse that forces you to sit back and enjoy it, whether or not it make sense. Rather than sloppy writing, the film seems to b a deliberate attempt on Bava’s part to craft an art-house movie in horror film drag. A director who worked in a film industry that demanded commercialization and popular genres (horror, science-fiction, thrillers), Bava here is offering something closer to Ingmar Bergman (think HOUR OF THE WOLF) but with more color and exuberance than Bergman ever mustered.
Despite the higher aspirations, Bava proves that he remains a master at delivering the visceral thrills, sometimes with the most simply of techniques. There are a handful of brutal murders, along with some touches of black comedy (mostly courtesy of Savalas, who seems to be improvising some of his lines), and there is one absolutely uncanny moment guaranteed to chill your spine: As Lisa joins the guests around the dinner table, there are words of concern regarding someone else who make be lurking in the house. The sound of a crash from upstairs jerks everyone’s attention up form the table, and as if following the directions of their thoughts, the camera cuts to an attick room. As slow footfalls drop on the flooboards like approaching death, the camera winds its way through the room, apparently replicating the point-of-view of someone – we don’t know who – find his way. The moment is impossible to describe in words that equal the visuals; there is something about the pacing of the camera movment, combined with the sound effects, that creeps into your spine like icy skeletal fingers.
In a very loose kind of way, LISA AND THE DEVIL replicates some elements of CASTLE OF TERROR (a.k.a. CASTLE OF BLOOD), starring Barbara Steele. That film is an entertaining but somewhat more conventional genre piece. Bava’s movie may be less satisfying to the casual viewer, but it is an altogether more grand and impressive piece of work.


Robert Alda and Elke Sommers in footage added by the producer to change LISA AND THE DEVIL into HOUSE OF EXORCISM
Robert Alda and Elke Sommers in footage added by the producer to change LISA AND THE DEVIL into HOUSE OF EXORCISM

EDITOR’S NOTE:  In the Fall 1976 issue of Cinefantastique (5:2), publisher-editor Frederick S. Clarke wrote a brief capsule comment about HOUSE OF EXORCISM in the magazine’s Film Ratings section. We include it here to provide a glimpse into how the film was seen during its initial release, before U.S. audiences knew that Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL had been radically altered by its producer:

Mario Bava, credited as Mickey Lion, does the first rip-off of THE EXORCIST to be even mildly interesting. Interesting, not good. It is a bizarre, uneasy assimiliation of the exorcism motifs into the Bava formula atmosphere and schloss setting. Actually more like two films spliced together, with the exorcism segments segreated, as Elke Sommer goes through strenuous – and some of the most disgusting – bouts of vomiting and scatology yet depicted. But Bava tries to remain aloof from that– as the rest of his film follows Telly Savalas’ incarnation of the Devil, sucking on a Kojakc Lollipop, as he victimizes a disembodied Sommer by placing her into the madness of a family of sexually depraved aristocrats.

THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (“La Case Dell’Esorcismo,” A Peppercorn-Wormser Release, 7/76 [c75]). In Color by Movielab. 93 minutes. Produced by Alfred Leone. Screenplay by Alberto Tintini, Alfred Leone. Directed by Mickey Lion (a.k.a. Mario Bava). Filmed as LISE E IL DIAVOLO (“Lisa and the Devil”). With: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koschina, Alida Valli, Robert Alda.
NOTE: In the 1980s the unaltered  LISA AND THE DEVIL made it to late night TV, where it was trimmed for violence and nudity but more or less intact. The uncut version finally became available in the 1990s on laserdisc and later on DVD, where it was double-billed with HOUSE OF EXORCISM.