Bonus Features: Lisa and the Devil (1973)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1973’s Lisa and the Devil, is a supernatural murder mystery set in a haunted mansion full of creepy mannequins.  As usual with Mario Bava, it’s consistently beautiful & eerie while wildly inconsistent in its central mystery’s internal logic.  Parsing out what’s really going on in Bava’s films is always miles beside the point; they thrive on vibes and vibes alone.  So, what really sets this loopy-logic Bava mystery apart from the rest of his catalog is its haunted castle setting, which vividly contrasts the moods & tones of his filmmaking style against other Gothic horrors of his era from The Corman-Poe Cycle and Hammer Studios.  It’s in that contrast where Lisa and the Devil‘s twisty dream logic and harshly artificial color gels really shine as something special.

I knew I was going to use November’s Movie of the Month selection as an excuse to clear out a few of my Mario Bava blindspots.  What I didn’t know is that so many of those major blindspots would also be set in haunted castles (as opposed to the bloody couturiers of Blood & Black Lace or the eerie alien landscapes of Planet of the Vampires).  As I dug further into Bava’s catalog this month, I really started appreciating how his haunted castle movies boast all of the spooky atmosphere of Hammer Horror at its best, boosted with a lurid Technicolor sleaze that satisfies in a way Hammer rarely does – if ever.  Nearly every one is a Masque of the Red Death-level knockout, which is rare for the genre.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Mario Bava classics set in haunted castles.

Black Sunday (1960)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mario Bava spent so much of his career playing with camera equipment in spooky castles, since that setting is exactly where he made a name for himself at the start of his career.  Bava’s debut feature credit as a director, Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan) crams in as many haunted-castle spooks & ghouls as it can possibly fit in an 87min runtime: vampires, witches, Satanic rituals, an overachieving fog machine, etc.  Even in black & white—devoid of Bava’s trademark color gels—it clearly stands out as the very best of the director’s haunted castle horrors.  If anything, the harsh black & white lighting offers a vintage Romero sheen that feels like a novelty in Bava’s larger Technicolor catalog.

If actors dress up in ritualistic costumes and repeat the word “Satan” enough, I’m automatically going to be charmed.  It still helps when it’s someone as electrically intense as Barbara Steele.  In her breakout, career-defining performance(s), she stars as both a vampiric witch who’s punished for her allegiance to Satan and as the innocent descendent she plans to drain of her blood & youth.  Steele’s haunting screen presence (conveyed most fiercely through her intense eye contact) is what makes the movie enduringly iconic, but Bava’s background as a cinematographer heightens every frame with a stark beauty & terror.  It’s not Bava at his most idiosyncratic (given that it’s drained of his usual indulgences in color & disregard for plot), but it might be Bava at his best.

The Whip and the Body (1963)

Barbara Steele is not the only horror legend who cut their fangs working with Bava.  Christopher “Dracula” Lee collaborated with the Italo-auteur on both the dark fantasy epic Hercules in the Haunted World and in the haunted-castle chiller The Whip and the Body.  It’s The Whip and the Body that really leans into the strengths of Lee’s sultry screen presence, casting him as a BDSM ghost who haunts a modest seaside castle (and the masochistic woman he used to adulterize with when he was alive).  It’s never much of an exaggeration to say that Christopher Lee was pure sex in his handsome youth, but in The Whip and the Body that statement isn’t even a figure of speech.  He haunts the castle as the personification of sadistic sex just as much as he’s the ghost of a cruel pest who even his mistress despised.

The ghostly psychosexual terror of Lee’s kink-ghost is the perfect mechanism for Bava’s usual indulgences in atmosphere & aesthetics.  It’s customary for haunted castle movies to feature menacing gusts of howling wind, but here Bava gets to mix in sounds of Lee’s leather whip to pervert that trope into something freshly upsetting.  The film haunts a lovely middle ground between the classic gothic horror of Black Sunday and the Technicolor fairy tale horrors of Lisa and the Devil (complete with a dagger in a bell jar as its fairy tale version of Chekov’s gun).

Baron Blood (1972)

Like The Whip and the Body, Baron Blood is about a craven misogynist who haunts his family castle as a menacingly horny ghost.  Like Black Sunday, it even dabbles in an undercurrent of witchcraft for counterbalance; the sexist ghost is resurrected from the dead as revenge from a witch who wants to see him tortured for eternity instead being allowed to rest.  Unfortunately, this late-in-the-game middle ground between those two classics doesn’t stack up to Bava’s usual standard.  It’s conveyed in muddy 1970s browns, and the stoney-baloney pacing of that era is in no rush to get anywhere. 

So yeah, Baron Blood is by far the weakest entry of this haunted-castle Bava set.  It has its own laidback 70s charms, though, including occultist rituals, rusty torture devices, and a fiendish ghoul with sopping hamburger meat for a face.  All it really needed to be a Lisa and the Devil-level stunner was a peppier sense of urgency and a few color gels.  Save it for a lazy weekend afternoon, so it’s not such a big deal if you take a nap in the middle of it.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 7: 8½ (1963)


Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where  (1963) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 47 of the first edition hardback, Ebert refers to in the discussion of his devout Catholicism as a youth. In particular, he mentions that a photograph of the saint from whom he took his confirmation name, Dominic Savio, appears on the wall of the grade school in the film’s childhood flashbacks.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “‘La Dolce Vita’ remains, for my money, the best of Fellini’s films; it’s a sad, shocking, exuberant portrait of a Roman gossip columnist having a crisis of the spirit. But ‘8 1/2’ is a great film in its own way, and despite the efforts of several other filmmakers to make their own versions of the same story, it remains the definitive film about director’s block.” -From his 1993 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“‘8 1/2’ is the best film ever made about filmmaking. […] It does what is almost impossible: Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.” -From his 2000 review in his “Great Movies” series

One surefire way to get past writer’s block is to write about the writer’s block itself. It worked for Charlie Kaufman when he penned the loopy, meta philosophical crisis Adaptation and it worked for Federico Fellini when he created the art house classic . Ebert called “the best film ever made about filmmaking”, but I don’t think that’s what is about at all. More accurately, I think is a film about filmmakers. It captures the conflicting mess of oversized ego, patience (and at times impatience) for criticism, and constant self-doubt required to make a big budget feature film come together. With Fellini paints himself as the ultimate control freak. No longer content to merely direct films, he yearns to direct his life, all the people who populate it (especially the women, who include B-movie goddess Barbara Steele among them), and the fabric of reality itself. When I watched I got the distinct feeling of watching Dewey Cox going through his Bryan Wilson/Pet Sounds phase in Walk Hard. Fellini (and his fictional surrogate Guido) are reaching for such a transcendent elevation beyond the limits of film as a medium that what ends up being made is a total mess that accomplishes nothing at all except as a document of that far-reaching ambition.

I’ll admit that I find much of ‘s early proceedings to be largely frustrating. The film has a way of mixing the “reality” of a stressed-out filmmaker avoiding progress on a grand scale production with the surreality of his own self-indulgent navel-gazing that’s fascinating stuff, but rarely full committed. Often, will pull back from its dream logic self-reflection & ego-stroking to voice criticism about that impulse. It’s the same have your cake & eat it too attitude that frustrated me with (forgive me for the horrifically crass comparison) Deadpool: the film is content to exploit the basic tropes of its genre (obscured art house self-absorption in this case), but also over-eager to step back & mock itself for that indulgence at every turn. I also found many of the film’s early stretches to be noisy & chaotic in away that was undoubtedly intentional, but also difficult to focus on. In the long run, though, the parts of I found to be frustrating proved themselves to be entirely necessary groundwork for the film’s masterful concluding 40 minutes. Like a lot of art house cinema that tackles “great truths” about life & art, the film requires a lot of effort on the audience’s end, but the rewards are plenty for those who make it through.

doesn’t truly come alive until the walls separating “reality” & fantasy fully collapse in its final hour. Guido spends the first couple acts stressing over his own creative process, his critics, his producers, and the tension between his wife & mistresses. It isn’t until this fictional stop & start film production lets go if its self-examination & sardonic self-deprecation and devolves into a literal circus that I was fully engaged with what Fellini was reaching for here. There are three major sequences in 8½’s concluding hour that really floored me. In the first, Guido’s wife sits in on a painfully awkward producers’ meeting in which the director must choose actresses to portray his wife & mistress from various screen tests. In the second, Guido fantasizes that his wife is suddenly agreeable with his philandering & all the women in his life come together to live in a harem under his command to please his every whim (marking the break where the film finally abandons all pretense of keeping its dream logic quarantined). The third sequence, of course, is the film’s infamous beach setting conclusion in which Fellini/Guido finally gets his wish and begins to direct all the players in his life in a literal circus.

It’s difficult to grasp whether or not these three sequences (or three ring circus, if you will) completely make up for the frustrating groundwork required to make them work in a narrative sense. doesn’t transcend into something truly special until it lets go of its own self-doubt & criticism, but it seems Fellini knew exactly what he was doing with that structural choice. In the all-important harem sequence when “reality” & fantasy truly homogenize for the first time, a woman asks Guido, “Is this how the film ends?” and he ominously responds, “No, this is how it starts.” The film leading up to that break felt almost like doing my cinematic homework, but I’m glad I pushed through. Those last 40 minutes or so were a rewarding glimpse into the self-absorbed psyche of a filmmaker seeking total control beyond the confines of a movie set. I believe has far more to say about the filmmaker’s mental disposition than it does about the transcendence of cinema itself, but that’s honestly a much more rarely-covered topic, whether or not it’s a self-indulgent one. I couldn’t quite match the general enthusiasm that has lauded this film as a complete masterwork, but I still enjoyed it a great deal.


Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)


Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)


Next lesson: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

-Brandon Ledet

Lost River (2015)



Sometimes it’s gotta suck to be Ryan Gosling. Not often, but sometimes. Everything sucks sometimes, right? I’m sure being a talented actor & a beautiful human specimen is mostly all perks, but what if no one takes you seriously when you try to let loose the weirdo artist lurking under your perfect skin? Finalizing his gradual transition from pint-sized Mouseketeer to big boy artist, Gosling recently stepped behind the camera to write & direct his debut feature, Lost River. Critically-speaking, it didn’t go well. The film was panned on the festival circuit as “derivative” “poverty porn” and lost its wide distribution detail in the process, eventually being damned to direct-to-VOD status. Gosling’s first outing as a creator instead of a performer failed to secure accolades and the talented sex beast was left having an uncharacteristically bad day in the sun. The dirty secret is that Lost River is actually pretty damn good for a debut feature. It’s far from flawless, but there’s very little justification for the vicious critical beating it received on the festival circuit. If the film were directed by a fresh-out-of-film-school nobody it most likely would’ve had a better chance in the critical eye. For once it didn’t pay to be for Ryan Gosling to be a wealthy, well-known pretty boy.

Both the “derivative” & “poverty porn” complaints feel somewhat like they were aimed specifically at Gosling’s pretty boy swag instead of his final product. The claim that the film is “derivative” is technically true, but not really a problem considering the sources Gosling pulls from here. Names like Lynch, Bava, Korine, Mallick, and Refn are sure to be conjured by any discerning audience, but what film buff wouldn’t love pieces of those five aesthetics gathered in one neon-soaked, dilapidated package? Speaking of dilapidated, the film may also technically substantiate that “poverty porn” critique, as it pulls beautiful images out of economic despair, turning what remains of Detroit into a ludicrous dream world. I also see this complaint as more of an asset than a problem, especially considering how the images tie into the film’s thematic details (foreclosed houses, stealing copper from blighted properties, etc.). Also, it’s an aesthetic that’s worked wonders before in titles like George Washington, Gummo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The one legitimate qualm I found with Lost River is that it is poorly paced. There’s a calm, unrushed progression to the movie that plays right into the stereotype that art films have to be boring to be taken seriously. At least while the run time is glacially gliding along, there are plenty of worthwhile images to chew on: flaming bicycles, pink neon lights, glistening Casio keyboards, underwater dinosaur statues, slow-motion house fires, and so on. That’s not even getting into horror legend Barbara Steele’s hermetic mourning or fellow-perfect-specimen Christina Hendricks’ Tree of Life cosplay & blood-soaked burlesque. These images appear slowly, but each with great individual impact, backed by the sleek nightmare sounds of Chromatics genius Johnny Jewel. They’re definitely a sight to behold and it’s a sight I expect to revisit often, even if they do work better as still images than as a feature film. Gosling most certainly has an eye and once he tightens aspects like pacing & narrative, he has untold potential to make something truly great. I just hope that he hasn’t been discouraged from making more films by the negative reception his debut garnered. Lost River may not be a perfect work, but it does demonstrate a wealth of promise and it’d be a shame if that promise were snuffed out in its infancy by sourpuss critics.

-Brandon Ledet