This lurid horror film from a past-his-prime Mario Bava exists in two versions. Thankfully, I saw the superior cut, which apparently lacks some schlocky exorcism content inserted for the post-Linda Blair market in America. But even the original is more campy than frightening.
The story is built on a couple of standard genre clichÃ (C)s: the hapless traveler stranded in a spooky old house, and the beautiful woman who becomes an obsession because she resembles someone's dead sweetheart. These plots have been used countless times before.
Oddly, the most unnerving sequence may be the unimportant exposition, where Lisa (Elke Sommer) wanders off from a central Italian square and gets lost amidst a snarl of narrow streets and villas which seems like a private, inescapable universe of its own. Though exaggerated for effect, it's a realistic nightmare which many of us have felt at some point or another.
She finally hitches a ride with a wealthy couple passing through, and ends up at an ancient mansion populated by characters including handsome Max (Alessio Orano), his countess mother (veteran actress Alida Valli) and their butler Leandro (Telly Savalas, believe it or not). Leandro has a puzzling fixation on mannequins, and may have a supernatural -- dare we say satanic? -- ability to animate them. Though he's just a servant, he is clearly the one who's running the show. Unfortunately, Savalas insisted upon bringing along his signature lollipop from "Kojak," which totally punctures the film's gothic atmosphere. Another glitch is the score's inclusion of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," which inevitably recalls Ricardo Montalban's kitschy Cordoba commercials from the same era.
Intense, clammy Max sees his departed lover in lookalike Lisa and, somewhat implausibly, she soon returns his ardor. But he is much more twisted than she knows. Meanwhile, her fellow guests are being sequentially murdered. Eventually, the tale develops hints of a surreal, unstuck-in-time paradox similar to what's found in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." And of course, there's the obligatory "gotcha" ending.
Director Bava's baroque set decoration is typically spectacular, though the lighting is not as brilliantly stylized as in some of his other films. There aren't any notable jolts, but there are a couple of good, sick laughs: Leandro breaking the ankles of a corpse to fit him into a short coffin, and a murderer ridiculously rolling a car back and forth over a body. I also noticed one fun continuity error: Savalas accidentally knocks over a mannequin head, and in the next shot, the head is upright again. Who loves ya, baby?