****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Cheryl Ladd, D.W. Moffet, Staci Keanan, Tanya Fenmore
written by Gary Sherman & Karen Clark
directed by Gary Sherman
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It's cheesy, right? He stakes out beautiful women, breaks into their apartment while they're out, and decorates their place with enough candles for a Meat Loaf video. When they return home and check their messages, they hear one from him: "Hi, this is Richard. I'm in your apartment. I'm going to kill you." Then he pounces, doing exactly what he promised to do. I went to see Gary Sherman's Lisa with a friend on opening weekend in May of 1990; we had planned on going to Ernest Goes to Jail but were late for the matinee. We were late for everything, in fact, except Lisa, and the only competition for a seat was the tumbleweeds--a reflection of the skeletal marketing budget and maybe Siskel & Ebert's downcast thumbs. Anyway, my buddy and me, both 15 at the time, were snorting derisively at Richard's M.O.--the media has christened him the Candlelight Killer--as Lisa got underway, mainly because it involved the type of aesthetic jive we put up with for a flash of nipple on late-night cable. (Did I mention the saxophone music?) Then came the introduction of the title character, a 14-year-old girl who lives with her florist mother Katherine in a cozy little womb of a loft, and any residual laughter took on a nervous edge. Safe to say that Scooby-Doo-ish frisson of siccing a sociopath on the territory of Apple Paperbacks worked like a charm: We were on tenterhooks for the next 90 minutes or so, like air-traffic controllers monitoring the progress of Lisa and Richard's inevitable, inexorable collision.
And just how are their destinies linked? Well, Lisa ("My Two Dads"' Staci Keanan) is getting curious about boys. Katherine (Cheryl Ladd), because she had Lisa at a very young age, won't let Lisa date for another two years. Fickle Lisa meanwhile keeps a scrapbook of her numerous (adult) crushes--mostly celebs but also some locals about whom she collects what data she can. In an illustration of her ingenuity, she and her best friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) stop a hot man's car long enough to photograph his license plate, then Lisa uses a smoky, grown-up-sounding voice to coax the driver's information from a DMV operator. (Ashamed to admit it took me 30 years to notice that Sherman had named these BFFs after Prince protégés Wendy & Lisa.) One evening, Lisa literally runs into the cartoonishly handsome Richard (D.W. Moffet) on the way home from the corner store. As he helps her pick up her spilled groceries, Richard flatters her ego, telling her precisely what she needs to hear at that moment, having just been futilely asked out on a double date with Wendy: that she seems older than her age, more mature. The encounter, along with Wendy's drift towards boyfriends and make-out sessions, inspires Lisa to take her voyeuristic kink to another level. She starts calling Richard at home, pretending to be an admirer from his past, perhaps an old flame. For her, these phone calls are a cathartic escape from the realities of teenhood that boost her self-esteem as she watches her peers pair off into couples. She has no idea that she's taunting a serial killer.
As a single parent and an only-child taking on the world alone, together, Katherine and Lisa have fallen into a camaraderie that makes it difficult for them to reassume their traditional mother/daughter roles--and damn near impossible for either of them to have a private life. I love how Lisa incorporates her mother's pet phrases into her lexicon, turning Katherine's cheerful greeting of "Hi guy!" into a flirty come-on when speaking with Richard. As a father himself, Sherman understands that parents are the original influencers in a teenager's life, passing down their idiosyncrasies to be patched together into a new personality. In fact, Sherman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Karen Clark, drew inspiration for Lisa and Lisa from his own daughter, and the result is one of the great heroines of teen cinema. She isn't particularly precocious, she isn't a brat, she isn't cool or uncool. She's...Lisa, brought to winsome life by Keanan. I remember being taken with how Lisa described Richard to Wendy as "beautiful," the lilt she gave the word. I sensed this was what girls my age sounded like in private; it was endearing.
Most impressively, as enchanting as she is, Lisa is never objectified. If there's a gaze at work in the film, it belongs, for all intents and purposes, to Lisa herself. There's an empathy built into the picture's form that begins to answer for any number of jejune elements or PG-13 compromises, starting with that opening cue from Sherman's longtime composer, Joe Renzetti. Alternating gloomy synths and sultry horns, this bittersweet symphony mirrors the picture's entwining of teen angst and adolescent fantasy. Those sax solos come on like the soundtrack to "Red Shoe Diaries" because Lisa's concept of eroticism is at once shaped and bound by inexperience and pop-culture stereotypes. Much like mine was and my friend's was. Richard's namesake is Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker--but he's a yuppie, with little of the unsavouriness one associates with Ramirez. And that's because he's a sweet kid's idea of evil, a human jump-scare who maintains a respectable façade as the maître d' of a fancy restaurant (Muse, an authentic, once-prominent Venice, CA hotspot). He's completely antiseptic and ready for primetime.
Am I saying the Candlelight Killer is a figment of Lisa's imagination? Not quite. In early scenes, we get the impression that he's still an abstract danger to the citizens of (an unnamed) Venice. A meme. When Wendy's little brother (Edan Gross) imitates the Candlelight Killer to tease Lisa, he's basically doing Freddy Krueger--there's no definition to him yet. A key moment in the film cuts from Richard claiming his second on-screen victim, Judy (Frankie Thorn, who would go on to portray the doomed nun in Bad Lieutenant), to Katherine waking up with a start as the book she was reading falls to the floor. This is the real beginning of Richard, a monster summoned to another plane of existence by maternal anxieties over Lisa hitting puberty. But it's Lisa who manifests him physically, through phone conversations that subject Richard to a literal striptease. The first time he answers, he's in a full tuxedo, having just finished the night shift. Then he's in a baggy suit, fresh from killing Judy. Their third call, he's wearing a T-shirt and jeans, followed by a shirt with buttons. For their penultimate conversation, he's barefoot in sweats. During Richard's tense final chat with Lisa, he is nude but for a towel around his waist and another slung around his neck. In other words, it's as if in romanticizing him Lisa has spun a cocoon around him, and every time they talk another piece of it flakes off, culminating in this "it's alive!" moment with all his sinew on display. (When Richard finally invades her apartment, its peachy-pink surroundings turn midnight blue.i) They do have one other in-person encounter between meeting as friends and meeting as foes, when Lisa hides in the back of Richard's SUV while he drives around town picking up his dry-cleaning. She gets away unscathed, natch: he isn't a flesh-and-blood threat to her yet.
I love this sequence, by the by, which commences with Lisa snooping around the parking garage beneath Richard's apartment and finding his vehicle unexpectedly unlocked when someone else's key fob turns out to be on the same frequency. She takes this as a cosmic invitation to get in and commune with his stuff. Then Richard shows up, and suddenly she can't leave without setting off the alarm, so she hunkers down in the backseat and tries her best to be invisible. There is hardly any more to it--this is suspense at its crudest--but there's something to be said for Sherman eschewing score here and instead letting the Bo Diddleyi tune Richard fires up on the tape deck provide music diegetically, the blues rhythm chugging away on the soundtrack like Lisa's pounding heartbeat externalized. Just as Bo Diddley lands on "I'm a man," Sherman cuts to a striking close-up of Richard smirking in Ray-Bans--a self-made Terminator getting high on borrowed cool. He's the man. It's a highly effective contrapuntal soundtrack choice that traps Lisa not just inside Richard's car but inside his head, too. That's a frightening place for a teenage girl. I have a feeling this interlude was contrived to impose some cheap thrills on the film--and, well, mission accomplished. Yet it also serves as a graphic illustration of a terrifyingly uneven power dynamic, bifurcating the film: everything beforehand is low-key titillating, while everything after is coloured with dread.
Still, it's the phone calls that are the heart and soul of Lisa. The picture belongs to a long line of telephone-based thrillers such as the original Black Christmas, Whoopi Goldberg's deranged one-woman show The Telephone, and the later Scream franchise, but what distinguishes it is that we see both sides of the conversation, like some perverse remake of Pillow Talk. Lisa talks to Richard from the frilly confines of her bedroom on one of those chunky phones built to weather teenage tempests. Richard's place is the photonegative of these cozy environs, a void of colour and light where every piece of furniture, including his phone, looks as though it came out of the Patrick Bateman starter kit. She twiddles with the phone cord; he smokes. Sherman is careful, I think, to keep the camera on Keanan when she's speaking in her breathy adult voice, preventing these scenes from developing an erotic charge. What they are is semi-tragic: Lisa morsels out details of her life cloaked in code--her controlling mom becomes a controlling friend--and Richard--don't call him "Rick"--listens intently. Wendy plants the idea that maybe Richard can date Katherine and Lisa has the very bad idea to go out for dinner with her mother to Richard's restaurant. But even before then she is having trouble grasping, much less articulating, the appeal of talking to Richard, which evolves from illicit thrills into a fruitless search for a father figure. Richard, of course, isn't seriously interested in what she has to say--he's just stringing her along to tease out her true identity. If there's a larger point to be extracted from this, it's that often women lie to men to protect themselves, whereas men lie to women to poach their trust.
With the widespread implementation of *69, Lisa was already a period piece within months of its release, and a remake would be nearly impossible without a radical reconception of the phone's role in the plot. (Who makes voice calls anymore?) It still plays and feels somewhat prescient, however, since Lisa is essentially the Neil Armstrong of catfishing and the phone's psychic pull on her is more relatable than ever now that we're all on that drip 24/7. A moment where Katherine takes Lisa's telephone away as punishment brings to mind the mercy-killing of Old Yeller: as this is a girl-and-her-phone movie, it's the worst thing Katherine could do. The view from Lisa's bedroom window is of brick walls in every direction, creating a weird, inescapable shaft; from below, long-haired Keanan looks like Rapunzel trapped in the tower. The telephone is how Lisa experiences the world.
And for Richard's career-women victims, it seems to be how they experience home. In a pair of heartbreaking vignettes, they listen to messages left for them during the day, through which we get this kind of triangulation of their personalities. Mary (Elizabeth Gracen) hears from a friend who wants her to know about a private sale at Maxfield's ("Bring plastic!") and then from someone named Andy who evidently sends her. Judy, checking on the status of her lover's flight from New York, doesn't have the patience to listen to either Laura's reminder about something or Charlie's apology for something. Another friend has juicy gossip concerning Susan and David. When she gets to Richard's signature message, she immediately dials Jim to let him know his sick jokes are not appreciated, oblivious to Richard standing behind her. Richard's calling card is an answering-machine message because he's all about invading their inner sanctum--and he steals the tape afterwards because it completes the act of taking a life. There's a delectable moment during the climax where Katherine instructs Lisa to call the police and Lisa croaks, "You took out my phone." Katherine wilts at the karma of it. Severing Lisa's umbilical tie to society at large isn't attempted murder, but it may as well be.
Ah, Katherine. Though Ladd's performance lacks the charm of her young co-star's, in a way her stilted line readings nail the futility of trying to be a mother and a best friend to the same person. Terrified of her daughter repeating her mistakes (and, naturally, it hurts Lisa to be thought of as a mistake), she tries to distance Lisa from the opposite sex, driving her to seek thrills over the phone lines. Katherine has a long-term boyfriend (Michael Ayr) she's afraid to introduce to Lisa in case Lisa, who's grown up emulating her, interprets this as a green light to sleep with men. Except thinking her mom is single and lonely puts Lisa indefatigably in matchmaker mode, and a scene where she seeks pointers from friendly Don (Drew Pillsbury) while she and Katherine are out bowling hints at an openness to having a dad. Since Don is the prototype for a certain masculine ideal (handsome, paternal, wears the hell out of a sweater), she doesn't understand why Katherine sends him away.
It would be reductive, not to mention misogynistic, to say that Katherine is the "real" villain of Lisa, but she's holding her own wild past against Lisa, and she's denying her the benefit of the doubt. However correct she is that it's a minefield out there--case in point: the first guy Lisa hits on is nicknamed the Candlelight Killer--coddling Lisa isn't equipping her for what life will throw at her. (The no-dating-before-16 rule would be considerably less draconian were the topic itself not seemingly off-limits at the dinner table.) If Lisa is a surrogate for Sherman's daughter, it follows that Katherine is a surrogate for Sherman himself, so it's especially commendable that she isn't held above reproach. Interestingly, Katherine is absent for her moment of redemption, when Lisa's guilt causes her to break down in front of Wendy's family and reveal that Katherine's parents disowned her for deciding to raise Lisa, "So, all we've ever had for family is each other." Again, because the film is so closely allied with Lisa's POV, her cutting Katherine some slack is our cue to do the same.
I have no idea how Lisa would play seeing it for the first time as an adult. Some modern reviews suggest a lot like a thriller made for Lifetime. Indeed, it arguably pioneered that template--which also means it's not cookie-cutter like they are, and it has a fierce emotional intelligence all its own. I saw Lisa at the right age to metabolize it as a hang-out movie; when I watch the film today, it's a reunion with old friends. A reunion with youthful naïveté, too. I know it's not hardcore enough for the horror buffs (part of the problem is that Sherman's reputation as "exploitation's Bergman" precedes him), but to them I would counter that Lisa is actually a coming-of-age movie. A grim one, like the best ones. I would additionally remind them that Lisa's fraught relationship with her mom culminates in the incredibly loaded and disturbing image of Richard using Katherine as a literal cudgel against Lisa by bashing their heads together, a move Sherman learned while doing research for his gnarly masterpiece, Vice Squad. And whether or not Richard's actions in the homestretch make much sense--the gravitational pull of a big confrontation seems to override his sense of self-preservation--this High Noon showdown more than meets all the genre imperatives (e.g., not one but two Final Girls), its tensions accented, or augmented, by the farcical undercurrents of the situation.
Richard arranges Lisa's scrapbook for her to find in his final murder tableau, but what does he really know? Does he recognize Lisa from their brief encounter on the street? Does he realize she stalked him because he's "beautiful" and not because she was onto him? Not for nothing does Richard spend much of the climax stumbling around in the dark, blind thanks to a well-planted Chekhov's gun: Lisa's emergency can of mace. What does Katherine make of someone Lisa identifies as "a kid from school...playing a joke" breaking in and violently attacking her and her daughter? Only Lisa has the big picture. Even then, she may never learn the contribution she and Katherine have made to society in dispatching Richard (although the candles he's lighted are a dead giveaway as to his alter ego). If Katherine really loved Don, she'd surely have introduced him to Lisa already. If Lisa really wanted to, she would sneak around with boys rather than pursue such a hopeless object choice in Richard, who's jettisoned out of her bedroom window like a body rejecting a skin graft. As Katherine closes said window and tenderly embraces her daughter, it's clear that for now, at least, this is a twosome with no use for a third wheel. What they need is a buffer: Like so many women before them, they went and got a man when they should've got a dog.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
In 2015, Kino Lorber brought Lisa to Blu-ray in a frankly gorgeous and barely flawed 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that made me instantly nostalgic. Boasting a tight grain structure with minimal artifacts, the image is organically sharp and cinematic in motion. Alex Nepomniaschy, Sherman's favoured DP at the tail end of the '80s, had a knack for burnishing the director's low-budget films so that they looked elegantly minimalist as opposed to shoestring, and his cinematography of Lisa retains its rosy warmth and slight diffuseness here. Some clipping of the whites is forgivable, given the wealth of shadow detail; the one criticism I would level at the video is the presence of gatefloat, which is heaviest or most noticeable during the wobbly opening titles. The attendant 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is an accurate and more than adequate replica of the film's pre-digital Dolby Stereo mix. While surround usage is exceedingly modest, Renzetti's score is gratifyingly lush and the dialogue sounds as rich and assertive as one would hope. That being said, it is inexcusable that as late as 2015, a major label was still releasing Blu-ray product without subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, hence the absence of the "FFC Must-Own" seal of approval at the top of this review. The disc appears to be going out of print, anyway.
Extras launch with a feature-length commentary from Sherman, who introduces Lisa as a film made with his 14-year-old daughter in mind as the target audience because she was too young to see any of his R-rated movies. ("Lisa" is an homage to her name, Melissa.) Sherman has a rapid-fire anecdote for virtually every credit--we learn that Julie Cobb, the actress playing Wendy's mom, is Lee J. Cobb's daughter--and reveals that that's his voice leaving the tentative confession of love on Mary's answering machine. Lisa's various locations likewise get the tour-guide treatment. It isn't a steady stream of information, this yakker, and there are times when Sherman falls into the trap of doing a descriptive-video service track, but it isn't bereft of insight into his filmmaking process, either. He gives away the secret to the electricity of those phone calls, for instance, saying that he storyboarded them to match eyelines and coordinate movements, creating a feeling that the two parties can almost see each other. Sherman begins and ends with a tip of the cap to the late Frank Yablans, his co-producer on the film and someone who had a legendary career as a Paramount executive.
Also on board are two lengthy untitled featurettes, the first an interview with D.W. Moffet (18 mins., HD), the second a sit-down with Sherman and editor Ross Albert (34 mins., HD) that compresses and expands on the abovementioned yak-track. Moffet recalls an early meeting in which Sherman acted out the Candlelight Killer's routine with a zeal that made him think he should cast himself as Richard, though being new to screen acting he appreciated having a director who knew what he wanted. He's retained a fondness for his co-stars, saying he hopes to catch up with Keanan sometime, and he talks about how the pornographic specificity of the choreography kept causing him and Frankie Thorn to crack up while shooting the latter's murder. Although I liked Moffet's riff on the typecasting of villainous actors, I would argue the reason he got to move on from Lisa faster than Ted Levine got to move on from The Silence of the Lambs is that millions more people went to see The Silence of the Lambs.
For their part, Sherman and Albert elaborate on the origins of Lisa: MGM gave Sherman carte blanche to make this film for his daughter to apologize for putting him through the wringer on Poltergeist III, but by the end of production the studio had filed for bankruptcy, casting Lisa adrift. The two express their disdain for dissolves, citing Lisa's single dissolve in the closing shot as a reluctant compromise after they couldn't get a Louma crane to do what it was supposed to. Having the comparatively quiet Albert there seems to prompt Sherman to hold back less when getting technical or discussing the casting process, which was dictated by a diminishing budget. I had no idea that Lisa initially received an R rating, forcing Sherman and Albert to petition the MPAA for a PG-13. Citing a dearth of onscreen violence and profanity, they were told the R was for Lisa's "themes." Lisa's theatrical trailer, in standard def, rounds out the platter. Be warned that it's spoiler-riffic and be apprised that it includes footage absent in the finished film.
95 mins.; PG-13; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 2.0 DTS-HD MA; BD-50; Region A; Kino Lorber
i These expressionistic flourishes gush out of Sherman once in a while. Consider the opening shot of a despondent Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) through the high-rise window in Sherman's ill-fated Poltergeist III, where the window-washer's squeegee is doing the crying for her. (Or us: the film came out in the wake of O'Rourke's passing.)