The Savage Stack - LISA (1989)

Gary Sherman's YA tale of a girl who crank calls a serial killer is a work of dreamy, melodramatic sleaze.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixty-ninth entry into this unbroken backlog is Gary Sherman's Lifetime-ready coming of age serial killer thriller, Lisa...

The MO of the "Candlelight Killer" is somewhat unique, while still feeling totally familiar for anyone who's spent time studying up on serial murderers. First, he stalks his victims – women: usually pretty, successful bachelorettes – getting a sense of their daily routines. Then, he calls and leaves them a message before breaking into their homes and waiting for them arrive. On their answering machines, two sentences are heard before he strikes. "Hello, my name is Richard, and I'm in your apartment. Now, I'm going to kill you." Very shortly thereafter, his victims are dragged to their bedrooms, where he's staged the scene for their execution: a tableau of candles and wine that would be cheesy yet romantic under any other circumstance. He's a literal heartbreaker, keeping the cassettes from each telephone recorder, labeling them with his prey's names. 

Gary Sherman's Lisa ('89) is not as good as his all-time classics – namely Death Line ('72), Dead & Buried ('81) and Vice Squad ('82) – but still contains signature hallmarks of the exploitation workman's subtle style. Sherman has always been a filmmaker obsessed with environments, utilizing homes, police stations, motels, subway tubes, locker rooms and cozy bedrooms to define his characters. Take the contrast between the way he films the rather posh London offices of those who live aboveground with the subterranean cannibals’ caves in Death Line. Or how the fishing village of Potter's Bluff is always shrouded in a haze of New England fog, a haunted hamlet of murderous fishermen. Perhaps the best example of this preoccupation with spaces is contained in Vice Squad, where the hardened hooker Princess (Season Hubley) is introduced in her suburban home (with a daughter in tow), before transforming into a wild sex goddess in a downtown bus depot later that evening.

Without pages of dialogue, we know exactly where we are and who we're with in Sherman's films, an acute sense of visual storytelling that the genre lifer had been honing since shooting commercials and concert films like The Legend of Bo Diddley ('66). Lisa is no different; the downtown apartment of our titular fourteen-year-old stalker/crank caller (Staci Keanan) tells the entire tale. The walls are painted pink, with white streaks that flow through the texture like clouds. Perfectly arranged flowers act as decoration – as her mother Katherine (Cheryl Ladd) owns a florist shop – flanked by fluffed pillows on soft, matching sofas. These textures clash with the industrial stairwells that lead up to the single mother and her daughter's domicile, as if Katherine has created a tiny oasis for them to exist in, floating above the scary city below. 

The plot to Sherman and Karen Clark's script seems fit for an installment of R.L. Stine's YA horror anthology Fear Street (which, coincidentally, also began in ’89 with The New Girl). Lisa and her best friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) – whose names can only lead this author to believe that Sherman and Clark are definitely Prince fanatics – start to develop their first crushes on boys and a desire to date. They're also little troublemakers, often dialing random men up after school and playing weird jokes on them, like a strange combination of Nancy Drew and The Jerky Boys. Lisa develops a fascination with a local hunk (D.W. Moffett) – who lives in a chic proto-Patrick Bateman loft – not knowing he's the infamous "Candlelight Killer" that’s been stalking their sunny city neighborhood. As you can probably expect, playful flirtation leads to full-blown cat and mouse theatrics, as Lisa unwittingly puts both her and her mother in serious danger after following the madman with her pastel-colored Polaroid camera. 

For the most part, Lisa plays like a strange hybrid of erotic thriller and coming of age story that essentially feels like a Lifetime Movie of the Week somehow made its way to theaters. Ladd's often exasperated mother is doing her best to try and keep the evils of boys and sex away from her daughter, as we can see years of regret painted on her lovely face. At the same time, Sherman is zeroing in on how the need for discovery drives most teenagers to do the damndest things, resulting in some rather uncomfortable scenarios he milks for maximum suspense. A dinner at a trendy restaurant – that Lisa arranges to try and bump into her new fantasy, who manages the establishment – transforms into a rather squirmy shouting match about the girl finding her mom's birth control pills, all while a killer may or may not enter frame and recognize the tiny voice from the other end of the phone. It's a combo that probably wouldn't work in a lesser filmmaker's hands, but Sherman manages to uncover this tricky balance that's both corny and frightening, all at once. 

Though the MPAA deemed Lisa tame enough to earn a PG-13 rating, it certainly helps that the final showdown between these women and the urban shark contains a quick dose of the grisly violence Sherman specialized in with his other pictures (a gore gag involving a knife through the shoulder is particularly painful). This is where the journeyman's horror tendencies come out to play, crafting a climax that elevates everything that came before, landing on the pitch perfect spot to roll credits. So, while Lisa may not rub shoulders with the cult gems Sherman had helmed before, it's still a rather unique, idiosyncratic thriller, distinctly of its time while delving into enduring fears that consistently haunt parents and their children. All the while, a hybrid of guitar and saxophone score this late ‘90s cable staple, a Skinemax symphony that forgets to ever truly become erotic, but is nevertheless brave in the exploration of its young protagonist’s budding sexuality.

Lisa is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. 

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