Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Lisa (1989)

... aka: Candlelight Killer, The
... aka: Lisa juego mortal (Lisa: Deadly Game)
... aka: Lisa... sono qui per ucciderti! (Lisa... I'm Here to Kill You!)
... aka: Meurtre sur répondeur (Murder on the Answering Machine)

Directed by:
Gary Sherman

Fourteen-year-old Lisa Holland (Staci Keanan) is starting to become more interested in boys and rebel against the (she feels) strict rules laid down by her overprotective mother, Katherine (Cheryl Ladd). Because she got pregnant at a young age, which has made her life difficult (especially since the father decided not to stick around), Katherine's a bit paranoid the same fate will befall her daughter and is forbidding her from dating until she turns 16. Otherwise, they have a wonderful relationship that involves sharing clothes, keeping an open and honest dialogue going and the daughter being allowed to freely express herself how she sees fit. However, there are definite down sides to parent/child relationships that are more best friend-y than paternal. Since Lisa emulates her mother, Katherine feels she has to hide the existence of her current boyfriend from her. In Katherine's mind, Lisa may try to emulate that too... and if she did she'd be justified in hiding the relationship since that's exactly what Katherine is doing.

Still, Katherine's neuroses are no match for a teen girl's desire to fit in with her peers. Knowing her Catholic school chums are all starting to date, yet she can't, just doesn't seem fair. Besides, as Lisa's extremely outgoing best friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) points out, "If you have to wait until you're 16 to date, everybody's going to think you're weird!" In teen-speak, that's basically the apocalypse.

Lisa and her buddy have devised a little "game" (which most of us would refer to as "stalking") that involves scoping out a good-looking adult man, taking a Polaroid photo of him, getting his license plate number and then calling around to DMVs to coerce the workers into giving out the vehicle owner's name. They then look the driver up in the phone book and call them; disguising their voice and pretending to be someone from the target's past but refusing to identify themselves. To what gain? Well, it's really nothing more than bored teens looking for a little thrill, I suppose. In those pre-internet days when we didn't yet have the ability to anonymously troll online, we anonymously trolled using pay phones or landlines and that handy caller ID-blocking *67 feature. Seems like we had to put much more effort and thought into it back in the day!

While out one night getting some groceries, Lisa bumps into the handsome and well-dressed, though cold and aloof, Richard Whitmore (D. W. Moffett) and is instantly smitten. She jots down his license number, finds out his full name and starts calling him up late at night using a deep, seductive "adult" voice. She and Wendy take it a step further by finding out where the guy lives, where he works and what he does for a living so they can continue to spy on him and snap photos of him. When Wendy starts spending more time with a new guy she's dating and Katherine continues digging her heels in on her "no boys" rules, Lisa becomes more brazen in her pursuit of Richard, eventually even breaking into his car.

Wendy warns, "For all you know this guy could be some kind of pervert!" to which Lisa replies, "How can a guy who looks like that be a pervert?" Well, it turns out he's not only a pervert but also a serial killer referred to as "The Candlelight Killer" by the press. He stalks beautiful young women, sneaks into their apartments, decorates their bedrooms with candles and leaves creepy messages on their answering machines ("I'm going to kill you!") prior to strangling them to death. Through some unfortunately silly plotting, Richard mistakes Katherine for Lisa and starts his usual stalker routine on her, culminating in a violent confrontation where mother and daughter must defend themselves against the psycho with mace, knives and a baseball bat.

As a thriller / horror film, this is competently-presented but forgettable and no better than average. In fact, the genre tropes actually get in the way of the most interesting content and that's never a good sign if you're going into this expecting thrills or terror. However, the unexpected trump card that elevates this a bit is the well-drawn and believable relationship between Katherine and Lisa. Both characters are, for a change, carefully developed so their actions at least always make sense. It's especially rare for filmmakers to bother fleshing out a second lead mother character, let alone to the extent they do here.

Where this runs into some trouble is that by spending so much time on the family drama, other aspects - namely the aspects we're watching this for in the first place - get short changed. This has a difficult time finding balance and never seems to generate much suspense since we're constantly jumping back-and-forth between the dramatic family stuff and the psycho stuff. The killer's crimes are almost entirely kept off-screen up until the finale, which makes the sudden violent climax feel like it belongs in another movie entirely. Going this route for the finale also jars us out of caring about the mother / daughter conflict the film has spent so much time on being adequately resolved, though I suppose them teaming up to fight the psycho could be viewed as a resolution of sorts.

There's not much to complain about with the performances, with Keanan and Ladd, who I'd never paid much attention to before, doing a fine job carrying the film. Minor roles are filled by Jeffrey Tambor and Julie Cobb as Wendy's parents, Frankie Thorn (Bad Lieutenant) and 1982 Miss America winner Elizabeth Gracen as victims, Tom Dugan, Hildy Brooks and David Niven Jr..

I assumed this PG-13 teen-geared film was green lit as a vehicle to test then-popular Keanan's (of My Two Dads fame) potential box office clout. However, it turns out this was always intended to be a direct-to-video release by MGM but was given a brief, limited theatrical run first. It was initially distributed on home video by CBS/Fox and was later given a pitiful, bare bones pressed-on-demand DVD release from MGM, who simply utilized their HD TV print. In 2005, the film was given a Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which comes with a director's commentary track, an interview with Moffett and other extras.

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