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December 9, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

From the PG-13 drama/horror vault comes this independently financed near-masterpiece of after-school angst. In the midst of the trailblazing TV series “My Two Dads” (the producers blithely unaware of the gay innuendo the premise invites), Staci Keanan did this feature film, her first, before starring on “Step by Step” (with two more dads—Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Sommers). Her mother is played by Cheryl Ladd, one of Josie’s Pussycats before becoming one of Charlie’s Angels before a solo recording career finally launched her into the rarefied air that is TV-movie stardom. So this is a collision of high-powered blonde talent. How Gary Sherman ever kept these two throbbing egos in check is anybody’s guess. While starting in the “mother knows best” vein, Lisa actually turns this into a compelling argument for teens against sexually-stifling motherhood. But there are no easy lessons here. The exception being that if you’re (a psychopath) being called anonymously, you should probably learn what *69 means so you can trace the call and save yourself a load of gumshoeing (in order to claim your next victim).

Little Lisa Holland (Keanan), 14 years old, virginal, desperate to win approval from her peers and keep her best friend friendly, wants nothing more than to get laid. Well, at least go out on a date. Her mother Katherine is adamant about her waiting til she’s 16 for any kind of contact with boys. Katherine is either a divorcee or a widow (it’s never made clear) and she doesn’t want Lisa to make the same mistakes she did. She also realizes that inviting men over to the house will give Lisa the impression that it’s okay for her mom to date, but not her. Besides, a boyfriend might become attached and it can be hard to untangle those relationships with a fatherless teenage daughter around. Later on, nosy little Lisa will find her mother’s birth-control pills and use them as ammunition (not literally).

Anyway, that’s the family drama, but it’s important to the horror side of the tale as it explains Lisa’s motivation for scribbling down the license plate numbers of random guys and figuring out their names and subsequently their phone numbers. Lisa gets off on this kind of thing as it’s her sole outlet for male company. Well, she happens to fall for a guy who happens to be the Candlelight Killer—unbeknownst to her—who is busily extinguishing the lives of young women all over town. A great deal of the film will revolve around Lisa’s playing-hard-to-get telephone conversations with Richard (D.W. Moffett), the handsome, beguiling killer. Of course, Richard wants to know who’s calling him at all hours and disguising her voice so he’s always trying to get information out of her. The astute teenager resists, but eventually she has the idea of pretending to be her mom—if mom gets laid, then maybe she’ll ease up and Lisa can go out on a date herself—but this way she gives away her mom’s identity and the shit hits the fan with about ten minutes left.

For its genre and presumably minuscule budget, this film has an astonishing amount of plot detail. It’s a fucking miracle if a low-budget horror doesn’t have canyonesque plot holes and this one hasn’t, but furthermore it will make anyone feel like they have a short attention span because there are so many things that come back, earlier minutiae that will have grave consequences later on. So many “oh yeah, I forgot about that” moments. Something as inconsequential as Lisa’s admitted obsession with George Michael is given weight by the set decorator’s inclusion of a George Michael poster in her room, briefly glimpsed, but never focused on. Most filmmaker’s either wouldn’t bother with a trifle like that, or they would do their best to call attention to it. It’s trite, but, together with a lot of other similar details, it adds authenticity to a story that needs it and it’s so damn rare in a film like this that it deserves mention. Even Lisa’s first meeting with Richard, totally uninterested in a girl her age, happens shortly after his latest slaying—only discovered days later after the plot is well-advanced—of a woman who lives on Lisa’s block.

Another nice touch is found in a scene where Lisa wants to snoop around in Richard’s Jeep, parked in a garage in daylight. A couple drives up and parks close by and when the driver attempts to lock his hatch-back with a remote he unlocks Richard’s car as both automatic locks are attuned to the same frequency. So locking his car unlocks Richard’s allowing Lisa to climb inside and play make-believe in the driver’s seat. On the way out, we hear the couple say that those models auto-lock themselves after awhile so of course Lisa gets locked in a few moments later. Unsurprisingly, Richard returns and she hides in the back seat.

The hour-long tension and accumulated angst pays off in the climatic battle. Without giving too much away, I’ll mention that when Lisa comes home Richard is waiting for her with Katherine seized in a headlock; after getting Lisa’s attention from behind he proceeds to bludgeon her temples with her mother’s head! Gotta be the most original instrument of pain ever utilized in a horror movie. Katherine bites him and he lays her out with a man-sized slug to the noggin. Out of nowhere this movie is brutal as hell! There’s tons of humor here too. Richard gets maced in the eyes and subsequently stumbles into furniture and after getting up he has to manually peel his eyelids open with his non-stabbing hand so that he can see anything at all. And mom’s removal of Lisa’s bedroom phone earlier comes back to bite them when they get cornered. Mom doesn’t know best after all. Her Repulsion -esque temerity almost gets her daughter candlesticked.

Lisa is tightly scripted, evenly paced and just plain well-made. I’ve seen a few Sherman films now and these seem to be conspicuous traits. Moffett’s serial killer is given no motivation or backstory, but he does an awful lot with nothing and is authentically creepy (I discern a forbear to Bale’s squeaky-clean killer in American Psycho). The girls have a believable mother-daughter chemistry, but they’re nothing special which is probably the point. Both Sherman’s Raw Meat and his Dead and Buried share the same efficiency and self-assurance, but while those films are potently shocking and mildly weird, this one is ordinary. It doesn’t help that the score by Joe Renzetti, no stranger to horror, places this firmly in the late ’80s (in the worst way). It also has a definite TV-movie quality look to it, even though it isn’t (which I don’t mind incidentally).

Ultimately, while tight and well-composed, the film is tame. It opens a good debate over violence in the movies though. Sherman opts not to show us the resulting offal of Richard’s kills and it’s interesting that if he had this would easily attain slasher horror status and perhaps cult status as well. While I don’t think it would add very much to the film in a narrative sense, it would give it that edge that it’s lacking. It desperately needs some gore, titillation, novelty, something. Sherman shows restraint and still makes a compelling film, but his restraint feels less esoteric than sterile. The final confrontation is a strong indication that he and his crew know how to stage a good bout of violence, with a sense of humor no less, as are his prior horror gems, so obviously this could have been so much more than just a neat little movie.

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