I Am Lisa follows in the footsteps of several recent movies tackling the awakening of women through supernatural means. Alongside Jakob’s Wife and Bloodthirsty, Patrick Rea’s film seeks to showcase the radicalization of its female lead through a metamorphosis from regular young woman to werewolf hybrid. Although neither as accomplished as Jakob’s Wife nor as progressive as Bloodthirsty, I Am Lisa at the very least manages to make yet another case for why women, and indeed queer folk, should be front and center in horror – the stories are more compelling, more complex, and demonstrably more entertaining too.
Kristen Vaganos plays the titular heroine, a shy woman with too much eyeliner who has been entrusted with running her late grandmother’s bookshop despite looking like a teenager. Lisa carves out a decent living and gets on great with everybody in town except, that is, for local bully Jessica (Carmen Anello). The daughter of the town’s clearly corrupt sheriff, played with spittle-inflected grit by Manon Halliburton, Jessica is free to do as she pleases, safe in the knowledge Mom will get her out of whatever trouble she ends up in. Tormenting Lisa is her specialty not least because Jessica appears to be in the closet and senses her victim is too.
Plaid shirts are a funny kind of shorthand for queer women, but the point isn’t overdone here. Lisa’s style will mean something to bisexual and lesbian women and will go over everybody else’s head. Her BFF teases Lisa over a crush on a waitress but Rea and screenwriter Eric Winkler are less interested in giving us easy answers for each character’s motivation. Lisa’s sexual orientation isn’t even really a plot point. However, after rejecting Jessica’s advances, she finds herself at the mercy of the entire local police department, leading to a brutal beating and sexual assault that, wisely, is not shown onscreen. Lisa simply wakes up in the woods without her pants on and that’s that. After an encounter with a wolf, however, she doesn’t suffer her intended fate.
I Am Lisa establishes we’re in supernatural territory in its opening moments, when a young woman on the run bares her – very good looking! – fangs. It’s tough to get this kind of stuff right on a meagre budget but Rea and his collaborators put the money in the right places, by focusing on making Lisa’s transformation genuinely convincing. Aside from the fangs, she’s got glowing yellow eyes, long, curved nails and, later in the film, a twisted demonic face that recalls Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Suffice to say the SFX makeup by newcomer Jake Jackson is hugely impressive, particularly in the final act when Lisa must fight for her life.
The gore is deliciously gruesome too, from a death by deep fat fryer to an old school crucifixion. Wolves are strangely underused in horror movies, with the traumatic offscreen death in Frozen the only real use of the creatures in recent memory. I Am Lisa corrects that imbalance somewhat, making a case for these critters as life-givers and deadly foe at the same time. Less effective is a subplot involving a local weirdo with scars on his face who has no lines and seems to have a connection to werewolves at first only for nothing much to come of it. Considering the cast is almost entirely female, it feels like a major misstep and, broadly speaking, his character isn’t necessary.
Elsewhere, Natalia Perez provides a synth-heavy, super eighties score loaded with whining electric guitars, while the cinematography by the brilliantly monikered Hanuman Brown-Eagle is richly textured, with the many reds and greens popping out of the screen. The whole film has a very earthy feel to it, much like the underseen Wildling, which had a similar premise but far less violence. There’s plenty of local charm too, from Lisa’s hole-in-the-wall bookstore to the dive bar where several pivotal scenes take place. I Am Lisa is set in Missouri, just a short drive away from where The Stylist was shot and it’s easy to imagine that movie’s events taking place just offscreen. Both also share a local pride that imbues their stories with the kind of real-life resonance that can’t be captured on a lot in L.A.
Vaganos is impressive in the lead role, even if Lisa feels slightly underwritten at times – she casually mentions Virginia Woolf to a customer, thereby confirming her feminist bonafides – and bears a striking resemblance to a young Alison Brie. Her rapport with BFF Sam (Jennifer Seward, who also appeared in The Stylist, funnily enough) is warm and believable, with both performers eloquently hinting at their deeply shared history. Their counterparts, of course, are Jessica and her mother with Anello and Halliburton unafraid of showing their teeth, as it were, even amidst increasingly desperate circumstances.
There are moments of levity in I Am Lisa, such as when Lisa researches werewolf movies or when she buys a truckload of meat at the local supermarket, but for the most part Rea keeps things demure. This is much to his credit, considering the pressure to make virtually everything quippy and self-referential. Engineering a slightly more serious tone ensures the movie feels more on the level than many others of its ilk. If anything, the supernatural elements are easier to swallow because of how messed up the rest of the town is, from those in the grip of addiction to those visiting a local brothel. Everybody is so used to things being bad that they don’t recognize when they’ve really gone wrong.
I Am Lisa is a slight affair, clearly conceived with more money than was actually on hand when it came time to shoot. However, the SFX are terrific, the performances committed, and the female focus is commendable. You could do a lot worse, to put it very mildly.
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WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Patrick Rea
Writer(s): Eric Winkler
Stars: Kristen Vaganos, Jennifer Seward, Manon Halliburton, Carmen Anello
Studio/Production Company: Feed The Queen
Run Time: 92 minutes