One can approach I AM LISA as a very cool horror film in which the power structure is challenged by the supernatural. One can also approach it as a scathingly brilliant dialectic on feminism in several of its waves. Either way one comes away from this deliciously atmospheric, intellectually nimble excursion into lycanthropy, wildly entertained and not a little challenged about human nature.
Our heroine is the eponymous Lisa (Kristen Vaganos), newly returned to her small town with a fancy degree from school in Barcelona, and a complete skepticism about all things supernatural. Running the used bookstore that she inherited from her grandmother, Lisa immediately becomes the target of her high-school nemesis, Jessica (Carmen Anello) and Jessica’s clique. After petty theft and an unwelcome advance from Jessica, Lisa does what any civic-mined citizen should do, report the incidents to the sheriff. Unfortunately ,that would be Jessica’s power-mad mother, Deb (Manon Halliburton), who does not take kindly to the complaint. In short order, Lisa has been beaten, disfigured, and left in the woods to be consumed by the local wolf population. Except something odd happens. Perhaps it was the way that Lisa had braked for a wolf earlier in the film instead of running it over, perhaps it’s the universe keeping karma in equilibrium, or maybe it’s just chance, but instead of becoming a late-night snack for a mundane canid, the wolf in question is of the supernatural variety that administers a hearty bite with transformative qualities before retreating back into the darkness.
In his finely tuned script spiked with well-honed, ironic humor, Eric Winkler takes Lisa through all the time-honored tropes of discovering her new semi-lupine identity, but never allows the familiar to devolve into cliché. The new-found lust for meat finds expression as staunch vegetarian Lisa eyes steaks at her local grocery store with surreptitious longing and dismay, while her more primal instincts take sudden and gruesome form to the consternation of both Lisa and those around her. And to those of us in the audience. While Lisa’s self-education on all things werewolf include the traditional ancient book of occult lore, there is also a marathon of cheesy horror films, during which Lisa strokes her fangs appreciatively. What a perfect metaphor for how she is embraces the disconcerting extent of her burgeoning power.
With her new power, revenge becomes an imperative, despite best friend Sam’s (Jennifer Seward) admonishment that Lisa is better than that. The interplay between animal instinct and deliberate cogitation is perfectly pitched by Vaganos, who can be the cool nerd, the stone-cold killer, and the confused proto-cryptid without missing a beat. There is consistency in her steely-eyed gaze that brooks no nonsense from the world at large, and often puts that world in its place. What Vaganos never is, despite Lisa’s assault and involuntary transformation, is a victim. Throughout, she plays it strong, even when toughness may be in short supply. She is a true heroine, though one with a dark side, but one who is nonetheless aspirational. After all, it’s not like she’s a random killer, just a serial one.
I AM LISA begins with quotes from Heinrich Heine and Francis Bacon that are a gloss on the psychological quagmire that is the impulse for revenge. Don’t be hornswaggled. This gruesome tale of professional malfeasance and mean-girl fascism is a heady and deeply disturbing brew of nightmares and empowerment.