Dial M for Murder : LISA (1990).


LISA (1990)




The original write up remains but the thoughts I add to it given my current perspective will briefly make way here. This was originally a brief rundown of the film and going by it, its thriller aspects become quite explicitly obvious from my input. But the resonant layers of the film, well directed by Gary Sherman, is for the viewer to see and truly uncover. This is actually another underrated work from the MGM stable. So first the untouched original writing and then some other thoughts will enhance its appeal within the post.


In this bitingly suspenseful, almost slasher thriller from the MGM stable, Staci Keanan – looking like Moira Kelly’s teenaged doppelganger – plays the titular high schooler. I say ‘almost slasher thriller’ as it never stoops down to generic trappings of a given script type and sustains a genuine sense of tension and emotional investment from the beginning. Kudos to writers Sherman and Karen Clark for performing that rare feat.

As for Lisa, bulwarks of ticking hormones, adolescent angst, parental vigilance and a taste for flirting with danger spur her on to make seductive phone calls to a mystery date. You know teenage rebellion of varying degrees manifests itself in our younger selves and in this LA set film, things get pertly pretty soon for this fourteen year old. Oh, peer pressure plays an active role too as is the cult of attraction that rests solely on appearances and physicality within a larger urban culture. You know the things that come with the territory of this age bracket. So it is for Lisa. She, like all precocious teenagers, wants to grow up too soon.

A protective single mother( Cheryl Ladd) doesn’t help her case as Lisa is sometimes antithetical to her though it’s the same love- hate dynamic common to the relationship within a family. Maybe the mother, herself a confident, successful individual, doesn’t want her to bear the same burdens of adolescent recklessness that tailed her too. She has to bear the thankless brunt of raising a rebel without a cause.

But Lisa exercises an innocence even as she pranks those she calls by posing as an adult caller and making cooing whispers on the phone to lend a seductive, grown-up air to herself. A sense of callousness and discovery aids her though it’s largely harmless. Sherman never makes the set up obscene and a sense of unpredictable tension is generated by this communication device. That is the telephone and set as it is in the late 80s, this is much less obsessive than today’s Instagram fuelled precipitation. It’s a symbol of curiosity for a blossoming young conscience here. The film is a product of its times and so the yellow burnish of the LA heat and the saxophone instrumental in the soundtrack by music director Joe Renzetti is properly etched and has the appropriate atmospherics befitting the unexpected turn this tale takes for the eponymous protagonist.

Now sympathy from the devil himself isn’t what she was on the look out for. In her case, the anti-social animal comes couched in the attractive physiognomy and well oiled charm of the hunky male (D. W MOFETT). There’s a dangerously unsettling catch 22 here: this sophisticated Alpha Male moonlights as the ignominious Candlelight Killer, with an appetite for destruction. Of course, this is the figure contrived to let loose the element of simmering terror that is quite effectively realized here and the yellow of the candlelight and dimly lit interiors captured by DOP Alex Nepomniaschy becomes a corollary to the plot’s unraveling. This killer has his modus operandi : he enters covertly into the homes of young women, leaves pre recorded messages into their answering machines, often misconstrued as prank calls. Then he proceeds to ravage them to shreds. Nothing is shown yet the power of suggestion is disquieting. This is particularly relevant now as it was at any time;the impossibility of crime is an urban myth and as such Lisa unpredictably crossing paths with him is bursting with what’s coming for her or others like her. Eventually, a tense and nervously anticipatory twist calls for an SOS back home for her. Her mother is almost poised to come in the crosshair of a city where outward sophistication seems to conceal monstrosities on the prowl in an already sexually confused dynamic.

Practically, director Gary’s chops do not get hiked to Hitchcockian motifs and it shouldn’t because every thriller obviously invites a shadow of his profile. Released as it was more than two decades earlier, emulation and a proliferation of this genre perhaps has marred novelty of scripts as these. But trust me, through its slim runtime, there are no cheap thrills or developments for the sake of it. It’s cut to a polished degree by editor Ross Albert. To give it its due within the expectations of a thriller, it does keep us buckled up on the edge of our seats. I’ll tell you why; the clash of ideas between mother and daughter believably plays along to unlock personal fissures on which the mystery operates and the deep friendship that Lisa shares with Wendy ( Tanya Fenmore), who comes from a more relaxed background when it comes to her personal freedom, is interesting owing to its realism. Lisa’s mom is the bad cop in her eyes and from CARRIE to Jodie Foster’s FOXES, this daughter – mother interpersonal war has been deftly portrayed in varying degrees. “Listen to the parent because they are always right” is the refrain that I uttered as I saw Lisa fail to grasp the dangers of her urban jungle and this sense of post puberty angst is understandable on her part and when I said those lines, I knew I was invested. Truly, we never really know when personal frontiers coalesce with dastardly crimes outside. There can be no premonition there. Cheryl Ladd who plays the young mother here was the wildly popular star of the 70s Charlie’s Angels series, much before director MCG made it worth all the dekko and popcorn crunch in the cult dual spread of movies. Ladd is as effective here in her concern and realistic as Mofett is mysteriously supine and inscrutable and fear inducing as killers are wont to be or any anti social creature for that matter. Still of the night sure gives him his unsuspected fangs.

Propelled to a by the numbers albeit unnerving climax via its eerie, sensual character, LISA will let one have a good time for 98 minutes of chills and thrills. The one scene where Lisa hides in the car of the stranger is very, very well executed especially. However more than the tense undercurrent, the emotional core sticks out like a welcome sore thumb in a population of mindlessly gory works. LISA is a cut above the rest as the terror is internalized, foreboding and though fairly predictable is genuine in establishing the axis where we are exposed to others amongst us who may cause us irreparable harm. It embroils us in the psychological unraveling of the teenager without announcing itself.


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