[FrightFest 2020 Review] 'I Am Lisa' Explores Trauma through a Werewolf Lens with a De-clawed Delivery
“A person that studieth revenge keeps their own wounds green…”
…Opening with a quote from English philosopher Francis Bacon, director Patrick Rea’s werewolf film immediately takes on a different shape than most lycanthrope movies. Whereas nearly every film in this sub-genre follows either cursed beings doomed to kill both innocent strangers and loved ones, or centers around malicious beasts who love the hunt, few have ever been boiled down to a simple story of revenge. That quote encompasses another unique spin on the genre as well. Bacon’s phrasing, spawned from centuries of outright sexism, originally said “man” instead of “person”. And while there have been a few werewolf flicks with powerful female werewolves (Ginger Snaps, anyone?), few have been on such a mission of anger and vengeance as Lisa in I Am Lisa, making its World Premiere at FrightFest.
She is Lisa. Hear her roar, right before she rips your throat out, mother fucker.
I Am Lisa, written by Eric Winkler, follows Lisa (Kristen Vaganos), a spunky bookworm forced to come back to small town life after her grandmother passes away and she is left to take over her used bookstore. Faster than you can says “I love werewolves”, Lisa’s high-school bully, Jessica (Carmen Anello), waltzes in like a bitch in heat with her two friends Dana (Sarah McGuire) and Millie (Millie Milan). Predators on the scent of the weak and eager to kill, they harass Lisa, eventually leading her to go to Jessica’s mother, Sheriff Huckins (Manon Halliburton), a lawless woman who doesn’t take too kindly to accusations about her daughter. Before Lisa knows it, she’s been beaten, raped, and left for dead in the woods. But after surviving an attack from a wolf, Lisa finds herself with a strange new gift, one that leaves her hungry for vengeance.
Rea’s film puts viewers in the vice-lip grip of a wolf’s jaws, making us feel every ounce of pain and frustration Lisa experiences. Charm seeps through every pore of Vaganos and her character, who embodies coffee-loving hipster to the fullest. A beanie-wearing, grungy gal with a love for old horror cinema and a preference of Virginia Wolfe over Ernest Hemingway, she’s a character that’s easy to want to be friends with. With an “I heart NY” sticker plastered on her fridge, it’s obvious that Lisa is still mourning her life in the city.
As someone who was bullied growing up, Lisa’s trip to the cops and the actions of Jessica and her gang are devastating. Jessica and the others are your classic, irredeemable bullies, using power and numbers over the powerless, with Jessica’s brother, Deputy Nick (Chris Bylsma), even crushing Lisa’s. You’re laughing now, Nick, but just wait until werewolf Lisa comes for you! The whole ordeal seems to escalate out of nowhere and feels like a bit much over Lisa making a complaint about Jessica, but there’s a timely relevancy to that and how something as harmless as an expired license can lead to cops shooting people in the streets. They have power. They can get away with it. Sheriff Huckins knows she can get away with her family having their way with Lisa, so it doesn’t matter how small of an inconvenience Lisa is to them.
Put aside the fact that the villains knowingly leave Lisa to the wolves for some ungodly reason that never makes sense later, even when the film attempts to explain it, but once Lisa is saved by Mary (Cinnamon Schultz)—a woman who seems to know more about Lisa’s condition than she’s letting on—Lisa goes to stay with best friend Sam (Jennifer Seward), pretending she’s dead so that Jessica and her crew don’t come for her again. I Am Lisa explores the trauma of being a survivor as we watch Lisa disassociate from the world around her and exclaim to Sam “I’ll never feel whole again”. These heartbreaking moments are when I Am Lisa is at its strongest and made me, a former bullied kid, want to sprout fangs myself and tear into some villains.
Rea and Winkler get a claw-handed pat on the back for bringing a unique take to the werewolf genre by blending werewolves with an I Spit on Your Grave spice that brings real weight to this story, but I Am Lisa’s bark is fiercer than its bite.
I Am Lisa runs through all of the typical werewolf flick motions. Her scars and bruises are miraculously now healed from the beating. She’s eyeing meat in the grocery store like the big bad wolf. And she no longer needs those cute glasses. But unlike other werewolf films, Lisa never actually becomes much of a wolf, with her full transformation going as far as a bony forehead, yellow eyes and finger nails that look like she had them done down at the salon. She’s still scarier than Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf, but not by much. Werewolf fans want fur! They want teeth! Instead we get Lisa looking like a cosplayer fresh out of a Hot Topic shopping spree.
It’s no wonder that Jessica’s gang, aka Lisa’s soon to be victims, don’t appear all that intimidated by Lisa as she tracks them down one by one, offing them quickly, unsatisfactorily, and for the most part, bloodlessly (outside of one deliciously gruesome kill). This is a werewolf revenge movie. The audience wants werewolves! We want blood! We want to cheer for Lisa as she gets much deserved and brutal vengeance, because fuck Jessica!
Even Sam isn’t afraid of Lisa, cracking jokes about her wolf breath and laughing as she hugs her. That’s sweet, but I Am Lisa is missing the viciousness it needs to sell Lisa’s anger. Major applause to Lisa for taking control of her sexuality and using it against Jessica—as Jessica does to her earlier—but overall I Am Lisa is about as fierce of a movie as a wolf with its tail between its legs.
By Matt Konopka