I Am Lisa (2020)

I Am Lisa first published by

I Am Lisa opens with two high-brow quotes on the subject of revenge (from Heinrich Heine and Francis Bacon respectively), before a prologue in which a young woman being hunted in the woods turns out to be a sharp-clawed monster, and is shot dead by Sheriff ‘Deb’ Huckins (Manon Halliburton). In other words this film, whose very title is an assertion of identity, also advertises from the outset its own crisis of identity by aligning itself to more than one subgenre: revenge flick and creature feature. Of course, such confusions of identity are built into the very fabric of werewolf films, with their moonlit metamorphoses and Jekyll-and-Hyde antiheroes. 

Here our protagonist is Lisa Leroux (Kristen Vaganos), a myopic vegetarian graduate who has returned to her hometown of Northbrook to run the Used Books store of her late grandmother. Lisa has the misfortune of being drawn into an escalating feud, first with local drug-dealing bully Jessica (Carmen Anello) and her girl gang (Millie Milan, Sarah McGuire) and then with Jessica’s mother Deb and brother Nick (Chris Bylsma), respectively the town’s sadistic sheriff and deputy. Soon Lisa will find herself beaten, tortured and abandoned in the forest for the wolves to eat – but she survives being bitten, and uses her newfound lycanthropic powers to engage in a deadly vendetta against her persecutors.

“This isn’t you,” Lisa is told by her best friend Sam (Jennifer Seward). “Don’t stoop to their level.” Lisa may be struggling to maintain her personal integrity even as her inner beast is unleashed, but Sam – correctly – sees this internal conflict also in human terms that are entirely moral. For the more Lisa becomes a yellow-eyed, sharp-toothed creature, the more she also comes to resemble the ruthlessly predatory Huckins family, who brutalise and kill anyone who gets in their way. Indeed, Lisa’s divided nature also belongs to her nemesis Jessica, who seems constantly to waver between cruelty and love towards the film’s heroine, and whose online tag iamjessica_bitch is a clear reflex of the film’s title. For in her way, Jessica too is a shapeshifter, caught in the contradiction of her different rôles and identities (daughter, mother, whore). Meanwhile, if Lisa’s glasses are, along with her master’s degree in Archives and Record Management, a signifier of her good-girl ‘librarian’ status, Sam’s reference to them as “Clark Kent specs” hints that there has always been a hidden part to Lisa’s identity.  The question here is whether she is becoming superheroine or bestial villain as she executes her campaign of vindictive justice. 

As the director of Arbor Demon (aka Enclosure, 2016), a poster for which can be glimpsed in the background of I Am Lisa, Patrick Rea has past form in teasing out the monstrous feminine – and that is certainly a theme here too, along with the horrors of parochial corruption and fascism. Although viewers may at times have difficulty determining the workings of the film’s werewolf mythology, and the precise rôle that the Huckins family is playing in it (with Sheriff Deb the cartoonishly dark reverse of her sister Mary, played by Cinnamon Schultz), in a sense this does not matter – for here lycanthropy serves as a broad metaphor for Lisa’s emergence from put-upon victim to assertive fighter, in a small-town worm-that-turned narrative. Whether, having undergone this radical transformation, Lisa is still herself, is a question left for us to resolve.

Strap: Patrick Rea’s revenge horror sees a small-town second-hand bookseller turned werewolf biting back against her persecutors.

© Anton Bitel