Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.
As a teenager, everything feels like the end of the world. A bad grade, an unrequited crush, becoming the subject of the latest school gossip – the laundry list of adolescent apocalypses goes on. For fourteen-year-old Lisa Holland (Staci Keanan) in Gary Sherman’s 1990 movie of the same name, her mother won’t let her date yet. Her wish to step out and do what all teens are doing results in a game of cat and mouse with a handsome, older stranger. Little does Lisa know, the man she dreams about is every woman’s worst nightmare.
At the heart of Lisa’s melancholy is the desire to make her own choices. Anyone who has ever argued with a parent about a similar matter fully understands where she’s coming from, even if they don’t agree with her methods. For Lisa doesn’t strictly fantasize about what she wants; she obsesses over it until it’s almost pathological. Lisa’s relationship with her mother Katherine (Cheryl Ladd) is good, but she hides her fixation with boys like it’s shameful. Given how dating is a touchy subject in their home, Lisa can’t be blamed for her secrecy. The teen keeps a journal of every new crush, and she sometimes follows them, as well. It’s a curious reversal of the stalker situation often seen in this type of movie. Regardless of who’s doing the pursuing, Lisa isn’t safe.
When her best friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) is asked out by a boy, Lisa asks her mother if she can go on a double date. Katherine is unwavering about her “no dating until sixteen” rule; she tells Lisa she’s not ready and needs more time to learn about herself. Lisa, on the other hand, suspects her mother’s inflexibility is due to the fact she got pregnant when she was young. The conversation goes in circles and Katherine quashes all further discussion. This is of course after her daughter ran into D.W. Moffat’s character Richard on the street. Lisa is instantly enamored with the stranger, not realizing who he really is. At the beginning of the movie, a random woman is murdered in her own home by no other than Richard, a.k.a. the Candlelight Killer as he’s dubbed by the news. To Lisa, though, all she sees is an alluring man who compliments her by mistaking her for a sixteen-year-old.
During their brief encounter, Lisa stealthily catches Richard’s license plate number so she can call the DMV and get a hold of his name and phone number; this is something she’s done on more than one occasion. She repeatedly calls Richard up, her voice disguised, and seduces him from the safety of her bedroom. The Candlelight Killer, whose modus operandi includes telephones, isn’t used to being on the other end of stalking. His intrigue grows with each call from Lisa, unsure of who she is and whether or not she’ll be his next victim. This era of moviemaking was an opportune time for phone games in horror because Caller ID, while already invented before this film came out, hadn’t caught on yet with the general public. Movies like Lisa and Fred Walton’s adjacent 1988 remake of I Saw What You Did each subvert the trope of murderers using telephones as weapons. In these cases, teenage girls undermine a long-established plot device in the genre and strike fear into men’s hearts. The change of roles doesn’t last long, though.
The events of the movie will haunt Lisa for the rest of her life, but they only add to Katherine’s own traumas – ones that existed long before Richard. Katherine had Lisa at a young age, hence her qualms about her daughter dating before she’s “ready.” When Lisa sneaks off with Wendy’s family’s cabin after a big blowup with her mother, she disgorges the truth about her family during dinner with the Marks. Wendy’s father (Jeffrey Tambor) opens a can of worms as soon as he asks about Lisa’s grandparents; she emotionally replies they’re not in contact because they wanted Katherine to “get rid” of her since the father was out of the picture. It’s this exact moment where Lisa realizes the error of her ways and just how poorly she’s been treating her mother. It’s true Katherine could have tried to compromise with her daughter, or at least not made dating out to be so negative and world-altering; she goes so far as to hide her boyfriend from Lisa much to his chagrin. Even so, it’s understandable why Katherine is so scared of losing Lisa. She ran away from home and severed ties with her own parents so she could keep and raise her child. And as Lisa puts it, she and her mother are all they’ve “ever had for family.”
Lisa’s turnaround coincides with Richard learning his mystery caller’s identity, or so who he thinks she is based on a misguided note Lisa left for him at his restaurant. Mistaking Lisa for Katherine, Richard stalks the mother as her daughter is away. Enthused by the prospect of her and Lisa patching things up after their argument, Katherine assumes the sounds coming from her bathroom are Lisa when in fact it’s Richard laying his trap. And as per usual, he leaves an ominous message on the answering machine before he attacks – “I’m in your apartment, and I’m going to kill you.” Upon arriving home, Lisa is confronted by Richard who grants her deepest wish; to be seen as a woman like all the women he’s killed. It’s all part of a chilling prelude to a suspenseful conclusion.
The harrowing reunion at the end of Lisa demonstrates the Hollands’ unbreakable mother-daughter bond. It’s the antithesis of maternal horror where matriarchs are the source of a character’s dread. Rather than being the cause of her daughter’s problems or exacerbating them, Katherine does everything in her power to help Lisa. There are countless instances in cinema where a mother or motherly figure will blame her child for her spiritual decline or agedness. On the contrary, Katherine sees her daughter as not only someone worth fighting for, but also her life’s greatest accomplishment.
With co-writer Karen Clark‘s insight, Sherman taps into the teenage girl’s mind and weaves a story so bizarre yet so approachable. The director best known for adult horror movies like Death Line, Dead & Buried, and Poltergeist III may have made Lisa for a younger target demographic including his then-fourteen-year-old daughter, but there is something very special about the film that affects viewers of all ages.