“I feel like hell; that’s why I’m here.”
Not a film that’s ever likely to bear the ‘happy hardcore’ tag, Her Name Was Lisa is the story of a recently-deceased model (of sorts) and her descent into addiction.
Our first sighting of the titular Lisa (Samantha Fox) occurs at the funeral with which the film begins: her funeral. We see a mourner (Jack Stuart) standing coffin-side and suddenly find ourselves privy to his thoughts, or more accurately, his memories. It transpires that their first meeting occurred when he, a photographer, approached the then-prostitute with the suggestion she model for him. Although his motives appear honourable enough, we soon realise there will be no easy salvation for Lisa: we see her casually take an unspecified pill after the two have had sex, and watch as she’s introduced to Stephen Sweet (David Pierce), a manipulative publisher who’s become infatuated with her pictures.
The specifics of Lisa’s downward spiral continue to emerge through the recollections of key figures from her recent past: Sweet moves her into a desirable apartment, seemingly only to maintain her as his plaything. He encourages her drug use and even allows two acquaintances (porn perennial Randy West and Fox’s off-screen partner Bobby Astyr) to take her by force. The statuesque Carmen (Vanessa Del Rio), who befriends her in a sauna, appears to offer warmth but only serves to hasten the decline; ultimately, she’s the one who introduces the already-ravaged Lisa to intravenous drug use, figuratively banging the final nail into her coffin.
Clearly atypical of the genre, a simple synopsis doesn’t reveal quite how bleak the film actually is. It’s common for the plight of a doomed character to be couched in terms of either an intrinsic flaw or the wickedness of others, but there’s no such solace to be found here. The supporting characters – with the exception of Paul, the photographer – are certainly eager to prey upon and exploit her, but it would be inaccurate to portray Lisa as naïve or innocent; she’s abrasive and pill-popping from the outset, battle-hardened and happy to enter into relationships founded on mutual exploitation.
Leaving aside the purely narrative aspects of the film, the low-rent aesthetics do nothing to lighten the mood. The stark, unforgiving, lighting that pervades the piece is thematically appropriate but far from flattering. The sex scenes – which are peppered with unflinching, almost medical, close-ups – also come across as defiantly anti-erotic. Whereas Damiano often used the despair of his characters to imbue their sex scenes with purpose and urgency, here director Richard Mahler seems determined to undermine any erotic potential the encounters might offer. There’s nothing attractive about protracted shots of a tongue licking a hairy anus, as I’m sure he was aware.
On the subject of the director, Mahler (Roger Watkins, working here psedonymously, who also wrote the film) is noted for the depressing tone of his hardcore work. Although several of his films, including this one, are now regarded as classics, one wonders what sort of reception they received at the ‘grindhouses’ they played on their initial releases. Her Name Was Lisa is interesting on a number of levels, you could even describe it as haunting, but it’s neither enjoyable nor remotely erotic. It’s not entirely successful as a piece of cinema either. The acting is frequently unconvincing – in fact, it’s frequently terrible – and the final deterioration of Lisa seems rather hurried, albeit this may be due in part to contemporary versions being considerably shorter than the one released theatrically.
Obviously this isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste and, if you’re of the opinion that adult movies are fundamentally about the arousal of their audience, it could be argued to be a disaster. Nevertheless, it’s blatantly subversive and likely to stay with the viewer long after the credits roll. In a sense, and leaving to one side the thorny issue of self-censorship and missing footage, history has been kind to Mahler’s film: the rampant nihilism, which was likely intended as an affront to audiences, is the principle reason it’s remembered – and the key to its relative artistic success.
Note: According the IAFD, the version under review is missing almost twenty minutes of its original running time. I understand Vinegar Syndrome are working on a restoration of the film, which is likely to be definitive.