Her Name Was Lisa (1979)

The first explicit sex film, made by the late Roger Watkins of Last House on Dead End Street notoriety as his adult alter ego “Richard Mahler”, may appear the most conventional of an admittedly idiosyncratic lot, followed as it was by such cryptic puzzlers as Midnight Heat, the Wagner-inspired Corruption and American Babylon. With its accessible narrative and unexpectedly powerful anti drug message, Her Name Was Lisa proves thoroughly compelling though. One of the finest fornication flicks of the late ’70s, huge praise considering the genre had just hit an all time high. There’s a bit of trivia about this movie that never ceases to amuse me, related in a fruitful e-mail relationship carried on with the director until his untimely passing, although I found out later that he would resort to the anecdote as something of a standby joke in “whatever happened to” type interviews. The film’s foremost funder who preferred to remain nameless made but two demands of Watkins : that the main character would be called Lisa as it was the name of his daughter (fair enough…) and that there would be a scene of her laid out in a casket ! Go figure ! Joking aside, this turns out to be an unusually involving adult drama, not a single aspect thereof inviting derision.

In one of the standout performances over a genuinely distinguished dirty movie career, with her work on dearly departed Chuck Vincent’s Jack ‘n’ Jill and Roommates vying for top spot, Samantha Fox shines as titular Lisa, a jaded hooker who catches the eye of photographer client Paul. Latter character proves surprisingly well-played by handsome but frequently vacuous Rick Iverson (billed as “Jake Stuart”) who did a decent job on the pseudonymous Charles Larkin’s enjoyably silly The Love-In Arrangement but failed to impress in just about anything else. He molds her into a much sought after fashion model in record time, featuring her in stylishly violent lay-outs clearly patterned after those in Irvin Kershner’s then tragically trendy Eyes of Laura Mars, based on an early John Carpenter script. Watch for striking bald black actress Yolanda Savalas, who played the grotesque intergalactic queen in white body make up in Jerome Hamlin’s lovably ludicrous Invasion of the Love Drones, as a fellow model.

Lisa’s meteoric rise to fame captures the interest of perverted publisher Stephen Sweet (an indelibly creepy turn by David Pierce – just study his drawling dialogue delivery – who did more movies than I realized, appearing in Bill Milling’s excellent Satin Suite and Blonde in Black Silk) who wants to set her up in a luxury apartment for his own benefit. Accustomed to the play for pay business, Lisa exhibits few qualms about entering into this exploitative relationship. Even when Sweet demands domination, she unflinchingly caters to his every whim. Only when tables are turned and he has her viciously raped by Randy West and Bobby Astyr (the actress’s real life longtime boyfriend), Lisa starts to psychologically unravel.

Seeking solace in the steam room, she meets deceptively sympathetic Carmen (a devastating performance by superstar Vanessa Del Rio, equal parts scary and seductive) who proves merely another stepping stone on her downward spiral, introducing the compulsively pill-popping Lisa to the dreaded needle, reducing her to sex slave status after she has stepped in to exact revenge on Sweet – sweet revenge, indeed ! – in a way that should make wronged women smile and macho men wince. As Lisa’s brain grows progressively drug-addled, Watkins throws in several highly effective stylistic touches, exemplified by her haunting final encounter with depraved husband and wife Ron Hudd and future Manhattan cable show hostess Robin Byrd.

As in Sam Weston’s superficially similar if far more schmaltzy Cry for Cindy, the narrative has been carefully constructed around the main character’s funeral with each of the participants in her downfall coming to mourn and flash back on their shameful contribution. Unlike the relentlessly optimistic Weston however, Watkins pulls no punches. Sex scenes prove uncommonly powerful, studded with in your face genital close ups (a by-product of his inexperience with the form, the director would later claim, but perfectly appropriate for such an unromantic world view), running the gamut from (semi-) affectionate to downright nasty, occasionally difficult to watch yet always thematically justified rather than irresponsibly included.

By the time Carmen administers Lisa’s deadly dose, the look of unreserved gratitude in Samantha’s eyes is bound to break your heart, and Watkins needs not a shred of sentimentality to achieve the effect. The actress’s well-reported substance abuse problems – now fortunately a thing of the distant past, as a recent AVN report on her Hall of Fame inclusion has suggested – assures there’s a veracity in her work that really drives the message home. Special mention must be made of the soundtrack that includes surprise appearances by Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused and Santa Esmeralda’s Gimme Your Lovin’ along with a startling original tune penned and warbled by Watkins himself, all too fittingly titled Don’t Let Go (of Your Soul). He might arguably still have had to hit his full stride artistically in the fuck film field but this remains the one movie where the cynic defiantly bared his battered soul for the whole world to see.

Directed and written by Roger Watkins (as Richard Mahler). Produced by Robert Michaels for Ace Booking Service Inc. Photographed by Michaels (as Mike Roberts) & Daniel B. Canton (as Felix Daniels). Edited by Genie Joseph (as Richard Joseph). Starring Samantha Fox (Lisa), Vanessa Del Rio (Carmen), Rick Iverson (as Jake Stuart) (Paul), David Pierce (Stephen Sweet), Bobby Astyr & Randy West (Rapists), Yolanda Savalas (Model), Robin Byrd & Ron Hudd (Final Fantasy Couple). Running time : 86 minutes.

Hall of Fame hardcore superstar Samantha Fox drew from personal experience for a career best turn as a much abused model destroyed by drugs

By Dries Vermeulen

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