Appropriately enough, given its title, ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ is made up of parts sewn together from other, better movies: there’s a little ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in there, a seasoning of ‘Ginger Snaps,’ and even strands of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s own 2009 cult favorite, ‘Jennifer’s Body.’ But the messaging is confusing to say the least, the jokes miss the mark, and the direction – by first-timer Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams – falls flat.
Story and Direction
Following the death of her mom in a home invasion, Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is forced to move to a new town and a new high school when her dad Dale (Joe Chrest) gets remarried rather quickly to high-strung nurse Janet (Carla Gugino). Despite the best efforts of her well-meaning but dim stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano), Lisa is an outcast and loner at school, pining from afar for the editor of the literary magazine while she sits in a local graveyard and writes poetry at the grave of what appears to be a young 19th century nobleman.
After her drink is cruelly spiked by a mean girl at a party, Lisa wanders in a hallucinatory daze to the graveyard, where she wishes she could be with the young man buried in that grave. But instead of ending her own life, Lisa somehow manages to reanimate the young man himself (Cole Sprouse), whose decaying, fetid, walking corpse she stashes in her walk-in closet.
Horrified at first, Lisa soon realizes that she’s attracted to her Victorian dreamboat as she begins to clean the accumulated grue off him and get him nicer clothes. She also ascertains that he’s quite fond of her – and sensitive to her needs – in ways that soon lead Lisa and her Creature (who is never named) on a path of vengeance against those who have wronged her.
Whatever happened to Diablo Cody? The writer of such sharp satires as ‘Juno,’ ‘Young Adult,’ and ‘Tully‘ has dipped with mixed results into the horror-comedy genre before with ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ but Cody is utterly flailing here. ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ plays like a first-draft screenplay that Cody had sitting on her hard drive for years, collecting digital dust, before sending it off with barely a glance at it. While Sprouse’s Creature actually gets a decent character arc (helped by the actor’s winning, wordless performance), Newton’s Lisa is literally all over the place, bouncing from pariah to school vamp within a single cut and even introducing a tired “loss of virginity” subplot late in the ballgame. The plot pushes the characters instead of the other way around, and aside from a few chuckles here and there, most of the jokes don’t land.
The ’80s setting arguably contributes nothing to the proceedings except some nostalgia-fueled costumes, set designs, and needle drops, and director Zelda Williams’ visual aesthetic – which also includes a clever, black-and-white animated title sequence – is on point. But Williams has no idea how to give this half-baked story any momentum, stringing out jokes from scene to scene with no sense of rhythm or pacing, and often leaving her actors adrift.
The final product plays – inadvertently, we assume – like a cheapo ‘80s direct-to-video horror knockoff, complete with some funny-not-funny gore and stiff staging, but armed with the kind of post-modern self-awareness that only makes its flaws stand out more.
An Appealing Cast on Paper
Kathryn Newton has distinguished herself as a young actor to watch with film and TV roles in ‘Blockers,’ ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Freaky,’ and ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ the latter of which introduced her as fledgling superhero and future Young Avenger Cassie Lang. But while the 26-year-old Newton effectively embodies a high school student here, the script gives her nothing else to work with. Her character’s motivations spin on a dime, buffeted by whatever the script requires, and giving us little with which to empathize with Lisa’s plight(s).
We’ll confess to not knowing Cole Sprouse’s previous work as Jughead on ‘Riverdale,’ or in his earlier Disney Channel efforts. But in a completely non-verbal role, Sprouse delivers an odd appeal and makes effective use of his own physicality. His reanimated Victorian lad is, ironically, perhaps the best-written character in the movie, even if the circumstances of his resurrection are nonsensical. Sprouse manages to bring some dignity to a role that is, especially early on, relegated to rather gross throat noises and a heavy load of goopy prosthetics.
The rest of the cast doesn’t get much of a chance to stand out, although Liza Soberano as Taffy has a few moments where she does something more than just the usual bubble-brained cheerleader trope. We also have to give a shout-out to Carla Gugino, a terrific actor who is given a thankless task here as the stereotypical cruel stepmom. Gugino understands the assignment as always, but is again hampered by the one-dimensional aspect of her shrill character and deserves better.
Aside from the appeal of both Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse – who are both severely hampered by the direction and writing – we can find little else to recommend about ‘Lisa Frankenstein.’ Diablo Cody’s script recycles elements of her work that she’s touched on before, but seems unpolished and unfinished. Director Zelda Williams, meanwhile, needs to focus less on clever imagery and more on making the characters and story come to life onscreen. This is a ‘Frankenstein’ monster that should be dispatched quickly and mercifully.
‘Lisa Frankenstein’ receives 3 out of 10 stars.
What is the Plot of ‘Lisa Frankenstein’?
In 1989, a misunderstood teenage goth girl named Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) reanimates a handsome corpse (Cole Sprouse) from the Victorian era during a lightning storm and starts to rebuild him into the man of her dreams by using a broken tanning machine in her garage. After going through a playfully horrific transformation, the romantic duo embarks on a murderous journey to find true love, happiness, and a few missing body parts along the way.
Who is in the Cast of ‘Lisa Frankenstein’?
- Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows
- Cole Sprouse as The Creature
- Liza Soberano as Taffy
- Henry Eikenberry as Michael Trent
- Joe Chrest as Dale
- Carla Gugino as Janet