The story of Frankenstein has been reanimated so many times before that it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually get a 1980s-tinged variation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Fittingly, Lisa Frankenstein is a movie that feels mashed together not just from other monster tales but also from specific macabre 80s classics like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Screenwriter Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her sharp-tongued script for Juno, renders the sardonic patois from the misunderstood teen protagonists in those late-80s films and gives this update a spark of moody verbosity. While the story itself seems to lose its way the longer it lumbers along, it has enough period flourishes and well-earned eccentricities to make it worth recommending to those who gravitate towards horror comedies.
In Lisa Frankenstein, Kathryn Newton plays Lisa Swallows, a lonesome teenager who is finding it difficult to adjust to life after her mother is murdered in their home. Her dad Dale (Joe Chrest) is doing his best to move on, marrying yuppy nurse Janet (Carla Gugino) and acquiring step-daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano) in the process. Janet and Taffy do what they can to welcome the Swallows into their home but Lisa feels more comfortable spending time at the local cemetery, swooning over the grave of a young man (Cole Sprouse) who died long ago. Her pining is soon reciprocated when a bolt of otherworldly lightning strikes the headstone and brings the Victorian fellow back to life as a zombie who only has eyeballs for Lisa. Things take a dark turn when the pair realize they’ll need to steal body parts from the living to fill out the missing pieces of the reanimated corpse.
Lisa Frankenstein is the feature-length directorial debut of Zelda Williams — the daughter of late comic genius Robin Williams — and it can’t be said that she simply made the movie the studio wanted her to make. The film has loads of little touches, from its penchant for silent classics like A Trip To The Moon to its pitch-perfect goth rock needle drops, that allow Williams’ personality to shine through. She’s certainly taking a page or two from early Tim Burton projects — Edward Scissorhands in particular — carrying over the arc of a picture-perfect neighborhood getting flipped upside-down by the presence of a ghoulish creature. In the spirit of Beetlejuice and Scissorhands, Williams has a ball adorning her sets with props and textures that brilliantly evoke the artificial sheen of 1980s suburbia.
The aesthetic carries through in the costume design as well, which starts Lisa off in frumpy mismatched outfits and gradually transitions her to the goth chic look that Winona Ryder pioneered in her youth. Newton has good fun tailoring her performance around the wardrobe upgrades, allowing Lisa to become more confident as her adoration for her undead suitor grows. Sprouse has a more thankless role as the mute monster who finds himself drawn to Lisa; his body language and choreography are the main tools he has to tell her character’s story and he does an admirable job. Elsewhere, Gugino and Soberano are squandered in roles that the movie treats like it can’t wait to cut away from. While that’s more understandable for Janet being the “evil stepmother”, Taffy is kind to Lisa even past the point where it makes sense for her character to be.
If Williams and Cody don’t know what they want to do with these characters, it’s evident in how the storyline peters out as it staggers towards the neon-lit finish line. This is one of those horror comedies that doesn’t know how seriously it wants to take itself when it comes to doling out the consequences for its protagonist’s actions. Without giving away too much, it’s enough to say that the lovestruck couple get off way too easy when it comes to the moral and legal ramifications for what they get up to in this cheekily morbid tale. I’m not expecting the movie to turn into a just-the-facts crime drama in the third act but even a small helping of realism would have helped tie things up much better. As is, Lisa Frankenstein should still act as a lovesick siren song for weirdos past, present, and future.
Score – 3/5
New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Madame Web, a superhero movie starring Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney about a paramedic in Manhattan who develops superpowers along with three other young women and creates a deadly adversary in the process.
Also playing only in theaters is Bob Marley: One Love, a music biopic starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch which follows the life and career of Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley as he overcomes adversity to become the most famous reggae musician in the world.
Streaming on Netflix is Players, a romantic comedy starring Gina Rodriguez and Damon Wayans Jr. about a sportswriter who spends her time creating hook up schemes but unexpectedly falls for one of her targets.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup