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Review: Lisa Frankenstein

Lisa Frankenstein, the latest effort from screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body) is a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster itself. Stitched together from a variety of sources (silent movies, Gothic horror, Tim Burton, Heathers), it twitches and jerks across the screen with a semblance of life, but alas, that life is only artificial. Calling the result a misbegotten monstrosity would be too harsh – the patchwork creation has a few interesting pieces – but the filmmakers seem to be constantly shouting in a desperate but failed attempt to convince us that “It’s Alive!”

Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is a moody high school misfit with a tragic past: her mother was murdered by a home invader who was never captured, and now she lives with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. If you think the unsolved murder leading to a quick second marriage is a set up for a third-act revelation, you’re thinking more deeply about the script than Cody did. Instead, the murder gives Lisa an excuse to be a morbid recluse who hangs out in a local, abandoned cemetery, pouring out her heart to the gravestone of a Victorian man who died at a tender young age. Since he is (obviously) not around, Lisa can project onto him all her romantic longings without fear of being disappointed, while disregarding most of her fellow students.

After a bit too much time depicting Lisa’s miserable life at school and home (her stepmother is a short-tempered control freak), a lightning bolt resurrects the movie’s “Frankenstein” (played by Cole Sprouse). The Creature (as he is called in the credits) is more zombie than mad scientist’s creation, but he is missing a few parts (ear, hand, and – we later learn – his…ahem…manhood), which Lisa replaces one by one, stitching the pieces into place and using electricity to galvanize them back to life (which has the fortunate side effect of gradually regenerating the Creature’s appearance). Unfortunately, this requires killing several victims, and both Lisa and the Creature turn out to be very bad at crime-ing – or, at least, at getting away with their crimes. Soon, the police are on Lisa’s trail, and it looks as if death may be the only way out…

Lisa Frankenstein Review
The “Creature” (Cole Sprouse) shows up unexpectedly at the home of Lisa (Kathryn Newton).

The scenario sounds like the basis for a great cult black comedy, designed for audiences frustrated that Victor and the Corpse Bride didn’t get it on in Tim Burton’s 2005 stop-motion movie (with the two lead roles here coming off like high school equivalents of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp). The execution, however, is badly botched. Director Zelda Williams uses Gothic trappings, arch performances, and occasional animation to create a deliberately artificial world suited to outrageous antics, but it’s like dressing up a reanimated corpse to disguise its deathly pallor. The heart may beat, but there is no soul – a fact that stylish visuals cannot hide. In fact, the strenuous effort only reminds us how lifeless the project is. Unfunny comedy scenes (particularly Sprouse’s awkward stumbling when the Creature first rises from the grave) are stretched to interminable length, as if the film is giving the audience plenty of time to roll in the aisles with belly laughter instead of the brief chuckles that actually arise.

Part of the problem lies with the titular character. Like Juno, Lisa is a walking encyclopedia of cultural references dating to decades before her birth (asked about her favorite directors, she mentions the silent films of G.W. Pabst). However, she never seems genuinely invested in this stuff; it’s just a way for Diablo Cody to signal that Lisa has a depth of character the film otherwise fails to portray. If the script were a bit more clever, Lisa professed interests would be revealed as affectations used to shield herself from her fellow high school students; instead, she comes across as a wanna-be snob – a foolish kid co-splaying as Lydia from Beetlejuice. Ironically, the most well-rounded character turns out to be Lisa’s stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), who is initially presented as a shallow cheerleader but turns out to genuinely concerned about fixing Lisa’s status as an ostracized outcast.

We should not expect a teenage girl to make all the best choices under circumstances that would challenge the steadiest adult intellect, but as Lisa’s world spirals out of control, she seems lost and adrift in a way that fails to engage our interest. A lot happens, but little of it connects in any interesting way to her predicament – being in love with a dead man – and the film has nothing to say about the potential pitfalls of an idealized boyfriend-suitor-lover suddenly showing up in the (rotting) flesh and having to live up to unrealistic expectations. Yes, Lisa is initially taken aback but only because the Creature is physically repugnant. There is never a danger that, after a century in the earth, he might have retrograde Victoria Era views about women that would make Lisa’s classmates seem enlightened by comparison and thus force her to reevaluate her beliefs.

In the end, Lisa Frankenstein is a film made by people so convinced they are clever and funny that they never bother to convince us that they are clever and funny. Some of the antics are amusing – sticking zombie horror into a cartoonishly caricatured suburb is incongruous enough to generate a laugh or two – but seeing our heroine descend into homicide never packs the satiric punch of, say, John Waters’ Serial Mom. Lisa Frankenstein deserves credit for trying to stitch together something new from an interesting set of influences, but in the end it’s a failed experiment that should have stayed on the slab.

Lisa Frankenstein (Focus Features, 2024)

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

Lisa Frankenstein ReviewGothic horror, black comedy, teenage romance, necrophilia, and gore sound like an unbeatable combination; unfortunately, Lisa Frankenstein stitches them together in a way that never creates a satisfying whole.

Credits: Produced by Diablo Cody and Mason Novick. Directed by Zelda Williams. Written by Diablo Cody. Music by Isabella Summers. Cinematography by Paula Huidobro. Editing by Brad Turner. Rated PG 13. 101 mins. U.S. Theatrical Release: February 9, 2024.

Cast: Kathryn Newton, Liza Soberano, Jenna Davis, Cole Sprouse, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest, Carla Gugino.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.