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​Cody and Williams introduce ‘Lisa Frankenstein’

Cinema | February 21st, 2024

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

The mixed reviews for “Lisa Frankenstein” are not necessarily indicative of the movie’s charms, which reside primarily in the colorful production and costume design, game performers, choice soundtrack, and frequent references, throwbacks, and homages. Set in 1989, not coincidentally the year of “Heathers” at the Sundance Film Festival following its 1988 Milan premiere, the twisted story from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Zelda Williams stitches together a vintage-style Tim Burton goth comedy. The end result is as much a mixed bag as the sewn and sutured corpse reanimated by Cole Sprouse in a wordless performance.

Kathryn Newton’s Lisa Swallows can’t catch a break. If her mom’s murder didn’t provide enough trauma, the unpleasantness of evil stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino, woefully underutilized) and a sexual assault by a twerpy classmate amplify the misery. Regularly finding solace in an old cemetery filled with dead bachelors, Lisa’s life flips upside down when a bolt of eerie greenish lightning resurrects a Victorian-era local who immediately takes a shine to Lisa. At this point, it feels like anything could happen. Lisa’s budding relationship with the living dead boy (credited as the Creature) points to a rainbow of potentially weird and kinky paths.

At its best, “Lisa Frankenstein” appreciates the twisted logic of teenagers. Hilariously, the rotten stench and creepy crawlers emanating and wriggling from Lisa’s sad-eyed houseguest fail to dampen her desire to transform the Creature into a physically presentable suitor. For a minute, it seems like the movie might primarily focus on a quest to remake the living dead boy, since he needs a new ear to hear with and a new hand to touch with. He also requires one other special body part, but by the time Williams gets around to addressing that particular issue, the film has much larger messes to clean up.

The presence of Lisa’s crush Michael (Henry Eikenberry) initially points in the direction of a love triangle situating the heroine between the living and the dead, but Williams takes no interest in cultivating the necessary momentum or even the most basic storytelling devices of difficult choices and misunderstandings to suggest that there are any real stakes for Lisa to consider. With the exception of Lisa’s stepsister Taffy, who makes a wonderful foil through the comic choices of veteran Filipino performer and Hollywood newcomer Liza Soberano, the filmmakers show no interest in — pardon the pun — fleshing out the supporting cast.

Williams never quite locates the right tone to accommodate Cody’s arch satirical flourishes. “Lisa Frankenstein” longs to be R-rated and in-your-face, but the PG-13 handcuffs mute and tame all the best ideas. It’s abundantly clear that the “Lisa Frankenstein” universe operates by a set of rules, morals, and ethics miles away from our mundane reality, but the lack of any real alarm at the rising body count is handled with a cavalier indifference that does a genuine disservice to the characters. The far superior and truly subversive “Heathers,” one of the biggest single influences on “Lisa Frankenstein,” is how you do this sort of thing. Veronica Sawyer expresses a blend of fear and incredulity, along with a perfect balance of panic and poise, that Lisa just can’t match. 

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