One of the more compelling reevaluations of a contemporary film has been Jennifer’s Body. Written by Diablo Cody, with Karyn Kusama as director, the film was a tragic case of mismanagement from the marketing department, who spent the time leading up to the film’s release giving prepubescent boys something to salivate about. It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement did the film start to be recognized as a forgotten feminist classic. I’ve still yet to rewatch it after my initial viewing.
I recall the film after watching Cody’s latest project, Lisa Frankenstein (her first feature the under-appreciated Tully in 2018). The mixed initial reactions, my own included, make me wonder if it will undergo the same reevaluation as Jennifer’s Body in a few years’ time. Not to doubt my own opinions, but if that’s the case, I am writing to accept my self-awarded future mulligan.
Lisa Frankenstein has so much going for it that it’s slightly upsetting to say it doesn’t coalesce into a movie as magical as the ones to which it’s paying homage; or, more accurately, emulating. Set in 1989, an anxious teenager (unfortunately) named Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is having a rough-go. She’s trying yet failing to adjust to a new school in the wake of her mother’s horrifying death with a couldn’t-care-less father (Joe Chrest) and his intolerable new wife Janet (a wonderful Carla Gugino), who despises Lisa. One curveball: Lisa’s stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), is surprisingly kind and sweet to her, despite being a popular cheerleader.
As all social outcasts do, Lisa goes to a nearby graveyard almost daily for a few moments of Zen, to visit her favorite headstone. She makes a wish to meet the dead soul, and low and behold, lightning strikes and an undead heartthrob in Cole Sprouse awakens to comfort Lisa. She’s initially frightened by his presence, as anyone would be, but she recognizes that he’s the emotional support she needs. He’s without a few crucial body parts, but that’s nothing a few murders couldn’t fix.
One of the special aspects of Lisa Frankenstein‘s screenplay is Cody’s reimagining of the classic Frankenstein story by centering this one around a teenage girl — one about the same age as Mary Shelley when she wrote the indispensable piece of literature. With that basis, Cody also incorporates many ingredients from 1980s classic. The vibes and dialog distinctly resemble Heathers. Sprouse’s corpse character, credited only as “The Creature,” has a lot in common with Edward Scissorhands. One doesn’t need to squint too hard to see Tim Burton’s Gothic aesthetic on display all over this movie too.
Lisa Frankenstein looks and moves like a delightful work of camp while being playful in its many nods to its influences. That’s part of its charm and its detriment as the directorial debut of Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin Williams) is so beholden to its genre ancestors that it doesn’t find a way to distinguish itself. There was a time when films of this ilk weren’t uncommon in a more diverse movie landscape that wasn’t concerned with making anything but blockbusters financially sustainable. Alas, when presented with the opportunity to recall the spirit of these films, studio executives (and, to be fair, writers and directors too) seem far more concerned with playing the hits of works gone past than creating something original.
Therein lies the problem with Lisa Frankenstein. It’s good for some amusing scenes — one in particular involves the Creature sneaking around the house while an oblivious Janet listens to a self-motivation book-on-tape — and some entertaining musical cues (the Creature plays REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” on piano prompting Lisa to break out into a serenade), but it doesn’t amount to a whole lot. It feels formless, evident in a hasty third act that leaves us amused but not moved.
Some of this is also due to Williams’ lack of directorial flare. For all the work put into various sets and costumes, including Lisa’s room along with her Madonna-esque wardrobe, Williams unambitiously captures much of it with basic framing and redundant shot-reverse-shot. This world feels half-built, as attractive and as eye-catching as it is.
Try not to let any of this distract from the range of quality performances. Kathryn Newton channels her inner Winona Ryder in Lisa, gradually growing into a snarkier, more rebellious teen as her relationship with the Creature persists. Sprouse makes an empathetic soul out of a caricature that is confined to staccato movements and perfectly timed grunts. For the short time we spend with her, Carla Gugino is uproariously funny as a bitchy stepmom who wants Lisa thrown in juvie.
The cast’s commitment to the material and Cody’s devotion to an era where outcasts got their dues make Lisa Frankenstein hard to hate, or even dislike on a meaningful level. It’s its rampant shortcomings that sadly make it hard to embrace too.
NOTE: Lisa Frankenstein is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Joe Chrest, Henry Eikenberry, and Carla Gugino. Directed by: Zelda Williams.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!