Lisa Frankenstein Is Strictly a Mall-Goth Affair
Lisa Swallows, the antiheroine of Lisa Frankenstein, is a teenage outcast the way characters in ’80s movies are teenage outcasts, which is to say she’s about one makeover shy of being in the running for prom queen. The movie, a horror comedy written by Diablo Cody and directed by Zelda Williams, is set in 1989 — with soundtrack selections running from When in Rome’s “The Promise” to the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” — so you could argue this is intentional. But as with many of the movie’s choices, there doesn’t seem to be much consideration behind it. Lisa embarks on a killing spree with the lightning-reanimated corpse of a Victorian bachelor (Cole Sprouse, credited as “the Creature”) whose grave she’s been tending, and yet the movie does bafflingly little to actually fill out the feelings of alienation that set her on this path. She has a traumatic past the movie treats like a quirk, and aside from that she’s got, I dunno, off taste in blush and a “weird walk.” That she happens to be thin, straight, conventionally pretty, and played by an actor, rising scream-queen Kathryn Newton, who could have easily been cast in the part of Lisa’s popular cheerleader step sister, Taffy (played in the movie by Liza Soberano), just adds to the feeling that the movie is not about disaffection so much as it’s about, as one adult quips, a goth phase. Hell, at least Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club and Winona Ryder in Heathers had the good sense to be brunettes.
The last Cody screenplay to be produced for the big screen was 2018’s Tully, which, ironically, was more audacious in its depiction of a postpartum breakdown than anything Lisa gets up to, including the various dismemberments. But it’s another Cody-scripted work that Lisa Frankenstein obviously brings to mind — Jennifer’s Body, which was also about teen girls by way of blood-soaked supernatural shenanigans. While I’m not one of the devotees who elevated that 2009 movie to its cult-classic status, I can appreciate the way Karyn Kusama’s direction works with Cody’s quippy writing and dark streak, especially in the light of how little Williams’s does. Lisa Frankenstein can’t time a joke to save its (after)life, though a few of the performers — Carla Gugino as Lisa’s Nurse Ratched–esque stepmom, Janet, and Soberano as the unexpectedly kind Taffy — manage to eke out a few laughs anyway. Williams otherwise leans hard on the physical comedy prowess of her two leads, which is a lot to ask of what amounts to flailing and lurching as Lisa grows closer to the undead companion she keeps in her closet, and as the Creature transforms from shambolic zombie to something closer to human (with the help of some added body parts).
Lisa Frankenstein is an ’80s pastiche by way of Mary Shelley, with a broken tanning bed taking the place of the usual electrical lab equipment. More than anything, though, it owes a debt to Tim Burton. Janet’s perfect pink house with the white picket fence is right out of the surreal suburbia in Edward Scissorhands, as is the Creature himself, at least for a while — he eventually settles somewhere closer to the look of another Johnny Depp character, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow. Lisa is in the vein of Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice, though to call her a successor to the character would be overstating things. There’s an emotional core to Burton’s work that Lisa Frankenstein lacks. Lisa’s mother was murdered while Lisa hid and listened to the whole thing, a tragedy that’s rendered like a clip from a slasher and otherwise never really grappled with — when Lisa mentions having gone selectively mute for months afterward, it feels like a line spliced in from a different movie entirely. The worse sin is the way the movie squanders scenes that should be transcendently ecstatic or transcendently silly. When the Creature offers Lisa his newly attached hand and spins her into a dance in the yard, it’s shot from an awkward distance that leaves us outside the moment. When the Creature interrupts a showdown between Lisa and Taffy, the blocking is so off that what should have been an uproarious use of slow motion falls flat.
Teenage girls can be dark, and horny, and obsessive, and secretive, and unhappy. This shouldn’t be shocking — as underexplored as it may have once been, it’s been the stuff of movies and TV shows for a while now. Lisa Frankenstein just doesn’t seem all that interested in what its main character is going through, which leaves it feeling lamentably flimsy, just a collection of references assembled around a hollow center. When Lisa does get around to redoing her look, with some advice from the Creature, she emerges as a head-turning vamp in big hair and black lace. It feels less like an expression of rebellious liberation than it does a reminder that 1989 was also the year the first Hot Topic opened its doors.
tags: movies, review, movie review, lisa frankenstein, diablo cody, zelda williams, kathryn newton, cole sprouse, horror comedy