‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Film Review: An 80s Spin on Mary Shelley’s Classic
Feb 9, 2024
Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy early Halloween from Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and Zelda Williams (the daughter of Robin Williams, making her directorial debut). Their new horror/comedy, “Lisa Frankenstein” is an entertaining delight. The filmmaking pair have crafted an ode to Mary Shelley, topped with a love for Tim Burton, sprinkled with a dash of “Heathers” and blended with the aura of the teen films from the 1980s.
Diablo Cody loves horror films and she may love 80s teen romps (both silly and dark) even more. Her screenplay (and Williams’ direction) is nearly pitch perfect in capturing the tone of such films. There are great choices of 80s New Wave songs (the film is set in 1989 Illinois), the requisite passive and nerdy dad, the bitchy stepmom, and all facets of high schoolers. From the cars and clothes, to the big hair and language, “Lisa Frankenstein ” presents a properly convincing 80s vibe. Hats off to Production Designer Mark Worthington, Art Director Michelle C. Harmon, and Costume Designer Meagan McLaughlin, whose combined talents solidify the film’s authentic feel.
Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is disconnected from her peers, her life, and the world. A year ago, her mother was murdered by an axe-wielding masked maniac. Her father (Joe Chrest) has remarried to the intolerable Janet (a wicked Cara Gugino). Janet’s daughter Taffy (a sweet Liza Soberano) is a somewhat clueless but loving step sister to Lisa who just wants to be a normal teenager. You know, cheerleading, parties, and hickeys.
Quiet and unassuming, Lisa spends her days at the only place where she can feel at peace, an old cemetery. It is here where she “communes” with a Victorian-era grave of a young man long gone. These opening moments breathe with a Burton-esque tragedy, but the screenplay moves effortlessly towards comedy. A’la the horror films of old, a lightning storm brings the dead Victorian to life and he comes knocking on Lisa’s door. The joke being that he has misunderstood her graveside declarations. When Lisa said she wanted to “be with him”, she meant buried in the ground and away from her life, not as his girlfriend.
Cole Sprouse plays the undead Victorian, referred to as “The Creature”. The young actor gives an amusing mime-inspired performance of movement and facial expressions that humorously conveys a monster trying to exist in the land of the living. In looks and style, Sprouse’s presentation is a strange (but successful) blend of Johnny Depp and Evan Peters, while his gesticulations, groans, and gentle manner (towards Lisa) call back to moments of Jeff Bridges’ great work in John Carpenter’s 1984 classic, “Starman”.
As Lisa, Kathryn Newton’s layered performance helps to make the picture special. Beginning with a nondescript style to match her character’s moods, Newton comes alive when The Creature arrives. The young actress shapes Lisa into a goth bad girl with a good heart, but a sinister edge. The transformation is believable and fun to watch thanks to Newton’s committed and creative execution.
Once Lisa discovers how her sister’s malfunctioning tanning bed helps to reanimate dead things, she and The Creature go to work on replacing the parts of him that have fallen off. As the lite comedy turns more macabre, Lisa helps her undead buddy replace his ear, hand, and eventually, the one body part that any horny teenager cannot live without. Director Williams doesn’t skimp on the more gruesome details of Cody’s story, but doesn’t go overboard. The Creature is beset by the occasional worm coming from his insides, while the smell of his tears make Lisa gag. There are bloody scenes and a couple of dismemberments, but nothing that would make the squeamish cover their eyes. Everything is done very tongue in cheek, although the macabre mood set by the director and her crew stays prevalent.
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