Film Review: “Lisa Frankenstein” — Chivalry Is Dead

By Nicole Veneto

Lisa Frankenstein is the first delightful surprise of 2024, destined for weird girl slumber party greatness in a few years time.

Creature (Cole Sprouse) and Lisa (Kathryn Newton) test out a newly attached ear in Lisa Frankenstein. Photo: Focus Features

They say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And, based on the lackluster response to the new Diablo Cody–penned horror rom-com Lisa Frankenstein, it appears we haven’t learned from the reappraisal that turned Jennifer’s Body from a maligned late-2000s flop into a beloved cult classic. Mismarketed to an audience of teenage boys desperate to see Megan Fox naked, Jennifer’s Body enjoyed a second life with feminist horror aficionados who appreciate Cody and Karyn Kusama’s black comedy for its commentary on female sexual power, the impact of male-inflicted trauma on women’s relationships, and palpable queer subtext. Lisa Frankenstein has been marketed with the reassessment of Jennifer’s in mind; there’s even the suggestion that the two films take place in the same universe. Unfortunately, Lisa’s middling critical reception and underperformance at the box office feels like déjà vu to those of us who remember how Jennifer’s Body crashed and burned on arrival. A shame, really, because Lisa Frankenstein is the first delightful surprise of 2024, destined for weird girl slumber party greatness in a few years time.

It’s 1989 and high schooler Lisa Swallows (Freaky’s Kathryn Newton, here the lovechild of Burton-era Winona Ryder and a young Helena Bonham Carter) has had it rough these past couple years. An axe-wielding psycho killed her mother, but everyone else has been quick to move on with their lives — even her dad (Joe Chrest) only waited six months before shacking up with her incredibly narcissistic stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino) and moving them to a new town. Meanwhile, Lisa has retreated into her own little Méliès-inspired world. At least her uber-popular stepsister Taffy (Filipino star Liza Soberano) makes an effort to be kind, even if she’s rather airheaded about it. Besides her after school seamstress job and fawning over Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry) from afar, Lisa’s only reprieve from her new school and stepfamily are visits to the abandoned Bachelor’s Grove cemetery to talk about her problems to the grave of an unmarried Victorian composer (former Disney Channel star and one time Tumblr social experimenter Cole Sprouse).

After accompanying Taffy to a disastrous high school rager where she drinks a spiked cup of booze and narrowly escapes an attempted sexual assault, Lisa stumbles past the composer’s grave en route home. While there, she confesses she’d rather be six feet under with him. By pure cosmic coincidence, a lightning strike hits the headstone and reanimates the hundred year-old corpse, leading him straight to Lisa as she’s digging into another comfort viewing of Day of the Dead. He’s listened to Lisa’s teenage woes for several months and The Creature is already hopelessly devoted to her, misinterpreting Lisa’s suicidal ideation as a declaration of love. Lisa’s affections are directed elsewhere, but there’s a more pressing problem. The Creature desperately wants her to get him some new parts: a left ear to listen with, a right hand so he can play piano again, a tongue so he can speak, and his, well, you know. Fortunately for Lisa, Taffy’s faulty tanning bed in the garage makes a great electrical conductor for reattaching body parts, and there’s no shortage of people in her life who could (un)willingly donate theirs to her undead paramour.

Kathryn Newton wielding the tool of the trade in Lisa Frankenstein. Photo: Focus Features

In her feature debut, Zelda Williams has clearly inherited her beloved father’s sense of humor. As a director, she wears her influences on her sleeve: Edward Scissorhands, Heathers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hell, there’s some German Expressionism and Czech New Wave tossed into the mix. Even Isabella Summers’s score hits all of Danny Elfman’s notes. Williams and Cody are a perfect match for each other, sharing an enthusiasm for what they’ve created that runs through all aspects of Lisa Frankenstein, right down to the set decoration and costuming. Eighties pastiche has long reached a point of cultural exhaustion, but Lisa Frankenstein is so committed to the plasticine tackiness of the decade it embraces the aesthetic eyes wide open. (In fact, the movie is incredibly well lit at a time when most films look like you’re watching them through glaucoma). The narrative even  manages to make cornball ’80s ballads like REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” and Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love” meaningful needle-drops, the latter scoring a climactic slow-mo castration that I’ve been laughing over for the past week and a half. (On that note, Lisa pushes its PG-13 rating to the absolute limit, depicting the sexual and bodily proclivities of teenage girls, including a memorable tryst with a Hitachi Magic Wand I couldn’t believe they got away with.)

Admittedly, Cody’s screenplay doesn’t have Jennifer’s Body‘s constant volley of wordplay. Still, it’s still peppered with her signature wit and intuition for teenage turns of phrase. Soberano and Gugino deliver the best line-reads of the movie, savoring Cody’s dialogue with the sort of relish you’d find in a Daniel Waters script or a John Waters movie. (“I also heard that Gina Marzack dedicated her unborn child to Satan. And that’s why the baby has to wear a helmet now!” “I’m an IP: Intuitive Person. Took a whole seminar about it.”) The key to Lisa Frankenstein’s charm is that the narrative is determinedly earnest, especially when it comes to the characters. Under a different writer/director duo, Soberano’s Taffy could easily be just another dumb, vapid cheerleader contributing to Lisa’s misery. But she’s written with surprising nuance as Lisa’s self-appointed protector (even if she’s mostly concerned with her popularity prospects). And Lisa’s own transformation from quiet but eccentric loner to a delusionally confident goth queen with each kill underscores a real trauma at the heart of her character; she’s someone who was never given enough space or time to grieve and finds an outlet for that pain in her newfound ability to sew a boy back together. The messiness of Lisa’s highly questionable decisions reflect how messily teenage girls often rationalize the world and all its absurdities. In this sense, Lisa is the sort of character I imagine many girls will relate to, another “she’s just like me” admission into cinema’s House of Psychotic Women and future Halloween costume staple like Pearl or Veronica Sawyer.

Sometimes it’s good to get in touch with the teenage girl who still resides in your heart lest she get a little too lonely in there. Lisa Frankenstein is the kind of movie I would have modeled my personality on for a month if I were 15. Another 15 years later and I still find myself yielding to its appeal, to the point that I saw it not once, but twice. There are people who know a good thing — like cult classics in the making — when they see it the first time around. As I was exiting the theater after my second viewing, one of those survey personnel who collects audience data for marketing purposes was asking for responses to the film. He waved down a college-aged girl with his tablet, remarking, “What is this, your fourth time seeing this?” “Eighth,” she responded, grinning ear to ear. She gets it, and in a few years, I’m certain many other people will.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and her podcast on Twitter @MarvelousDeath.

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