Diablo Cody takes on horror comedy again with “Lisa Frankenstein,” teaming up with first-time director Zelda Williams to deliver a kooky spin on the Frankenstein tale. Set in 1989, the movie follows goth outsider Lisa Swallows, played with manic energy by Kathryn Newton (“Blockers”). Still dealing with witnessing her mom’s violent murder, Lisa finds an unusual kindred spirit when a storm brings the handsome corpse from a nearby grave (former teen heartthrob Cole Sprouse) lumbering into her life.
What ensues is a bloody good time as Lisa helps replace her new undead BFF’s missing body parts, with increasingly crazy results. Though Cody’s signature hip dialogue and the committed cast provide laughs, the uneven mix of tones and pacing issues leave “Lisa Frankenstein” as more of a noble failure than an instant cult classic. It offers flickers of demented brilliance, but the stitched-together storyline can’t quite sustain the film’sambitious aims. Fans of offbeat horror comedies may still find enjoyment in the kooky characters and campy style, but the zany premise never fully gels into a coherent whole.
Love Blooms Over Stolen Body Parts
The macabre magic starts once Lisa Swallows has moved with her dad and now has an evil stepmom Janet (Carla Gugino) and irritatingly chipper stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). Still working through witnessing her own mom’s violent death, Lisa doesn’t fit into her new high school. She escapes to a nearby cemetery, specifically the grave of a handsome Victorian-era bachelor. After being humiliated at a party, Lisa wishes to be with her deceased crush. Lo and behold, a storm brings the muddy corpse (Cole Sprouse) back to life. Though initially terrified, Lisa soon bonds with this speechless Creature over their shared outsider status.
This connection takes an even freakier turn as Lisa realizes the Creature needs replacement parts to come back to his full self. What better supply of limbs and organs than the jerks who have wronged Lisa? An accidental axe murder turns into a gleeful spree of slicing and dicing bullies and mean girls. The Creature acts as Lisa’s loyal attack dog, doing her bidding by liberating body pieces from the undeserving.
She dutifully patches him up with a jury-rigged tanning bed serving as their reanimation lab. Soon the kills also fuel Lisa’s growing confidence, as she vamps up her style from mousy to madcap goth nobility. However, the Creature hasn’t lost his killer instincts when it comes to protecting his beloved mistress.
As the bodies and absurdity pile up, so does the black comedy and horror. From start to finish, you can expect fountains of blood alongside the burgeoning young romance. Cody lays the groundwork for a sardonically sweet love story rooted in outcast rage. Of course, the course of true love never did run smooth, especially when your sweetheart is an axe-crazy undead monstrosity.
Kooky Homages with a Killer Edge
It’s clear Cody and Williams are paying tribute to the horror comedies and offbeat teen flicks of the 1980s. You can see the DNA of Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and other era classics swirling within Lisa’s kooky quest for undead love. The outcast-makes-good storyline follows familiar lines even as the gore and absurdity get amped up. But Cody puts a fresh spin on the formula by having Lisa fully embrace her vengeful urges rather than be scared by the violence or try to rein it in.
In the tradition of many a great filmic weirdo, the Creature gives our disaffected heroine permission to unlock her wild side and stop playing nice. Through his mud-caked mug and murderous devotion, Lisa gains confidence to strut her stuff and get revenge on all who’ve done her wrong. Who knew severed ears and a walking corpse could lead to such a liberating rush? The movie celebrates transformations of all kinds – whether it’s embracing your inner freaky Goth goddess or cobbling together the perfect gentleman caller from bloody scraps.
Of course it wouldn’t be an ’80s homage without slick tunes, and Lisa Frankenstein delivers on that front too. The soundtrack is bursting with synth-laden hits and hair band power ballads, whether it’s Taffy’s choreography to “Manic Monday” or Lisa’s wicked piano duet with the Creature on “No Easy Way Out.” These musical moments ground us in the era even when things get truly unhinged.
And that’s often, with the gleeful carnage interspersed with Lisa’s budding passion. From prom night slaughter to a severed appendage set to soaring romance, Cody and Williams aren’t afraid to push boundaries. They ride the line between touching and completely twisted.
While the aesthetic and comedic aims find their target more often than not, some references feel more hack than homage. Still, you have to applaud the moxie it takes to mash-up so many styles and eras into one bloody valentine.
Killer Style Can’t Save Messy Substance
As a first-time director, Zelda Williams makes bold and often beautiful aesthetic choices in bringing the kooky world of Lisa Frankenstein to life. It’s clear she took inspiration from the lushly gothic designs of Tim Burton and other visual stylists. The film nails its late ’80s setting through immaculate attention to costumes, props, and general teen movie tropes. Newton struts around in Madonna-esque get-ups, bopping her crimped hair to soundtrack synths. Even covered in grave mud, the Creature looks like he wandered in from a Bronte novel, with Sprouse perfectly capturing archaic mannerisms.
The dreamy cemetery settings and Lisa’s evolving runaway nightmare bedroom capture that off-kilter mood. When the gore starts flowing, the practical effects have an over-the-top gleefulness about them. Whether it’s a severed hand crawling like a spider or arterial spray drenching prom night, the movie doesn’t skimp on moments designed for squeamish delight. Williams displays a skill for framing bizarre beauty amongst the body horror.
If only she brought the same directorial command to pacing and performance. For all the visual flair, Lisa Frankenstein often feels ragged and uncertain in stitching the wild elements together. Overlong scenes of high school humiliation clash with rushed transitions in Lisa and the Creature’s courtship. The campy acting works for Gugino’s villainous step-mom bit but undermines connecting to main characters. We end up relating more to the corpses than the leads. For all the lofty influences, the result is less masterpiece than messy pastiche.
While not fully coming to life, the movie will likely still appeal to fans of practical effects and 1980s horror nostalgia. Others may find themselves less enamored of the scattered yet visually captivating end result.
Cast Makes the Chaos Work…Mostly
While the film itself lacks cohesion, the talented cast almost holds the unruly parts together through committed performances. Kathryn Newton continues to prove her range as Lisa, nailing the misfit teen angst before blossoming into a scenery-chewing mistress of dark revenge. She handles the quick mood and costume changes with aplomb, grounding even the most outlandish scenes in relatable emotion. Whether gently bonding with her corpse crush or cackling wildly over a dismemberment, Newton sells it.
She finds an ideal undead foil in Cole Sprouse’s Creature. With mad hair covering zombie makeup enhancing his sunken cheeks, Sprouse fully inhabits the physicality of a reanimated dandy. He shambles around amusingly, conveying confusion and smittenness through grunts. A bit Burton’s Scissorhands, a touch Karloff’s Monster, Sprouse’s largely non-verbal acting enlivens the film’s madcap spirit.
The supporting players also breathe demented life into their exaggerated characters. Liza Soberano nearly steals the film as the ever-chipper Taffy, nailing dimwitted but devoted stepsister duty. Carla Gugino goes full throttle as the villainous Janet, a self-absorbed shrew who’s one croquet mallet away from Mommie Dearest status. Henry Eikenberry oozes entitled privilege for his brief but douchey turn as Lisa’s crush.
While the cast keeps things entertaining through the uneven ride, there’s only so much that bright performances can do. In the end, Lisa Frankenstein feels more like a cracked cult flick waiting to happen rather than a new classic. But Newton and Sprouse’s chemistry offers just enough heart amongst the severed limbs to please fans of morbid misfit love stories.
Uneven Pacing Undercuts Quirky Charms
Lisa Frankenstein blends horror, dark comedy, and romance into its offbeat undead smoothie, but has trouble balancing the flavors. There are certainly individually delightful scenes: Newton and Sprouse bond sweetly over chalk-written conversations…then five minutes later he’s bashing in skulls as she cackles wildly. The tonal shifts can be jarring, made worse by pacing issues riddling the storyline. Zelda Williams struggles to calibrate when to let moments breathe versus rocketing through plot points.
This unsteadiness applies to the central relationship as well. After initial terror at the Creature, Lisa swiftly switches to caring empathy interspersed with swooning over Sprouse’s sad handsome mug. Their courtship sometimes feels rushed even while other lackluster high school hijinks drag on too long. The campy excess muddles things further – it’s hard to invest in Lisa and her corpse crush’s future when secondary characters like Gugino’s religion-addled stepmom seem to exist in a different film entirely.
Cody’s script juggles the weirdly sweet and abundantly sinister, but can’t quite find the magic groove to harmonize between sincerity and satire. Williams amps up the blood, laughs, and cheek through standout sequences, yet at the expense of coherent flow. In the end, the inconsistent pacing and seesawing tones undermine the potential.
With some tighter editing and calibration, Lisa Frankenstein could have balanced its romance and ridiculousness into a sharper black comedy blade. As is, viewers may come away remembering vivid moments yet failing to connect deeply with the madcap whole. The parts contain cracked brilliance, but the sum lacks the resonance of Cody and Williams’ beloved ’80 cult classics.
A Bloody Good Try Despite the Stitches Showing
At the grisly heart of Lisa Frankenstein beats an earnest attempt to mash up classic influences into something fresh and wickedly fun. Diablo Cody’s script overflows with her signature stylized dialogue, bringing the eccentric characters to life. Zelda Williams matches the quippy tone with gorgeously gothic visuals that transport us back to the weird wave of the 1980s. Leads Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse sink their teeth into the deranged dynamic, their outlier chemistry offering splashes of sweetness amongst the severed limbs.
Yet the manic genre mix proves too unstable, making the movie less than the sum of its madcap parts. For every uproarious set piece or neon-drenched montage, there’s a lagging stretch of uneven pacing that dims the demented momentum. The plot stitches come loose, logic goes out the window, and emotional investment proves difficult amongst the gratuitous carnage.
Lisa Frankenstein brings together an inspired cast and creative team to exhume an old tale, but can’t quite hammer together a reanimated masterpiece. We may only glimpse the smarter satire and warmer romance buried underneath the camp chaos. Still, fans of practical gore effects and weirdo teen protagonists will likely appreciate the off-kilter ambitions. There’s flickers of magic in the messy parts. Even as a noble failure, Cody and Williams deserve kudos for daring to be so gleefully deranged. Here’s hoping they perfect the formula in another cracked creation to come.
A campy, messy homage to outcast teen horror that can't quite come alive, Lisa Frankenstein feels stitched together from superior parts. Still, Newton and Sprouse summon enough oddball chemistry to please genre devotees in the mood for cracked laughs and practical gore effects.
- Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse have quirky chemistry
- Strong horror elements and practical gore effects
- Clear homages to '80s cult classics
- Great soundtrack of era-appropriate hits
- Strong visual style and gothic aesthetics
- Uneven mix of tones and pacing issues
- Central relationship rushed in places
- Supporting characters too exaggerated
- Campiness undermines emotional investment
- Messy plot and direction undermine potential