Lisa Frankenstein (2024, dir. Zelda Williams)

by | Mar 3, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 101 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 1 March 2024

WHO’S IN LISA FRANKENSTEIN?

Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest, Carla Gugino, Jenna Davis, Trina LaFargue, Paola Andino, Joshua Montes, Joey Bree Harris, Jennifer Pierce Mathus

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Zelda Williams (director), Diablo Cody (writer, producer), Mason Novick (producer), Isabella Summers (composer), Paula Huidobro (cinematographer), Brad Turner (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A misunderstood teen (Newton) resurrects a handsome corpse (Sprouse)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON LISA FRANKENSTEIN?

For a film to achieve cult film status, it must be organic over a period of time and not forced upon the audience right away. Take Jennifer’s Body, for instance; while the Diablo Cody-scripted horror-comedy wasn’t a major success with critics and audiences at the time of its 2009 release, it has since been re-evaluated as a feminist classic in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with the film now looked back upon fondly and sometimes religiously watched by a devoted fanbase nearly fifteen years since its debut.

If Jennifer’s Body is a representation of how a cult classic can come about organically, even many years after the fact, then Lisa Frankenstein – also written by Cody – is an example of the exact opposite. Everything about it leading up to its release, including the Oscar-winning writer’s confirmation that the film apparently takes place in the same universe as Jennifer’s Body, has felt like a desperate attempt by the filmmakers to cut corners and just have it be a cult classic right away, rather than wait years for it to find its audience.

However, while the ingredients for a cult classic in the making are there, albeit forcibly so, the overall method that mixes them together just feels wrong, and it ends up being distracting with how much it doesn’t ultimately work.

Set in 1989, the film centres around Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), a teenager who’s still emotionally recovering from the gruesome murder of her mother some months prior. In the meantime, her father Dale (Joe Chrest) has swiftly remarried a much nastier and more vapid woman named Janet (Carla Gugino), whose own teen daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano) is a more popular cheerleader who, despite her attempts to befriend her new step-sister, has clearly inherited her mother’s passive-aggressive behaviour. Lisa’s only source of comfort is the grave of a young man from the Victorian era, which is struck by lightning one night and awakens the mutilated corpse (Cole Sprouse), which eventually finds its way to a terrified Lisa. However, she soon finds the resurrected young man – who can’t speak due to a missing tongue, among other missing appendages – to be rather alluring, and so they begin a strange romantic journey together to get him back to full health, which involves a faulty tanning bed and a little bit of cold-blooded murder, and finally be together.

It’s easy to see why Lisa Frankenstein is being pushed so hard for instant cult classic status, because it has the kind of barmy premise and over-the-top 80s aesthetic that a lot of specialist audiences tend to be attracted to. The problem is, neither Diablo Cody’s script nor director Zelda Williams – here making her feature debut – seem to have the energy or even the sense of unconventional style to properly execute it to its fullest potential.

For one, Cody relies heavily on her recognisable brand of idiosyncratic dialogue to make up for her script’s otherwise lack of interesting characters, who all operate within an overly light narrative where they say and do things for sheer convenience towards the story. Williams’ direction also feels off, as from the very start there’s a noticeably low energy in how certain actors deliver Cody’s colourful dialogue, as well as how the camera moves around or remains in static positions. Even when the film gets a bit more creative with its overall style, including black-and-white dream sequences involving the famous moon image from Georges Méliès’s silent film A Trip to the Moon, it rarely feels like the director is wholly engaged with the process, as if often comes off about as empty and lifeless as the corpse that Kathryn Newton’s Lisa becomes besotted with.

Unlike the filmmakers, Newton is certainly not sleepwalking through this film, as she has a sweet charm that could have been played up a lot further by a more energised filmmaker. The same can be said about Cole Sprouse, who does what he physically can as “The Creature”, a largely non-verbal role where most of his dialogue is made up of just grunts and other bodily noises. Most of the other actors are not given as much versatility, for under Williams’ direction their modes are either stilted or awkwardly over-the-top, most notably Carla Gugino in a cartoonishly theatrical evil stepmother role where even her shoulder pads make her look like a villain from a traditional Disney fairy tale. Cody’s script is also partially at fault, for again the characters, including the two leads, are thinly written and have few dimensions outside of their very basic personalities, which few actors could realistically pull off within a writer/director combination that doesn’t allow them to go as outlandish as the main concept suggests.

Instead, Lisa Frankenstein feels like a pale(r) imitation of a Tim Burton film from the 2000s, to where the two leads at times even look a little like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (and honestly, there are parts in this movie that have a bit more passion to them than some of Burton’s more recent films). What’s frustrating, though, is that you can definitely see the potential for it to get as seriously twisted and gothic to a fault as a Tim Burton movie can be, except that it keeps itself at such a safe distance from any kind of truly messed-up dark humour and gore that you’re always thinking about the opportunity that has been missed more than the scene itself. For instance, there is a scene later on where a particular body appendance is chopped off, and then sewn onto Cole Sprouse for an intimate scene, but at no point does anyone properly acknowledge how insane such a moment it is, and just treats it like a normal romantic gesture in an average teen movie. Someone like Burton would have at least gone a bit more bonkers with that, or at least given it enough of a zany energy to make it darkly funny, but sadly Williams isn’t up to the task, and along with Cody sinks the ship before it even has a chance to properly set sail.

Who knows, maybe one day Lisa Frankenstein will achieve cult status the same way that Jennifer’s Body eventually did – but somehow, not least of all because it’s a much less entertaining film, I don’t think it will be as soon as the film is clearly hoping for it to be.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Lisa Frankenstein is a disappointingly lifeless horror-comedy that tries too hard to achieve instant cult film status, but Zelda Williams’ awkward direction and dimension-free writing by Diablo Cody fail to give it the true spark of life.

Two out of five stars

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