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Diablo Cody Returns to the Living Dead

Michele K. Short/ © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

The trailers for Lisa Frankenstein, a new horror comedy, include a marketing enticement that both warmed and confused my blackened movie-nerd heart the first time I saw it: “From the acclaimed writer of Jennifer’s Body.”

Evidently, we’ve come a long way since the 2010s, when no marketing department worth its salary would have seen that as a selling point. When it was released back in 2009, Jennifer’s Body represented a public humbling for its hotly-tipped screenwriter Diablo Cody, not to mention the moment public opinion seemed to turn on Megan Fox for being both hot and sentient. Cody had recently won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Juno, her first produced script (and even that movie received some unfair backlash, from folks who couldn’t see the elegant storytelling apparently concealed by someone saying “honest to blog”). Jennifer’s Body arrived as a follow-up just in time to catch the brunt of the backlash. It was too flip, too slangy, not scary enough, not sexy enough, and—somehow perfectly, given its high-school setting—not popular enough, an immediate box office flop.

Cody then returned closer to Juno territory. Her two subsequent re-teamings with director Jason Reitman, Young Adult and Tully, form a loose trilogy of domestic dramedies informed by nostalgia and self-image. She also created The United States of Tara, a Showtime comedy-drama, and, in big-studio territory, took a crack at both a live-action Powerpuff Girls reboot and an earlier version of a Barbie screenplay, both unrealized. Even as its cult grew, Jennifer’s Body represented a road not taken—until now. Lisa Frankenstein finally continues what Cody was doing in Jennifer’s Body, and is arguably the weirder and cultier of the two films.

Admittedly, it would be difficult to recapture the exact mixture of elements that gives Jennifer’s Body its staying power. (It’s currently streaming on HBO Max in gorgeous HD if you need to catch up.) Besides the feminist reclamation of Megan Fox as an unfairly maligned star personality (something she’s parlayed into a series of mostly-DTV thrillers – at least one of which, Til Death, is damn good), it’s got that quotably quippy dialogue from Cody; Mean Girls mainstay Amanda Seyfried in a different high-school role; the dark style of director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight; The Invitation; Destroyer), who brings her own cinephile fanbase; and perfectly temporary 2000s icon Adam Brody doing an obvious send-up of Brandon Flowers from The Killers.

Brody plays the singer of a rock band that sacrifices Jennifer Check (Fox) in the name of a demon, under the mistaken assumption that she’s a virgin, in exchange for greater fortune. It sort of works—the band gets bigger off the back of the hilariously on-point midtempo Snow Patrol-ish number “Through the Trees”—but the non-virginal Jennifer comes back wrong, and starts devouring “boys,” as she calls them. Suspicion and horror dawns on her lifelong pal, nicknamed Needy (Seyfried).

Something that remains striking about Jennifer’s Body, and seemed to bother some critics at the time, is the ambiguity of, and contradictions within, the relationship between Jennifer and Needy. Where you might expect an easy battle pitting a sweet girl-next-door against a cruel queen bee, the movie offers a more complicated, asterisked dynamic. They’re best friends, but a pre-possession Jennifer can be dismissive of Needy and especially her boyfriend Chip. Needy is sweet-natured, but nevertheless benefits from her close association with the hottest girl in school. At one point, the two girls kiss; is this attempted manipulation from Jennifer, or Needy giving in to a lifelong sublimated crush? (“Sandbox love never dies,” she notes early in her voiceover.) How much of Jennifer’s action is an outgrowth of her give-no-fucks nature, and how much is guided by her demonic possession? And, more importantly, is it the demon inside Jennifer that Needy wants to destroy, or is it her actual friend? Jennifer is undead and superpowered, but she also never fully morphs into the kind of gigantic, outsized creature whose destruction is easy to root for at the climax of a horror movie. Despite Jennifer’s bad-friend status, Needy’s final attack on her doesn’t overflow with horror-comedy catharsis; there’s some vengeful ugliness in it, too.

All of that uncertainty can rob the movie of the easiest form of horror-picture momentum: realize the threat, run, then strike back. Instead, Jennifer’s Body creeps forward uncomfortably. This is also what makes the film such an unsettling and potent coming-of-age narrative, where uncertainty must dominate. It’s not profoundly scary in the sense of providing big jumps or nightmarish imagery. It’s scary—and darkly funny—in the sense that terrible things happen and Needy doesn’t know how or if she can handle them, only that the coping strategies of the people around her aren’t going to cut it. Early in the movie, she and Jennifer both barely escape a fire in a bar that kills multiple people, and Jennifer’s flip reaction the morning after is the first time we see Needy truly upset by her friend’s fashionable disaffection. Yet—in the movie’s strongest connection to Heathers – Needy also distrusts her classmates’ pious response to the tragedy, especially their embrace of “Through the Trees” as a comforting anthem. Jennifer’s fate at the hands of monstrous boys is deeply sad, and what she does to other boys (even the ones who kinda deserve it) is, in turn, monstrous. Though it’s often very funny, there’s a lot of hurt in this movie.

That ambivalence and moral ambiguity courses through Lisa Frankenstein, too. That the movie similarly refuses to travel a straight, easily trackable line through its story may even be its downfall in the time of clean, trauma-centric metaphorror. Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is a vaguely goth outcast at her new school, a Needy sans Jennifer. She’s still reeling from the murder of her mother and the remarriage of her extremely mild father (Joe Chrest) to Janet (Carla Gugino), a caricatured, status-conscious 1980s Reaganite. (The film is set in 1989, the year Heathers came out, though the characters are busy going to see Look Who’s Talking.) In a sweet show of humanity, Janet’s daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano) feels genuine warmth toward her new stepsister, and tries to coach Janet toward, if not necessarily high school popularity, at least a little more sociability.

What exactly does Lisa want? This very screenwriter-y question is allowed to hang over much of the movie. She spends time in a nearby graveyard, mooning over the headstone of a long-departed young man; understandably, her greater priority is the more active crush she nurses on a lit-mag-editor classmate. So when that mysterious young man somehow claws his way out of that grave, kind of alive but still rotting, Lisa is more intrigued than besotted. Cody gets that her protagonist’s goth leanings and her love for The Cure alone aren’t enough to explain why she’d fall in lust with an undead Creature (even if he is played by Cole Sprouse from Riverdale)—at least not right away. For reasons that are, I admit, genuinely unexplained, Taffy’s overcranked tanning bed also gives the Creature extra jolts of life, smoothing over his initially gunked-up appearance and fusing replacement parts to his body. That only leaves the small matter of where to obtain those replacement parts.

You can see where this is going—sort of. In the movie’s physical logic (or lack thereof), there’s more than a hint of fantastical ’80s teen comedies; Cody takes the shruggy science of something genuinely kinda vile like Weird Science and gives it a dark-comic poetry, with director Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin) providing music-video style that mixes pastels, neon, and verdant graveyard gunk. Part of what makes Lisa Frankenstein so beguiling is the way Cody and Williams let some of their scenes play out longer and weirder than you might expect. There’s a little of this rambling quality in Paradise, Cody’s sole film as a director. This obscurity from a decade ago also features a lonely young woman unsure of her place in the world (albeit one with less macabre tastes). It’s the only outright miss in Cody’s filmography, in part because it’s only stylized enough to feel phony. Lisa Frankenstein, by contrast, often feels like a teenage dream; it has moments so genuinely (if gently) hallucinatory I wondered more than once if the Creature was meant to be a figment of Lisa’s fevered imagination.

For a while, Lisa Frankenstein is more overtly comic than Jennifer’s Body; if it feels less rooted in specific social realities than its predecessor, it still gets laughs from recognizable truths. Cody remains wonderfully fixated on youthful tastes as a means of self-expression, and their limits in rounding you out as a person. “It’s just that I like the same thing she likes,” Needy says by way of explaining/defending her friendship with Jennifer; here, Lisa, in a fit of rage, spits at her non-creature crush that he doesn’t actually want someone who likes the same cool stuff that he does. He wants, of course, to have a girl willing to learn from his great taste.

That’s a side concern, though, compared to the well of sadness beneath the zany horror-comedy antics, especially when Lisa expounds on her rejoinder to the cliché “time heals all wounds.” When it comes to her traumatic past, she explains, time itself is the wound, and so the bouts of shallowness and selfishness that follow make sense; this is a girl unable to heal, without a magic tanning bed to help jolt her back together. Newton augments her considerable comic charm with physical parallels to the Creature: she moves with an uneasy gait, and often stands with her mouth slightly agape.

The movie itself staggers a bit as it goes on, yet it also becomes increasingly clear that the acuity of Cody’s understanding of classic monsters—the Universal Pictures kind, the ones that ride the line between pitiable human and unspeakable creature—rivals that of Tim Burton, whose work this film sometimes resembles. (Specifically, it’s like Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows Frankensteined together.) As with Jennifer and Needy, there’s the actual monster, and then the human companion who may have some monstrous instincts—and here, there’s more of a discomforting balance between the two. If Jennifer’s Body is sort of a Dracula riff and Lisa Frankenstein is—well, you know, then I can’t wait to see her werewolf, her mummy, her creatures from the Black Lagoon. Cody obviously doesn’t see monster pictures and teen dramas as spare parts she’s haphazardly stitching together for a laugh. Rather, she’s reuniting two soulmates.

Originally Appeared on GQ