‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Review: Diablo Cody and Zelda Williams’ Irreverent Monster Riff Is Missing a Few Vital Organs

“Weird Science” for lonely goth chicks who spend all of their free time reading sad poetry in the graveyard behind their evil step-mother’s house, the admirably deranged if frustratingly undead “Lisa Frankenstein” might be one of the more irreverent riffs on Mary Shelley’s immortal horror novel, but there’s also something full circle about bringing that story back around to the kind of teenage girl who wrote it in the first place.

In other words, Zelda Williams’ directorial debut — a bloody rom-com about a grieving outcast who accidentally wishes her favorite Victorian era corpse back to “life,” and then starts killing people in order to replace her BFF’s rotted parts — isn’t just a cute pun in search of an ’80s throwback to go along with it.

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The fatal undoing of “Lisa Frankenstein” has nothing to do with the weirdo wish fulfillment behind Diablo Cody’s very Diablo Cody screenplay, which is rock-solid even if it cleaves a lot closer to the sociopathy of Lucky McKee’s “May” than it does to the sorrow of its namesake. No, the problem with this slumber party-ready slice of PG-13 kitsch is that, even after Lisa Swallows (an inspired Kathryn Newton) has sewn her decayed 200-year-old dream boy into a fully functioning Cole Sprouse, the movie around them is still missing a few vital organs.

“Lisa Frankenstein” may have a killer Pixies needle-drop (I’ll give you one guess), the best G.W. Pabst joke you’ll probably ever find in anything so YA-adjacent, and a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” reference that makes it clear where Williams and Cody’s hearts lie, but all of those clever flourishes are wasted on a film that struggles with the basics of its own construction. Scenes have no shape to them, the world feels half-built, and the reality that supposedly holds them together is too erratic for Williams to establish any kind of emotional baseline. What should be fun instead feels sloppy; even the most exquisitely reanimated of corpses isn’t going to get very far without a spine.

In fairness, a certain degree of dislocation makes sense to a “coming-of-rage” story that starts with its heroine mourning her mom’s recent ax-murder — which Lisa saw while hiding in a closet — and struggling to adjust to life at a new school, in a new house, with a new step-parent (Carla Gugino, radiating Nurse Ratched vibes from the moment she appears on screen). It isn’t going well, and Lisa’s total drip of a dad seems utterly incapable of offering any help; Dale is played by “Stranger Things” actor Joe Chrest, and his solution for all of life’s problems is a trip to Fuddruckers.

Aside from the tortured poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, Lisa’s most reliable source of support might be her new step-sister Taffy (a terrifically self-conflicted Liza Soberano), whose cheerleader pep only serves to emphasize the effects of our heroine’s traumatic mutism. Taffy means well, but she’s all “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” to Lisa’s “Pretty Girls Make Graves.” The conversations between them bristle with Cody’s signature banter (“He’s cerebral,” Lisa says of her crush, to which Taffy replies: “He’s in a wheelchair?”), but they reveal almost nothing about how either of them feel about themselves, each other, or the bloody circumstances behind their blended family.

While Lisa is alarmed by how eagerly people want to sweep her mom’s murder under the rug, “Lisa Frankenstein” fails to establish the actual weight of her grief before things take a sharp turn towards the supernatural, and so the rest of the movie is deprived the foundation it needs to support any of the wild swings to come. This film is only a few minutes old before Lisa — drugged and sexually assaulted by some little dweeb at a local houseparty — retreats to her favorite plot in the graveyard and tells its owner that she wishes they could be together. For her, it’s a statement of suicidal ideation. For the unnamed corpse buried six feet below, it’s an invitation to live again.

Cole Sprouse stars as The Creature and Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
“Lisa Frankenstein”Michele K. Short

Cue a crazy lightning storm that reanimates the muddy Creature and sends him crashing through the window of Lisa’s house in a scene that feels like a direct quote of the one in which her mom was murdered. But this isn’t trying to be a scary movie, and so Lisa isn’t scared. Within seconds of identifying her fetid intruder, Lisa begins to subject the decrepit hunk to a classic ’80s makeover montage — while electrifying the Creature in Taffy’s tanning bed turns out to be the only way to make him more alive, a new wardrobe is still a good start.

Needless to say, Lisa isn’t kidding when she says that she doesn’t “think anyone should be forgotten.” And yet, that sincerity doesn’t mean a whole lot in a movie that lacks the context to back up its tone; in a movie that isn’t sure if Lisa is a tragic anomaly or a natural byproduct of a semi-heightened where world every Friday is the 13th and serial killers blow through suburban New Orleans like sunshowers (high school is how films like this tend to establish social normativity, but “Lisa Frankenstein” inexplicably does everything in its power to avoid it). Williams isn’t shy about pushing “Lisa Frankenstein” towards camp, but Lisa’s emotional reality is so unclear that it’s hard to understand how she feels about killing people in order to piece the Creature back together, or even how she feels about the Creature itself.

If not for Newton and Sprouse’s performances, “Lisa Frankenstein” would be fully embalmed well before Lisa realizes that she’s totally, butt-crazy in love with the shambling corpse she hides in her bedroom. It’s super refreshing to see a young-skewing wide release that doesn’t try to excuse or apologize for its heroine’s insanity (teens definitely understand the idea that sickos need love too!), and Newton makes the most of the permission this PG-13 movie gives her.

4208_D001_00030_R Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC
“Lisa Frankenstein”Michele K. Short

Hunched underneath a helmet of strawberry blond hair that’s been crimped to hell and back, Lisa can’t find enough black eyeliner to hide the excitement she gets out of creating something beautiful from the discarded pieces of an ugly world, and the movie around her never feels more self-possessed than when its title character fawns over the Creature in spite of his foulness. It takes a few trips to the tanning bed for Sprouse to shake off the rot and reveal the Creature as a total BKILF (Boris Karloff I’d Like to…), but his wordless performance is sweetly endearing from the start, and I loved that — even at his most beautiful — his tears still reek bad enough to make Lisa gag.

Then again, that’s about all the discomfort this movie can get away with, as the absurd decision to avoid an “R” rating forces “Lisa Frankenstein” to fight against the appetites of its screenplay at every turn. Williams isn’t allowed to indulge in the relative craziness of her film’s third act, which makes it all but impossible for her to capture its mad romance, or stop any of its other parts from ripping at the seams.

Grade: C

Focus Features will release “Lisa Frankenstein” in theaters on Friday, February 9.

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