Lisa Frankenstein REVIEW – Lovely, Dark & Not That Deep

Lisa Frankenstein
Lisa Frankenstein

Seventeen years after winning an Oscar for a high school movie, and fifteen years after Jennifer’s Body arrived in theaters to much fanfare and, at best, mixed reviews, Diablo Cody returns to high school with Lisa Frankenstein. The 1989 period piece sees the titular Lisa (Kathryn Newton) adjusting to life at a new school and with a new stepmother and stepsister, while pining after the school’s literary magazine editor Michael (Henry Eikenberry), and doing her best to hide an undead friend she somehow reanimated.

Lisa is, as one might easily expect, different from the other kids at school, and her cheerleader stepsister Taffy (Filipino actor Liza Soberano in her Hollywood debut) isn’t very helpful. Feeling isolated, Lisa regularly visits the abandoned Bachelor’s Grove cemetery, where she develops a fondness for one of the graves. One stormy night, Lisa accidentally takes some drugs she’s not prepared for and wishes that she were with her long-buried companion. Shortly thereafter, he (Cole Sprouse, credited as “The Creature”) smashes through one of the windows of her family home and hijinks ensue.

Those hijinks range from the expected (but no less delightful) outfit montage and physical comedy sequence of the creature hiding from Lisa’s narcissist stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino), to the perhaps less expected (at least by Lisa) murder of several characters. The murders of course bring to mind Heathers, but while Lisa Frankenstein is obvious about its influences, it still manages to surprise.

From the beautiful shadow puppet animated opening credits to Sprouse looking like Johnny Depp plucked out of any Tim Burton movie, Burton looms large over Lisa Frankenstein. As does The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another movie about creating the perfect man using Frankensteinian methods, which makes its influence known the moment a character named Janet is introduced (yes, “dammit Janet”’ is said). Posters for multiple Universal monster movies adorn Lisa’s walls, G.W. Pabst is namechecked, and clips from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon are integrated into Lisa’s inciting drug trip and a later dream sequence.

All those cited and uncited influences don’t make it any less shocking to see the shadow of a recently hacked off penis flying through the air in this PG-13 horror tinged rom-com, even if it is visually inventive enough to ensure nothing too scandalous appears on screen. It’s also fairly shocking to see a wide released romantic comedy, about the undead or not, offer a downright romantic view of death by the end.

Less shocking, especially given the film’s many noted visual inspirations, but still surprising for a mainstream romantic comedy in 2024: director Zelda Williams injects a good amount of visual style into Lisa Frankenstein. There’s an early gag in which Taffy begins to tell a story she acknowledges she shouldn’t share to one friend, and with each cut back to the listener(s), another person has been added to the group. When Lisa is tripping, she wanders through a liminal space that’s both inside the party and outside in the woods on the way to the cemetery, something for which the production designer Mark Worthington deserves celebration.

Sadly, something’s missing, or multiple things are missing. It’s unclear what exactly makes the film fail to achieve total greatness, but there are several suspects. It may be the relative scarcity of high school Codyisms that make Juno and Jennifer’s Body so quotable, though there are a few good ones. It could be the feeling that the movie fails to live up to the irreverent and transgressive tone of its most shocking moments. Or the lack of development for the creature and Lisa’s romance, leading to a conceptually romantic ending that doesn’t quite land emotionally.

Whatever the issue holding Lisa Frankenstein back from its highest potential, its joys outweigh its flaws and, despite the lack of indelible quotables, it’s great to see Cody back in high school.

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Lisa Frankenstein
Verdict
Lisa Frankenstein draws on a variety of influences to deliver a surprisingly edgy PG-13 horror romantic comedy that can’t quite live up to its potential.
6.5