'Lisa Frankenstein' Review
February 7, 2024
Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) isn’t your typical 1980s teenager. Instead of being fascinated with “football or basketball bodies,” she’s fallen head over heels for a guy whose body is six feet under. The subject of her admiration was a Victorian-era musician who unluckily met his demise when lightning struck a tree branch above him. Lisa tends to his tomb nearly every day, sharing her deepest secrets and longings to no longer be a part of the living world. It wouldn't be far-fetched to envision her as a distant cousin to Wednesday Addams. But what lightning takes away, it also gives back. A major storm occurs one night right above the old cemetery, with a peculiar amount of ball lightning sending bolts down into the grave of Lisa’s undead lover. Just as the title implies; she is now Dr. Frankenstein, and he is her monster. And together, they will rebuild his body by whatever means necessary.
Writer Diablo Cody has long had a fascination with the lives of teenagers (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), and the lives of people who can’t let go of their teenage selves (Young Adult). She likes to exploit her genres as metaphors for adolescent angst and female sexuality. But unlike Juno - which netted her an Oscar - and Jennifer’s Body - later reappraised as a cult classic after initially being met with harsh criticism - Lisa Frankenstein whiffs considerably on whatever message it was going for, so much so that it feels impossible for anyone to discover some secret genius that was too ahead of its time.
When I said “by whatever means necessary” earlier; I meant killing people for their body parts, which can then be sewn on the creature and fused by Lisa’s defective tanning bed. Lisa half-heartedly justifies the victims as people who deserved their punishment, mostly by wronging her in some sort of teenage way. But it’s all laid out too logically, as if killing people for their hands and ears was a no-brainer next step for a moody teenager. There’s no sense of ethical edginess, no sense of danger in Lisa getting caught, and no sense of thrills in seeing cosmic revenge.
That lack of energy falls just as much on the feet of first-time director Zelda Williams. There is a prevalent feeling of passion for this project during its creation, but none of it permeates off the screen. Giddy uses of Tim Burton-esque animation and classic horror movie references land flat, with any needle drop of a 1980s crowd-pleaser feeling too obvious. Newton is a capable leading actress for this sort of thing, with her performance here being one of the few bright spots. Sprouse doesn’t get much of anything to do besides let out some grunts and some comedic mugging. He’s not an altogether talented physical comedian, but it’s hard to blame him when there just isn’t anything interesting beyond the basic premise of his character.
By trying to be a lot of things, Lisa Frankenstein can never manage to be good at anything. There are moments of competence splashed throughout, but the overall sum of these tiny moments is far less than what the promising trailer sold.