Lisa Frankenstein (United States, 2024)

February 09, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lisa Frankenstein Poster

Lisa Frankenstein is a bad Tim Burton movie with two unlikable main characters. A satirical tale of the high school-age romance between an undead serial killer (Cole Sprouse) and his weird enabler girlfriend (Kathryn Newton), the movie not only recalls Burton’s oeuvre (especially his stranger endeavors) but shares some ideas with the recently released Poor Things (any comparisons do not come out favorably for Lisa Frankenstein) and the 2013 zombie rom-com Warm Bodies.

When I reviewed Warm Bodies, I wrote the following: “It wants to be funny, charming, scary, and dramatic. It ends up being a little of each but not successful as any one…The tone is all over the place, the script vacillates between witty and brain-dead, and the PG-13 sensibility neuters anything resembling edginess.” The same sentiments applies to Lisa Frankenstein. This movie is short on laughs. The leads evince so little chemistry and are so inherently unlikable that any sense of whimsy and romance is D.O.A. And the scares are limited by a combination of filmmakers not knowing how to do horror well and the MPAA’s demands interfering with what they’re trying to accomplish.

I guess John Hughes might deserve some credit as well, to the extent that “credit” is the right word to apply. Lisa Swallows (talk about a loaded name) is an outsider – ostracized by pretty much everyone at school except her caring, oversexed, dimwitted step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano). She pines for the attention of Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), the editor of the school’s literary magazine, but he only has eyes for her dark poetry.  She spends her free time hanging out in an abandoned cemetery, where she has become enamored with the tomb of one “Frankenstein.” Her home life is fraught. Although she gets along well with Taffy, her father, Dale (Joe Chrest), is emotionally unavailable (possibly because his first wife, Lisa’s mother, was hacked to pieces by an ax-murderer), and her step-mother, Janet (Carla Gugino), uses Cinderella as the blueprint for her lifestyle and attitude.

Then, one day, everything changes. A ball of green lightning strikes Frankenstein’s tombstone and brings the creature to life. Covered in slime and mud, it goes in search of the girl who spent so much time at the gravesite. Although Lisa is initially frightened by him, her fear gives way to fascination. She gives him a bath, dresses him up and combs his hair, then hides him in her closet. Later, after he commits his first murder, Lisa learns that he’s a little like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. Each death, accompanied by a jolt of electricity and a little seamstress work on her part, restores some element of his damaged physiology while at the same time making him more human and handsome.

Although I have liked Kathryn Newton in some of her earlier performances (especially The Map of Tiny Perfect Things), she seems vaguely miscast here, to the point where she appears to be channeling Helena Bonham Carter (circa Mary Shelly's Frankenstein) toward the movie’s end. She’s better than her would-be love interest, however. Cole Sprouse (Jughead in Riverdale) is a black hole. He snuffs out anything vaguely interesting and romantic in the character or his interaction with Lisa. On the other hand, I quite liked Liza Soberano, a major star in the Philippines who has come to Hollywood to broaden her international appeal. Taffy isn’t a showy role but she evinces an aptitude for comedy and skates smoothly through the tonal shifts.

This is the feature debut for Zelda (daughter of Robin) Williams, whose previous directorial experience includes a short, a made-for-TV movie, and a bunch of music videos. It’s unclear whether the movie’s problems could have been solved by someone more seasoned or with a better-defined vision. Diablo Cody’s screenwriting unevenness is much in evidence. She has never quite reached the heights of Juno but at least this isn’t as bad as Jennifer’s Body. There are fertile ideas aplenty in the premise but they wither and die in a script that often feels lazy and disjointed.

Lisa Frankenstein obviously wants to be different and it at least succeeds in that aim. However, as a story of female empowerment with grand guignol overtones, it has the great misfortune of coming out in too-close proximity to the vastly superior Poor Things. It’s odd that the most rewarding element of Lisa Frankenstein is also one of the quieter ones: the step-sister relationship between Lisa and Taffy. That could have formed the skeleton of a different, better movie. What we get here is just enough to generate frustration about how undercooked everything else is.

Lisa Frankenstein (United States, 2024)

Director: Zelda Williams
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Carla Gugino, Joe Chrest, Henry Eikenberry
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Cinematography: Paula Huidobro
Music: Isabella Summers
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2024-02-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Comedy/Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1