2024, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Zelda Williams. Starring Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Joe Chrest, Carlo Gugino, Liza Soberano.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Feb. 9, 2024
Lisa Frankenstein feels like a film that was written for the studio system back in the late 2000s: when Eighties nostalgia was at an all-time high, Barnes & Noble had a specific slice of their Young Adult section dedicated to “Paranormal Romance,” and Diablo Cody’s name on a script was catnip for young, female cinephiles. The skirts are fluffed, the music is synth, and the romance is dire.
It’s a tantalizing spiritual follow-up to Cody’s now (rightfully) adored Jennifer’s Body. Our heroine, Lisa (Newton), is the spitting image of Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz – a misunderstood teenage girl who spends her time gazing at graves, longing to be among the dead.
Her reason for being so macabre? A year ago her mother was slaughtered by a masked serial killer à la Michael Myers, and now her father (Chrest) has uprooted her to remarry Janet (Gugino), an image-obsessed woman who has a pageant queen daughter, Taffy (Soberano). Lisa is having a nightmarish senior year until one day, after being electrocuted from Taffy’s tanning bed and drinking a spiked beverage at a party, she accidentally resurrects a dead boy from the graveyard she frequents – a Frankenstein’s monster of her very own.
The science behind it is finicky, but the idea is straight from a Tim Burton film: A “strange and unusual” pale white girl falls madly in love with something dead. Finally released from his Riverdale shackles, Cole Sprouse plays Lisa’s creature and together they murder her enemies to gather fresh body parts to replace the creature’s missing body parts. Newton and Sprouse are magical together, with a chemistry that’s both goofy and sweet. Their delightful bond is the glue that holds Zelda Williams’ first-time feature together, the electrifying energy that keeps Lisa Frankenstein’s stitches from fraying at the seam.
But charm only gets you so far. Lisa Frankenstein suffers from being lit for TV, which flattens the totally Eighties pink pop pastiche aesthetic. Every scene looks like it’s playing out on a soundstage, from the bright green AstroTurf to the prop-stuffed rooms. The background isn’t decipherable from the foreground, there are no shadows to create depth to the scenes. What Lisa Frankenstein needs is grit, like the dark, sinister scene in Jennifer’s Body in which Amanda Seyfried's Needy stumbles upon her dead best friend gorging herself on raw meat out of the fridge. For a film that’s rooted in genre tropes, there’s no genre atmosphere to visually anchor down the film’s themes. With the spectacle fizzled out, visually Williams’ film isn’t enough to take it over the edge and make it memorable. Still, first-time direction hurdles aside, it’s a serviceable, fun goth romp.