‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Review: Twisted, Horny, And Bloody Fun

Written by Diablo Cody, this ‘80s throwback horror comedy takes a lot big swings—and nearly all of them land.

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein. MICHELE K. SHORT / 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

In some ways, Lisa Frankenstein feels like it arrived on a time machine from the year 1989. To begin with, it seems like a movie that began as a title or a poster, like Twins. Naturally, it features a period-appropriate alt-rock soundtrack and iconic goth-pop fashions. But, most crucially, Lisa Frankenstein flaunts (and lampoons) the specifically Gen-X sociopathy embodied by Winona Ryder in movies like Heathers and Reality Bites. It’s a throwback not only because of its setting, but because it’s zany in a way modern comedies usually aren’t. Writer Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for Juno and the hearts of horror weirdos with her follow-up Jennifer’s Body, pens this bloody camp comedy as if she is the evil twin of peak-era Tim Burton collaborator Caroline Thompson, and this is her twisted, horny Edward Scissorhands. Just to be clear, these are all compliments.


LISA FRANKENSTEIN ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Zelda Williams
Written by: Diablo Cody
Starring: Kathryn Newton Cole Sprouse Liza Soberano Henry Eikenberry Joe Chrest Carla Gugino
Running time: 101 mins.


Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows, a high school senior who’s been traumatized since her mother was killed by a masked psychopath. She has, essentially, already endured one brand of ‘80s movie, and now she’s been dropped into another, totally different one. She lives with her milquetoast father (Joe Chrest), her new, extremely type-A wicked stepmother (Carla Gugino), and her perky and supportive stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) in a candy-colored suburb that clashes with her gloomy demeanor. Everything changes for Lisa after lightning strikes the grave of her bizarre crush, an anonymous 19th century pianist (Cole Sprouse) who was buried in the nearby “Bachelor’s Cemetery.” Together with her new mute, undead companion, Lisa blossoms into a confident, stylish, and incredibly dangerous young woman.

When I say Kathryn Newton “stars” as Lisa Swallows, I mean that she “STARS,” in all caps. Her performance is explosive, continually pushing the limits of the audience’s sympathies to produce a truly lovable antiheroine. Lisa Frankenstein is hyperbolic in a way that modern feature comedies, descended from the 2000s Mumblecore movement, are rarely permitted to be. There’s a live-action cartoon quality to the film that’s acknowledged by its handful of actual animated sequences. Performances are broad, the score is big and expressive, and the dialogue is anything but naturalistic. Diablo Cody’s too-clever teenage banter is a much better fit for this heightened reality than it was in a film like Juno, where we are asked to pretend that people actually talk like that. This is where Lisa Frankenstein grows beyond its nostalgic appeal, where it feels more akin to absurdist Millennial comedies like last year’s standout Bottoms.

Cole Sprouse is at the center of the movie’s gross-out slapstick and makes a solid comic foil for Newton, but the real second lead of the film is Liza Soberano as Lisa’s stepsister Taffy. Where an actual 1989 comedy about a high school outcast would probably frame the popular cheerleader as her vain and vapid opposite, Taffy is the heart of the movie. She’s Lisa’s advocate, whether Lisa acknowledges it or not. It’s through her that Lisa Frankenstein’s loving satire of Gen-X angst, which often conflated “too cool for school” callousness with maturity and wisdom, becomes most pointed. Taffy rules, and she’s the movie’s punching bag because that’s her role in a story about a quirky teenage girl who wears black and listens to the Cure. Meanwhile, every one of the incredible alt-girl looks that Lisa rocks during her awakening are actually requisitioned from Taffy’s closet. Soberano is already a star in the Philippines, but this role is a memorable Hollywood debut.

Liza Soberano and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein. MICHELE K. SHORT / 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Speaking of debuts, Lisa Frankenstein is the first feature from director Zelda Williams. (She’s the daughter of late comedy legend Robin Williams, which I mention only because whenever it seems like an exciting young director has come out of nowhere, they usually haven’t.) Williams doesn’t ever become the star of the show the way some ambitious first-time directors do — Newton’s presence and Cody’s voice are too overpowering — but there are some fun visual choices and an overall sense of whimsy that has to come from the top. Lisa Frankenstein takes a lot of big swings, and nearly all of them land. Between those comedic haymakers come a steady string of quips and sight gags that hit about 80% of the time. There are some whiffs, but no outright groaners, and for a comedy this broad, that’s an accomplishment.

Though a nostalgia for the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will certainly enhance the experience, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoying Lisa Frankenstein. Maybe that’s because the films that Williams and Cody are riffing on were so cynical about their current moment. It was an era when wealthy, privileged suburban teenagers went to theaters in droves to see movies about how hard their lives were. From the perspective of people born in the year this film takes place — as director Zelda Williams was — these people look psychotic. It’s an impressive feat of comedic acrobatics to make a movie in this mold that creates a version of this madness that we can justify, relate to, become disgusted with, and ultimately love.


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

 

‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Review: Twisted, Horny, And Bloody Fun