By Thomas M. Puhr.
Newton really shines and has a funny swagger about her. It’s too bad the surrounding film never quite matches this winning performance.”
Lisa is lonely. Her widower father, who has promptly remarried and moved in with Lisa’s new stepmother and stepsister out in the candy-colored suburbs, seems oblivious to her misery. The closest thing she has to a friend is a young man who’s been dead since the 19th century, and whose nameless grave she visits after school. This infatuation is more than normal teen angst; Lisa witnessed (and barely survived) her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of an axe-wielding maniac right out of an ’80s slasher. No wonder she’d rather hang out in the cheekily titled “Bachelors Grove” cemetery than at a local kegger.
As played by a game Kathryn Newton, the titular heroine of Lisa Frankenstein (2024) shares a lot of DNA with another Diablo Cody creation: Juno MacGuff, of the screenwriter’s 2007 debut. Both teens are by turns brash and shy, precocious (each spouts pop culture references like it’s nobody’s business) and dangerously naïve, coating their youthful uncertainty with a veneer of feigned aloofness. Newton really shines here (she has a funny swagger about her). It’s too bad the surrounding film never quite matches this winning performance.
Director Zelda Williams’ latest opens with Lisa and her stepsister, Taffy (scene-stealer Liza Soberano), heading to a house party. Things go from bad to worse when Lisa downs a drug-spiked drink and fends off a lecherous classmate. Stumbling home while very, very high, she stops at the cemetery and wishes that she and her dead beau can be together forever. One freak lightning storm later, and presto: “The Creature” (a mostly mute Cole Sprouse) comes lumbering through her dining room window. (Never mind that she wished for her death rather than his resurrection; one must be specific when summoning the gods.)
Having been six feet under for the better part of a century, The Creature is in bad shape; he’s missing an ear, tongue, hand, and…well, a certain prized appendage of the male anatomy. After Lisa (a talented seamstress, it so happens) discovers she can revitalize her companion by sewing fresh limbs onto his body and baking him in Taffy’s tanning bed for a few minutes, the prospect of simultaneously ridding the community of its many assholes and assembling the perfect boyfriend from their spare parts becomes awfully tempting.
Unfortunately, Cody’s fish out of water (or corpse out of ground) story foregoes what could have been a biting social commentary in favor of easy (if fitfully amusing) pop culture jokes about bad ’80s hair, Precious Moments figurines, family trips to see Look Who’s Talking (1989), etc. The film flirts ever so delicately with topics like gender fluidity – Lisa reminds The Creature that you don’t need a penis to be a man; The Creature’s ear comes courtesy of his creator’s evil stepmother, an underused Carla Gugino – but never commits to being the sexually-progressive comedy it so clearly yearns to be.
The film flirts ever so delicately with topics like gender fluidity… but never commits to being the sexually-progressive comedy it so clearly yearns to be.”
Flashes of Cody’s unconventional characterization make the above shortcomings all the more disappointing. As she did with Juno and Jennifer’s Body (2009), the writer relishes upending character types. Like many a villainous high school cheerleader, Taffy is sexy and popular – but she’s also intelligent, not to mention exceedingly nice to her ostracized stepsister. But if Cody dismantles some lazy cliches, she also succumbs to others. As the stepmother, Gugino is all forced smiles and shrill hysterics. And while the actress seems to enjoy her opportunity to play such a cartoonishly evil woman, she’s ultimately little more than a punchline. Still, Newton and Sprouse play off one another well, her verbal gymnastics balanced nicely by his physical comedy (a recurring gross-out gag involves the diverse insects that tumble out of his rotten body).
Maybe I’m misreading Cody’s and Williams’ intentions. Maybe they just wanted to provide a moderately edgy romantic comedy for its target audience (artsy teens who will nod in approval at the Trip to the Moon and Creature from the Black Lagoon artwork adorning Lisa’s bedroom walls) on Valentine’s Day weekend. To the director’s credit, the film is always a pleasure to look at; with cinematographer Paula Huidobro and production designer Mark Worthington, she floods the screen with eye-popping pastels (any theatrical release not caught in a desaturated brown and grey color scheme is most welcome) and lovingly selected period details. Nostalgia is a crutch, but what a fun crutch it can be.
The problem is that Lisa Frankenstein doesn’t take full advantage of even these modest aspirations (it does, however, gleefully test the limits of its PG-13 rating). We don’t get to enjoy the guaranteed slam-dunk scenes of our protagonist acclimating The Creature to her neon-drenched world, for example (he somehow understands how cars work); or of her trying to pass him off as that weird new student at school. If Cody wanted to provide a low-stakes, bloody amalgam of Encino Man (1992) and Weird Science (1985) – to name a few of the film’s obvious precursors – then perhaps she should have studied up a bit more on what made her sources so entertaining in the first place.
Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.