Wednesday, February 7, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

Zelda Williams’ feature debut is a delightfully irreverent undead love story.

There are all kinds of reasons to create your own boyfriend. Maybe you’re the intellectual type bored by the preening, athletic, cerebrally-challenged boys at school. Maybe your more outgoing sister is hogging up all the prime real estate, breaking hearts in outfits that hang a bit more curvaceously from her body than they would from your own. Maybe your mother’s untimely death at the hands of a home-invading ax murderer has made you into more of an indoorsy, listen-to-The-Cure-and-watch-horror-movies type, and you’re having a hard time coming up with relatable topics for conversation. Look, we’ve all been there. And since desperate times call for desperate measures, we’re not exactly surprised when the lonesome midnight mithering of high schooler Lisa (Kathryn Newton) inadvertently reanimates the corpse of a handsome young man (Cole Sprouse) who’d been laying at rest in the local cemetery since the Victorian Era (era). He’s just the kind of strong, silent, cadaverous soul she’s been waiting all of her life to meet. What could possibly go wrong?
The first of what could be many collaborations between 2007’s most subversive screenwriter (Diablo Cody) and a comedy scion forging a path of her own (Zelda Williams), Lisa Frankenstein is an unhinged goth romance that imagines what Weird Science and Beetlejuice would look like remixed by John Waters. Set in 1989, it pits Lisa’s antisocial ennui against the pink plastic perfection of Taffy (Liza Soberano) and Janet (Carla Gugino), the Reaganific stepfamily acquired by her father (Joe Chrest) after his wife’s aforementioned murder. When the creature — let’s call him Frank — arrives to sweep his resurrectionist off her feet, Lisa decides to let her freak flag fly, helping Frank locate fresh replacement limbs as she acclimates him to twentieth century life. Before long, though, it becomes hard to decide who’s influencing whom: Frank takes a shine to domestic tranquility while Lisa reinvents herself as a sexed-up renegade in cutoff lace — Newton is an uncanny match for the Material Girl — declaring full-scale war against suburbia.

Though a bit too messy and cacophonous to rank among the genre’s best entries, Lisa Frankenstein is nonetheless an eager and endearing blend of coming-of-age tropes delivered with the kind of chaotic edge that would make Heathers proud. Diablo Cody tempers the anarchic, over-stylized teen dialogue that made Juno an easy target for detractors, instead allowing Newton and Sprouse’s unlikely chemistry to drive the comedy. Lisa Frankenstein has a certain narrative looseness — to put it politely — and its lead actors take full advantage of that lack of supervision, with Newton in particular cranking up the volume as Lisa grows increasingly unmoored. Gugino, too, is happy to play: She gives Janet — a suburban autocrat who day-drinks righteous indignation and has serious doubts about your commitment to Sparkle Motion — just enough charm that we believe she could have raised the considerably-more conscientious Taffy but not so much that we we don’t delight in Frank’s chosen punishment for her offenses against his true love.
Zelda Williams acquits herself well in her feature debut, clearly bringing a lifetime’s worth of unrealized cinematic imagination to the fore. Though Lisa Frankenstein lacks strong tonal cohesion or a compelling narrative throughline — especially in its aimless and interminable opening act — Williams has a knack for revving up the energy of individual scenes and sequences, wringing smaller beats dry of every last bit of absurdity. Not only does this add a lighthearted comic spirit to those moments of extreme violence and gore — To wit: Handsome school newspaper editor Michael (Henry Eikenberry) has functional genitalia, and Frank has an ax — it also goes a long way toward getting us through the gummier stretches where Lisa’s behaviors and motivations are more obtuse; It’s hard not to wonder if the typically-exacting Cody may have ceded too much narrative control to a first-time director still honing her craft. Those rougher edges will be ironed out in time, though; What matters is Lisa Frankenstein’s abundance of confidence and enthusiasm.
So while it’s unlikely to make a strong impression on hardcore horror fans looking for true innovation or a fresh take on the classics, Lisa Frankenstein is nonetheless a quality February offering destined to join the likes of Totally Killer and Goosebumps on the Gateway Genre Movie shelf. Freaky alum Katheryn Newton brings a composure and dexterity to her performance that proves that she’s a star in the making, while supporting players like Liza Soberano and Joe Chrest add welcome texture to archetypal characters who could sorely use it. It’s a winning blend of sensibilities that should earn Zelda Williams an opportunity to build on a solid debut in the director’s chair. Speaking of which, it’s especially nice to see a middlebrow Focus Feature like this — February or not — getting a wide theatrical release. Coupled with the unexpected box office success of Anyone But You, it’s an encouraging sign that a market still exists for Zoomers ambitious enough to get out from under the streaming deluge. If you build it, Hollywood, they will come.

Lisa Frankenstein
hits theaters on February 9th.

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