Lisa Frankenstein

I’m a fan of the Academy Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. I enjoyed JUNO and TULLY and her directorial debut PARADISE, but it was YOUNG ADULT and its more friendly cousin RICKI AND THE FLASH that made me a die hard. Two movies about women who are assholes. My life is so different from either of theirs, but somehow Mavis Gary and Ricki Rendazzo are two characters I relate to deeply.

Of course she’s also got a foot in horror world – she wrote JENNIFER’S BODY for Karyn Kusama and even did some script revisions on the EVIL DEAD remake. She’s said she didn’t have to do much on that, but I still wonder if she was the one who named the dog Grandpa. Now she’s returned to the genre, sort of, with LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a teen movie with a zombie and some murders, directed by Zelda Williams (KAPPA KAPPA DIE).

Set in 1989, it stars Kathryn Newton (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI) as Lisa Swallows, a broody teen who’s having a rough go of it. Her mom (Jennifer Pierce Mathus) was recently killed by an ax murderer, but her dad (Joe Chrest, DRIVE ANGRY, and small parts in eight Steven Soderbergh movies) has already remarried and moved her to a new school. Her beauty queen step sister Taffy (Liza Soberano, a star of Filipino romances making a really impressive Hollywood debut) brings her to parties and introduces her to the popular girls, but doesn’t understand some of her interests, such as going to the overgrown cemetery in the woods, making grave rubbings and talking to the tomb of one particular dead Victorian guy.

One night when Lisa is home alone (watching DAY OF THE DEAD while the family goes to see LOOK WHO’S TALKING) she’s terrified by what seems to be a home invasion. She calms down a little when she realizes it’s not a killer but a confused, resurrected corpse (Cole Sprouse, BIG DADDY), only called The Creature on the end credits. When she realizes he’s the guy she talks to in the cemetery there’s some awkwardness. When she said she wanted to be with him she meant she wanted to be dead, not for him to be alive. Whoops.

She decides to clean him up a little and keep him hidden in the closet, E.T.-style. A trying-on-outfits musical montage sets him up with a blazer and a Violent Femmes t-shirt. Though he seems to be trying to woo her, she treats him as her best friend who she teaches things and confides in about her crush on Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry, Euphoria), the dreamy editor of the school’s literary journal, who remembers her name and compliments her poems.

The Creature was resurrected by lightning, and Lisa figures out she can heal him further using Taffy’s malfunctioning tanning bed – a brilliant touch since it looks like a coffin and provides idealized ‘80s atmosphere by backlighting fog with a blue glow. Even though he can’t talk he does progress from lumbering corpse to a guy who can dance, smile, and play piano. The horror comes in when he decides to get replacements for his missing ear and hand, which Lisa goes along with since 1) she’s pretty fucked up 2) it happens kinda accidentally and 3) he chooses her weinery lab partner Doug (Bryce Romero, MAGGIE), who tried to rape her when she was drugged at a party, and her horrible stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino, SNAKE EYES), who wants to have her committed.

Gugino is always great, but doesn’t usually get to do broad comedy like this. Janet is a great bitch character who works at a psychiatric hospital and thinks Lisa is out to get her after finding a worm in her cottage cheese and pineapple rings. She treats Lisa so unfairly but come to think of it by the end of the movie it would not be unreasonable to send her to a mental hospital!

Director Williams was born the year this movie takes place, but she and Cody (who was 11) obviously have an affection for the music and movies of the time. I give them credit for keeping Lisa’s musical tastes pretty consistent and using the dad to bring in REO Speedwagon. The cartoonishness of the period detail works fine because it’s a heightened reality anyway. Possible influences include EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, Frankenweenie (the short), possibly THE CORPSE BRIDE, and obviously HEATHERS. Maybe WEIRD SCIENCE. Possibly MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK but I don’t remember that one very well. It’s a stylish movie – hats off to director of photography Paula Huidobro (CODA, Barry), production designer Mark Worthington (LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE) and art director Michelle C. Harmon (HAPPY DEATH DAY).

Since it’s set in the fall I’ll forgo my standard criticism of 1989 period pieces without signs of Batmania. Other than a much appreciated appearance by a Sports Illustrated shoe phone, the cultural references are mostly timeless. A story where a teenage girl talks about The Cure could take place anytime in the past 40 years, and this may be the only movie besides INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS to name drop G.W. Pabst. Tarantino did it because his was a German period piece, while Cody does it for a PBR joke. Lisa is really into George Méliès, which plays a big part in the very cool psychedelic dream sequence and is also used in a much more joyfully dumb way (showing the famous rocket-hitting-the-moon-in-the-eye as innuendo, in lieu of a train going into a tunnel).

I liked many things about this movie, but the standout is the performance by Newton. I didn’t realize she was the main girl in the Cynthia Rothrock/Don “The Dragon” Wilson family movie THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, and I thought she was fine as the daughter in ANT-MAN & THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA, but my reference for her was FREAKY, where she plays both a teenage girl and an adult male serial killer after switching bodies with Vince Vaughn. She was great in that, but I think this is actually more complex, a layered characterization. When she thinks The Creature is attacking the house and tries to escape out her bedroom window, in her pajamas, she makes it comical just in the way she moves… somehow she’s crawling backwards on the roof. At the point in the movie when she’s gained more confidence she waves her arms around and walks in an ostentatious way, like she’s in a musical. She may be channeling silent film acting as much as the non-verbal Sprouse. It’s a very detailed, funny physical performance that livens every scene.

And I really like the movie’s gentle mocking and/or loving celebration of the youthful attraction to the moody and gothic. Michael Trent is dreamy with flowing hair and wears a leather jacket, he knows Lisa’s references and quotes Oscar Wilde, but her crush on him is mostly projection of a particular type of guy. So she might as well transfer that to a classical pianist from actual Victorian times who she first knew in graveyard statue form. Of course, her idea of him is even more imagined. She loves her long talks with him, but he can’t talk. She listens to The Cure, Bauhaus, Echo and The Bunnymen, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and idealizes these mopey poets of the past, but she doesn’t actually want The Creature to emote, because his tears smell rancid – a really funny running gag whether or not you choose to read meaning into it.

Not everything clicked for me. Early on I felt like the rhythm of the dialogue was slightly too slow. A few times the score by Florence + the Machine keyboardist Isabella Summers did a thing I can’t stand, that frantic “isn’t this funny?” type orchestration during comical moments. Also it’s kind of weird that they introduce a masked slasher in an early flashback and then never identify him or have anything come of it besides it being Lisa’s tragic backstory. Most of all I think the lightness with which it treats murder and death kept me at a slight distance. I was ready to take the emotions seriously, but if this girl (who otherwise is much nicer than Mavis or Ricki) is killing people and it doesn’t really matter, how can anything matter? They’ve gotten me to a point where I can accept it as cute that she’s getting intimate with this living corpse, but they intercut it with her nice stepsister panicking about her missing mother (who we know they killed). I like an ambitious mix of tones, but for me some of these didn’t blend quite properly. Maybe at this point it should’ve felt like things were beginning to crumble, but to me it didn’t feel like there was any build up to it. It just felt like a jumble of incompatible ideas.

On the other hand, the scene where Lisa tells Taffy very sincerely what a great person and sister she is, while Taffy is nearly in a state of Sally-at-the-end-of-THE-TEXAS-CHAIN-SAW-MASSACRE, is a perfectly tuned collision of sweetness and discomfort. So I really liked this one. It’s funny, it’s odd, it’s messed up enough that I didn’t notice it’s PG-13. I guess it’s a big flop (one other person in the theater at an 8:30 pm show) but I bet it will find its fans much quicker than JENNIFER’S BODY did. It won’t be in the ground for long.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 21st, 2024 at 3:36 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “Lisa Frankenstein”

  1. I knew the name Kathryn Newton but I had no idea that she’d already racked up such an impressive body of work. I thought she was excellent in ANT-MAN 3 (I thought QUANTUMANIA was a god-awful subtitle, tho) and flat-out astonishing in FREAKY. If this does bomb, I hope it doesn’t hamper her career any. She deserves to be going places.

    And that pic of her in class is now my wallpaper. Jeezy crow!

  2. This is the second movie this week linking a current big-time Marvel actress to THE MARTIAL ARTS KID. Hopefully that means Cynthia Rothrock and Don The Dragon Wilson will be able to use their new A-list connections to get beat up by Ant-Man or something.

  3. This sounds like it has similar issues to Jennifer’s Body. I can handle (and sometimes love) some tonal whiplash, but in Jennifer’s Body it didn’t always feel intentional. Parts were funny, parts were intense or creepy, but they didn’t work together or play off each other well for me, and some awkward scenes and plotting/pacing didn’t help. Getting a balance of serious, scary (or at least horror-adjacent), and silly is very difficult and I don’t know that Cody or her collaborators so far are capable of pulling it off. I know she CAN pull off silly and serious/dark, because I really liked Young Adult and Cody’s show United States of Tara, but it seems like adding horror elements to the mix throws her off. I would be interested in seeing her write a straight-up horror movie. She could still have quirky characters and funny dialogue, but in a “serious” horror premise/story instead of something intentionally winking or goofy.

  4. I will watch this one day, but I admit a little disappointment that Kathryn Newton’s character doesn’t resurrect The Creature herself with mad science. It’s just a lightning strike? So they should’ve called it LISA FRANKDAY THE 13TH PART VI: SOME GUY LIVES?

  5. Sounds like I enjoyed this about as much as you did. You are right-on about the references, and I saw somebody on Letterboxd or somewhere mention its similarities to HELLRAISER, which made a lot of sense to me

  6. I just watched this as it’s now streaming on Peacock. I really liked it. The tone does jump around a bit but I didn’t mind it. I also didn’t mind the lead characters being so down with murder. I think it was so campy I couldn’t see the murders as anything even close to reality to be bothered by them. I don’t know. I mean, I did think, geez that’s fucked up, they didn’t deserve that, but it didn’t hold back my enjoyment.

    I think Newton, and even Sprouse to a lesser degree, were the main reasons for my enjoyment. Her performance was so interesting. Her physicality was such a strange but essential part of the character. None of it felt forced or fake. And this also goes for her delivery of the dialogue, which while it wasn’t the most over the top like Cody can be, it still could’ve felt unnatural in other hands.

  7. I was dead set on seeing this as soon as it came out, but sadly shrinking theatrical windows make it hard to see movies you’ve been looking forward to when you have anything remotely resembling a life. But I finally saw it on Peacock+ and enjoyed it.

    FRANKENWEENIE might indeed be a possible influence, but another Tim Burton influence seems at least as likely: the cartoony Goth heroine reminded me of Lydia from BEETLEJUICE.

    The E.T. parallel never occurred to me – maybe since that’s earnest early 80s rather than cartoony garish late 80s – but now seems so obvious I don’t know how I missed it. The snooty materialistic mom reminded me of the one in DROP DEAD FRED.

    I think we can all agree on the HEATHERS influence. And of course anyone who knows 80s comedy at all can guess the influence on the scene where a monotonous teacher takes attendance and repeats the name of a student who’s absent.

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