There’s something rotten stinking up Zelda Williams and Diablo Cody’s Lisa Frankenstein, and no, it’s not the corpse half of this undead teen rom-com. Unfortunately, it’s Williams’ clunky direction and the surprisingly lame script by Cody that buries the committed lead performances by the talented Kathryn Newton and Riverdale star Cole Sprouse. On paper, this has the makings of a high school comedy classic. Cody, writer of Juno, Young Adult, and the more apt cult favorite Jennifer’s Body knows her way around offbeat, savage tales of burgeoning womanhood. Williams, the daughter of the late Robin Williams, is set to make her own mark in the field of comedy. And Newton, who has shown her comedic chops in this arena already with the body-swapping horror-comedy Freaky. It takes a concerted effort to mess this up quite as badly as Lisa Frankenstein manages to.
The rhythm and tone are off almost immediately. In the screening I attended, filled with giggling young influencers ready to pop at every joke, the room was silent for the first 40 minutes as every punchline wiffed badly. The flatness is felt right away as we’re introduced to Lisa Swallows (Newton), a high school misfit who witnessed her mother butchered by a random slasher. Her father (Joe Chrest) quickly gets remarried to the wicked Janet (Carla Gugino), who hates Lisa and everything about her. But at least Lisa has her new stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), popular/slutty cheerleader who cares enough to try and make her less of a social disaster.
Set in the 1980s with all of the requisite pop songs and outrageous outfits to match, Lisa Frankenstein feels like a film that Cody probably would’ve directed herself if her one directorial effort, the long-forgotten 2013 religious-comedy Paradise, wasn’t such a misfire. It seems that she’s going for a Tim Burton vibe but Williams doesn’t have the experience to bring that vision to life. Newton’s Lisa carries the big hair and dress of a young Helena Bonham Carter as she hangs out at the nearby graveyard, pining for the Victorian era man whose grave she frequents. After experiencing a humiliating day at school, a freak storm brings Lisa’s wish to life. He rises from the grave to be with her, but it seems the spirits have made a boo-boo. Lisa doesn’t really want to BE with him. So into the “friend zone” he goes. Sprouse tries his best to match that Johnny Depp macabre Edward Scissorhands vibe.
Lisa Frankenstein has a great idea, a fun, almost Heathers-esque take on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel. We’ve seen a lot of Frankenstein riffs lately but this is the only one that doesn’t seem to know how to achieve what it wants to be. While some of the visuals, supernatural humor, and even an opening Corpse Bride-esque animated sequence continue the Tim Burton similarities, the film isnt nearly sly enough or grisly enough to make much of an impression. And that’s even as Lisa and her zombie beau begin hacking her rivals to death so they can claim appendages for him. With each new limb, the undead creature looks less like a shambling monster and more like the handsome star of a CW series. You’ll get a few giggles when “On the Wings of Love” backs the wanton slaughter, but the film never fully commits to the craziness of its premise. While Focus Features wants this to be seen as a Valentine’s Day date film for teens, Newton and Sprouse don’t really click on a romantic level. They work better together during the comically murderous moments when Lisa gives in to her oddball sensibilities and he ratchets up the body count to impress her.
The thing is, I still admire Lisa Frankenstein for attempting to recreate the sort of eccentric 1980s teen comedy that I, and clearly Diablo Cody, used to love. If this movie had been released when I was a kid, it would probably be a personal favorite. But it didn’t come out then; it’s here now, and the demands of this kind of film are just different. There’s no energy to speak of, and a curious lack of audaciousness for such a zany idea hatched from the typically reliable Cody. This movie should be outrageous from start to finish and it just isn’t.
Recently, Cody revealed that, to her anyway, Lisa Frankenstein and Jennifer’s Body exist in the same cinematic universe. It’s funny, because Lisa Frankenstein almost feels like an attempted correction of what went wrong with that 2009 film, which was unfairly destroyed by people who just didn’t like Megan Fox at the time. But if you were to go back and watch it now, Fox wasn’t ready for that kind of demanding lead role and its mixing of genres, and the film suffered as a result. At least in this case, Newton is more than ready. She’s a special talent, I think with the potential to be the next Goldie Hawn. But she’s been let down by unsure writing and inexperienced direction. That said, Lisa Frankenstein will probably still find an audience who love its outsider spirit, grisly bloodshed, and unusual love story, while the rest of us will wish it had stayed buried.
Lisa Frankenstein opens in theaters on February 9th.