Credit: Michele K. Short/Focus Features
by Steven Warner Featured Film Genre Views

Lisa Frankenstein — Zelda Williams

February 8, 2024

Diablo Cody is at it again with Lisa Frankenstein, the feature directing debut of actress Zelda Williams that finds the screenwriter returning to the thematically rich hills of teenage angst, the very ones that snagged her an Oscar in 2007 for the quirk-saturated Juno. Despite her success, Cody has always gotten a bad rap amongst certain circles of cinephiles, with many bemoaning her love of pop culture quips and overly stylized dialogue that, at times, only serves to draw attention to itself. Yet Cody has proven time and again that she shares a deeply heartfelt connection with her misanthropic protagonists, as well as their love of wordplay as a coping mechanism for a world that steadfastly refuses to accept their so-called eccentricities, with 2011’s Young Adult proving a barbed high point.

Lisa Frankenstein finds Cody once again utilizing the horror genre to highlight the true-life terrors of growing up, having taken a similar approach with 2009 cult classic Jennifer’s Body. Her signature humor is still on display, best embodied by our titular lead — strike that, her actual name is Lisa Swallows, because that’s funny? Kathryn Newton stars as the sullen Lisa, still grappling with the loss of her mother two years prior, who was murdered in front of her by an axe-wielding maniac! Lisa’s father (Joe Chrest) is newly married to Janet (Carla Gugino), an ultra-conservative, Precious Moments-obsessed neat freak and aerobics enthusiast who also has a teenage daughter, Taffy (Liza Soberano). Janet believes Lisa’s prolonged mourning is nothing more than an attention-seeking tactic produced by a calculating con artist. Taffy, however, is just happy to have a new sister, even as the moribund Lisa is the polar opposite of the eternally chipper cheerleader captain “Laffy” Taffy. Lisa rarely speaks in school and is eternally dressed in black — a goth gal if ever one existed. (Now would be a good time to also note that Lisa Frankenstein is set in 1989, which never seems entirely necessary save for the opportunity it presents for some cheap nostalgia-baiting, but it does allow for a lot of overexaggerated hair and make-up and bright neon colors, so count it a win.) Lisa loves spending her days at an abandoned cemetery in the woods by her house, doing wax tracings of the headstones, and she ultimately falls in love with one of the inhabitants: a Victorian-era musician whose visage is represented on a stone carving accompanying his burial plot.

After a hellish party in which Lisa is maliciously given a PCP-laced drink by a rival and later sexually assaulted by a classmate, the traumatized young woman comes to find that a freak lightning storm has reanimated the corpse (Cole Sprouse) of her true beloved from the cemetery, and he needs her help to procure various body parts to make himself whole again — this film never met an allegory it couldn’t beat to death. If pressed to best way to describe Lisa Frankenstein via reference points, it’s closest to “Heathers meets Edward Scissorhands,” as our two protagonists go on a killing spree through the pastel- and neon-colored wonderland/hellscape known as ‘80’s suburbia. Indeed, the specter of Tim Burton looms large over the entire production, from its black-and-white animated opening to its various goth-inspired dream sequences to its two main characters, who are seen as nothing more than monsters to be feared and rejected by “normal” society. Cody has a lot on her mind thematically here, tackling everything from grief to female empowerment to the bonds of sisterhood to the growing pains of adolescence. Yet much like the creature that employs Lisa’s help, Lisa Frankenstein feels less like a fully-fleshed story and more a collection of disparate parts that have been haphazardly sewn together. The film’s biggest problem lies in the characterization of Lisa, whose behavior and actions are impossible to make sense of from one scene to next, jerked around by a script more interested in hot-topic talking points than expressing any authentic humanity. It’s there in various dribs and drabs, such as a mid-film conversation in which Lisa discusses the distancing effect of grief, or the overall development of the relationship between Lisa and Taffy, but a profound lack of consistency in execution prevents it from every truly landing with any weight. Sure, an argument could be made that this is all a fairly accurate description of general teenaged hysteria, especially for one engaged in hell of exploring their identity in earnest, it’s never addressed with enough intentionality for that to feel like an earned reading. Believe — the metaphor of an axe-wielding maniac’s traumatized victim teaming up with an axe-wielding maniac is not lost on the viewer.

If Williams’ film boasts any unqualified achievement, it’s serving as a launching pad for Soberano, who imbues Taffy with so much warmth and charisma that resistance to her charm is futile. Elsewhere, Newton’s performance is stiff and mannered — entirely by design, mind you — and it dampens the easy appeal of the gifted young actress. Sprouse grunts a bit and otherwise gives a wholly physical performance that is rather commendable, while Gugino is clearly having a blast playing such an over-the-top villainess. Lisa Frankenstein ultimately never coalesces into anything greater than its uneven parts, but it’s also that willingness to push past the status quo and try that makes it endearing despite its obvious weakness, a unique beast in a sea of sameness. Much like Jennifer’s Body, it’s easy to see this film gaining resonance with teen audiences as the years go by, its flaws spun by myth and goodwill into intentional bugs. But even in the present, Lisa Frankenstein is undeserving of pitchforks, despite lacking the consistent juice to fully come alive.

DIRECTOR: Zelda Williams;  CAST: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Carla Gugino, Joe Chrest;  DISTRIBUTOR: Focus Features;  IN THEATERS: February 9;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 41 min.