LISA FRANKENSTEIN: A Sweetly Sinister Romance from Beyond the Grave

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse are a scream dream team in a fiendishly fun collaboration between Zelda Williams and Diablo Cody

Still courtesy of Focus Features.

Lisa’s (Kathryn Newton) life is the worst. Shortly after the axe murder of her mother, her father (Joe Chrest) remarries–sticking her with peppy Taffy (Liza Soberano) as a sister and the domineering “intuitive person” Janet (Carla Gugino) as a wicked stepmother. Despite Taffy’s best efforts, Lisa fails to fit in at school, despite catching the eye of dreamy litmag editor Michael (Henry Eikenberry) and bookish nerd Doug (Bryce Romero). Lisa’s escape is the local abandoned cemetery, where she pines for her perfect guy–an unnamed deceased poet. A chaotic evening of spiked party drinks and abnormal thunderstorms leads to the resurrection of  Lisa’s dream boy, now a missing-limbed Creature (Cole Sprouse). Together, Lisa and her Creature embark on a journey to find true love–a quest that unexpectedly comes with a high body count.

The debut feature from Zelda Williams and the return of screenwriter Diablo Cody to horror, Lisa Frankenstein is a totally outrageous and delightfully macabre love story. Skewering everything from Heathers and Clueless to Return of the Living Dead and Little Shop of Horrors, Williams and Cody’s film isn’t afraid to get grim and gross–but for all of the body parts Lisa and her Creature raid, Lisa Frankenstein lovingly wears its freshly-harvested heart on its sleeve.

As I previously wrote in my Ready or Not review, the stakes of nailing the tone of horror comedy are life and death. While the film may be off to the races from the tongue-in-cheek title alone, where Lisa Frankenstein succeeds is its nostalgic love of its central period setting–before drenching it in dirt, worms, and blood. The world of Williams’ film is more Burton than Whale, operating at the melodramatically pastel visual pitch of Edward Scissorhands; awash in blue and pink neon with floral curtains and wallpaper, everything looks and feels 80’s maximalist to the max. Key elements include crimping irons as weaponry and an electrocuting tanning bed capable of resurrection when set to “max bronze.” Teen and adult characters alike spout spit-take throwaway dialogue in a feverish blend of John Hughes and John Waters. Even before the dead rise, Lisa Frankenstein is operating at such a madcap and pitch-black tone that the appearance of Sprouse’s Creature feels like just the apocalyptic cure this setting (and Lisa) truly needs. As the film’s horror elements rear their head (and other parts), the couple’s resulting bloodbath never detracts or clashes with the tone of the previous half-hour–instead masking such horror with blood-red-tinted lenses, finding a sweet romance amid unspeakable acts.

Bearing the full weight of balancing the film’s genres are Newton and Sprouse, who keep us rooted in a romance that surprisingly brings us in the more we unravel the flaws at the heart of Lisa’s character. After helping each other with a hilarious makeover montage, Lisa finds herself addicted to the eventually deadly confidence her beau from beyond the grave instills in her. Williams and Cody delightfully upend the traditional Frankenstein narrative throughout, revealing how the right mixture of trauma, provocation, and other emotional body parts can make monsters of us all. There’s an overwhelming amount of pain at the core of Lisa, and Newton plays her to a T without veering too much into either comedy-detracting histrionics or self-deprecation that undermines her real trauma. At the same time, Sprouse’s wordless performance seizes every opportunity to play to extreme physical comedy and total tenderness, creating a Creature that can’t help but be Lisa’s puppet out of cosmic love for her even as he feels powerless to stop the evil she’s quickly becoming capable of.

It’s when the horror overwhelms the romance–and how romance tries to deny it–that Lisa Frankenstein truly makes its mark. Soberano’s concurrent storyline is played mainly at the margins of Lisa’s romance until fate deals Taffy a resolution akin to Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Lisa Frankenstein’s masterstroke of maturity is in how Williams and Cody memorably find comedy in this until they know very well not to–finding horrific validity in what’s happening to Taffy, Lisa, and their family, even as Lisa, lost in her star-struck romance, denies the traumatic parallels to what happened to Lisa and her mom. For all of its bloody glee, Lisa Frankenstein recognizes how the trauma inflicted by the events of a horror film has a legitimate impact on its characters–and while much of it can be played for laughs, it’s tonally crucial to know how far is too far. 

It’s in this last third Lisa Frankenstein reveals how deftly it’s balanced its horror, comedy, and romance across its brisk runtime–especially in how humans are creatures who can inexplicably pivot between all three on a dime.

Lisa Frankenstein opens in wide release on February 9th courtesy of Focus Features.

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