Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ is less a teen horror comedy and more a cosplay of one, and it’s not a great look SuperNayr

When it comes to reviewing films as honestly as possible, two of the most important things to keep in mind is that the work should be measured against the best possible version of itself, and that the best version of itself tends to reveal itself in tandem with the actual version of itself.

Lisa Frankenstein is severely disinterested in these parameters, which is to say that it doesn’t have much of a self at all, let alone any sort of blueprint for the best possible version of itself. Indeed, despite flashes of solid humor both charming and morbid, Lisa Frankenstein largely ditches any opportunity to be something truly unique in the realm of either characterization or theme, and instead settles for being a 100-minute-long moodboard that’s neither as stylish nor profound as it seems to think it is.

The film follows the plight of Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), a misfit high school senior who’s still processing her grief after losing her mother in a joltingly violent home invasion murder. Her fascination with graves — due largely in part to her desire to be in one, we find out — leads her to bonding with a particularly handsome stone bust marking the grave of a young, deceased, Victorian-era man (Cole Sprouse). But when a bolt of lightning brings him back to life sans an ear, a hand, and his penis (the latter of which we don’t learn until much later, and contributes to one of the film’s best jokes), the bond between Lisa and this strange creature becomes a bit more palpable and cheekily murderous.

That’s the official premise, but Sprouse’s character (henceforth referred to as the Creature) doesn’t feel nearly as important to the overall impression (I struggle to call it a plot) of Lisa Frankenstein as one might expect. This shortfall largely has to do with the film’s seeming lack of a goal or identity, more than anything; the Creature is involved in many a plot beat (most of them involving a body or two), but there’s never a sense of anything moving forward — either literally or sub-textually — outside of the Creature getting a new body part with each kill, ultimately culminating in a Lisa-Creature endgame that’s somehow grossly jarring and grossly telegraphed at the same time. Sprouse’s physical performance does deserve some praise, however; be it mud-splattered stick-man or the born-again pianist he becomes by the film’s end, the Riverdale star makes the Creature respectably watchable.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of Lisa Frankenstein is how Lisa is initially presented as an incredibly cheer-worthy protagonist, only to become less and less likeable as time goes on. Even if we weren’t following the perspective of a grieving, nonconformist teenager, it’s clear that the world around her — specifically, the people in it — are the real weirdos (pejorative), whether it’s her disingenuous stepsister Taffy, her painfully meek father, or her downright evil stepmother. In that respect, it quickly becomes very easy to root for Lisa, or, at the very least, root against the admittedly uncanny “normal” that everyone seems to accept as such; art, after all, disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed, and Lisa, at first, seems like an incredibly promising vehicle to explore that.

But as she routinely crushes on and pursues the school’s literary magazine editor (a hot boy named Michael), and indulges instance after instance of seemingly random-yet-cyclical bouts of apathy and out-of-the-blue confidence before circling back to some semblance of the Lisa we started with, one starts to get the feeling that Lisa isn’t as different from everyone else as the film might want her to be, and by the end of it all, it’s no easy task to really care about what’s going on with her anymore.

The thing is, though, I’m not even sure if Lisa being an eventually unlikeable protagonist is even a fair critique, because Lisa Frankenstein has no interest in even suggesting how it wants to be interacted with as a whole; its humor — the key pillar, by all appearances — admittedly lands more than it flops, but there still aren’t that many landings, and the landings aren’t even that impactful in their own right. Its more cerebral elements stick their heads out of the ground here and there, but none of them are in service of any real theme or idea (which Lisa Frankenstein hardly seems interested in exploring anyway), and they certainly don’t get along with the more outrageous aspects of the film. And finally, there are moments throughout that read primarily as sentimental, but Lisa Frankenstein doesn’t offer nearly enough in the way of pathos for us to engage with those moments sincerely.

This, in turn, renders Newton’s performance difficult to gauge as well; as the character we spend the most time with, it’s of course her characterization that becomes unmappably disjointed, so there’s really no telling if Newton accomplished what each scene called for (in the sense that it’s hard to tell what each scene calls for from both the actors and the audience). By all appearances, though, Newton did about as well in the Lisa Frankenstein situation as anyone could have probably been asked to.

Beyond that, the film is just as loosely stitched together on the textual level as well; it’s as though there exist three or four different iterations of Lisa Frankenstein, and the one we got was an amalgamation of different scenes from each cut. If this was intended as a Frankenstein joke, it’s a bad one.

When put together, then, there’s ultimately no real sense of what Lisa Frankenstein could have been; one can hardly tell whether it’s stretching itself too thin between a myriad of ideas, or is floating adrift without a single idea at all. Undoubtedly, you could take one or two pieces of the film’s set dressing and see potential for a good story, but whatever that story is, it’s a far cry from whatever Lisa Frankenstein wound up being.

All-in-all, Lisa Frankenstein suffers from a mutated version of that which weighed down screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous horror comedy venture, Jennifer’s Body (which — and this is important to note —received just as much unfounded critique as it did legitimate critique). Whereas in Jennifer’s Body, there’s too much happening on the surface for us to reasonably dig into what’s underneath, Lisa Frankenstein‘s surface, while equally as busy, is so impossibly, unceremoniously at odds with itself that it’s hard to tell if there’s even anything underneath at all (and knowing Cody, there almost certainly is, which makes Lisa Frankenstein all the more frustrating in that regard).

Cody has proven time and time again to be a top talent when it comes to screenwriting, and hopefully one day the stars (and marketing executives) will align where that talent truly shines through in the horror comedy genre. With Lisa Frankenstein, however, she and debut director Zelda Williams unfortunately just couldn’t stich it together.

Bad

A discordant Frankenstein’s monster of a film in its own right, ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ certainly acts like it’s interested in doing something, but it doesn’t seem to have the first clue on what that something is.

Lisa Frankenstein

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