Review: Lisa Frankenstein Aims to Reimagine the Feminist Thriller, But Fails to Spark Any Life
The biggest problem with the latest film from writer Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, Juno, Young Adult) isn’t that it doesn’t have many original ideas. It’s meant to be something of a sendup of better material—everything from Frankenstein and Edward Scissorhands to any number of 1980s teen comedies. So having a modern take on that material can be forgiven (even though the film is set in 1989). The major issues seem to stem from Cody’s inability to give us a compelling lead character who doesn’t end up turning into the worst version of herself. Lisa Swallows (played gamely by Kathryn Newton) is an outsider who is occasionally made to feel bad about herself by others, and rather than rise above that, she simply becomes one of the bullies she so desperately despises. And as that happens, Lisa Frankenstein actually gets worse as it goes on.
Lisa is a goth-lite character who ends up dressing more like early-era Madonna by the end, but she’s harassed by everyone from classmates to her new stepmother (Carla Gugino, who at least is going for something here). For reasons I’m not even sure I can explain (having mostly to do with lightning), the corpse of a young man who died in 1837 (Cole Sprouse) comes to life and gets out of the grave in the cemetery that Lisa frequently uses as a shortcut to and from school. Because he’s somewhat attractive and she sees potential in his looks (he’s still a rotting corpse, mind you), Lisa takes him home, cleans him up, and dresses him in a Violent Femmes t-shirt. The creature can’t speak, but he uses a combination of grunts and charades to communicate; he’s missing a few body parts—mostly smaller appendages, including you know what—so the two concoct a plan to target those who have harmed Lisa in some way and harvest their bits and pieces as needed. Did I mention this is a PG-13-rated film? Part of me thinks the film might have been moderately improved if they’d cut loose and gone with an R rating, but bad words and more gore can’t always be a cure-all for bad writing.
Probably conceived as a feminist take on the horror trope of the living dead (not zombies, mind you), Lisa Frankenstein ends up being a dumping ground for all manner of childish period, virginity, and vibrator jokes. Lisa herself is a virgin, and for some reason, sees this floppy-haired corpse as her ticket to womanhood. The script might have had the best of intentions to begin with, but watching Lisa become a murdering, unstable animal while the actual monster seems to grow a conscience seems like the wrong place to land this uninspired plane. Director Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin Williams) may have had the deck stacked against her when she was handed this project, but she doesn’t even seem sure how to make a movie that, at its core, could have elevated itself by focusing on its weirdo high schoolers and embraced their quirks and extreme personalities. And turning REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” into a recurring punchline doesn’t help matters either.
I’ve always found Newton a highly watchable actor, who brings a sly wit and knowing smarts to most of her characters. She’s often the smartest one in the scene, and she’s unafraid to let on that she knows it. But in Lisa Frankenstein, what you see is what you get in Lisa, and sadly, what you get is shallow, self-centered, and not a lot of fun to hang out with, even with the tacky ’80s music, fashion, and pastels. I truly admire nearly everything writer Cody has brought to the screen, but this one is the worst of her output, by far.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.