The moment I stepped out of the cinema after watching ‘Lisa Frankenstein,’ I had to really think about what I had just seen. It is an oddball of a film, a mixed bag of genres – Is it gothic-horror-comedy? Is it a dark, satirical, coming-of-age story? Is it an anti-romance movie with gothic inflections? – with so many quirks both in the script and direction that everything about the movie is distracting. The worst part was not knowing what the film was really about or what it was trying to do.
Set in the late 1980s, Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is living in an unnamed town with her dad, stepmom (Carla Gugino), and step-sister (Liza Soberano). Lisa is a survivor of a horrible attack where she witnessed her mother get killed by an axe murderer. She’s now an awkward teenager living with her oppressive, vicious stepmother and her cloyingly perfect, cheerful stepsister. She finds solace in spending time alone in an abandoned cemetery and dreaming about dying, lying on the ground side-by-side six feet under beside her favorite marked grave. After a rager where Lisa is drugged, embarrassed, and even sexually assaulted leaves her disoriented and walking home during a freak storm, for some crazy unexplained reason, a ball of lightning strikes the cemetery and brings the corpse of her favorite marked grave alive (Cole Sprouse).
From an awkward, antisocial teenager, the appearance of the undead boy somehow brings Lisa out of her shell. She dresses in Madonna circa 1980s-inspired outfits (with inflections of Stevie Nicks and the hippie-witch aesthetic) and her character does a drastic character change. She becomes more driven by her sexual desires and starts to fight back against the forces that have tried to bring her down – her stepmother and the boy who assaulted her – including being an accomplice to murder.
Because while Lisa is discovering her own strength and voice, the undead boy is slowly putting himself together, taking body parts from his victims so that he can be whole again. Throughout this process, he looks less and less like a zombie, throwing loving glances at the self-absorbed Lisa, and going through the entire movie communicating merely through grunts.
It’s a strange movie because there is no moral center that anchors this film. Yes, the murders that happen are bad and thus paint our protagonist, and unlikely romantic leads, as bad people but never does the film ever treat them as such. They are heroes in the way director Zelda Williams and writer Diablo Cody decide to depict them. The film turns each act of violence as comedic moments but never posits a stance about it. This ambiguity is refreshing but what it does is that it invalidates and undermines any moment of emotional weight that the film may try to achieve later on.
There are some interesting subversive elements within the film like Soberano’s Taffy. What would be a Regina George-esque character in any other film, is actually very sweet and genuine and is unafraid to call out her vicious mother and honestly try to treat Lisa like her sister. It’s a role that Soberano manages to portray with great aplomb. When things start to get hairy and Taffy and Lisa’s own relationship is put through the grinder, there’s a touching scene where Lisa finds a vulnerable moment and opens up to Taffy. It would have been more powerful had the film managed its quirky, ambiguous tone better. It’s hard to take this scene seriously when nothing else in the movie asks for that same treatment.
From the get-go, Williams’ and Cody’s treatment and style of this world is exaggerated and highly stylistic. It almost feels animated. Lines are delivered in such a mannered way that, at first, I thought everyone was overacting. It wasn’t until the movie stretched out that I realized everyone was acting in the same hyper-real way. It was a tonal direction – everything a little over-dramatic – that I saw the directorial control. Unfortunately, much like many aspects of the film, there’s no underlying intention behind any of it. It’s all quirky and unserious about everything – the romance aspect, the horror aspect, the gothic aspect, even the coming-of-age aspect – nothing is fully committed to by the creative team.
By the time the film ends, I felt no real connection to this world, to these characters, or to the experience. ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ felt like a hodgepodge of many great ideas and was shot and produced before any real development was put into the piece. Newton is acting up a storm but without any real context or grounding element to her character, for all her commitment, she ends up just seeming spastic and overdone. On the other hand, Gugino and Soberano find a sweet spot within the weird tone of the movie and somehow fit right in. They work completely in this movie even if the movie never really gets off the ground. I’m usually a huge fan of Diablo Cody’s work. Her previous films like ‘Young Adult’ and ‘Tully’ are just amazing works that get under your skin. Unfortunately, ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ does the opposite. It feels like an experiment in tone and whimsy that didn’t quite succeed.