Frankenstein retelling subverts expectations

Lisa Frankenstein Movie Poster
Courtesy of Lisa Frankenstein

Who reading this remembers the monsters of high school? 

Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s film retinue surely does. The modern film buff sings praises for “Jennifer’s Body,” Cody’s vision of monstrous femininity starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. And rightly so — the common language of high school horrors unites viewers in Cody’s worlds.

The latest entry casts a girly, neon glow with “Lisa Frankenstein,” a horror-comedy starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse. Immediately recognizable, it is not a stretch to visualize the “Lisa Frankenstein aesthetic” popping up online, all gore-splattered scrunchies and gothic ’80s polyester. 

Full of cinematic callbacks to contemporary ’80s movies, as well as film history beyond that (including a repeated reference to George Mielies’ “A Trip to the Moon”), movie lovers have a lot to pick up on. As reveling in its references as it is self-satisfied with its style, the movie cuts a colorful figure across screens with its classic story of teen love and lust. Or, perhaps, bloodlust.

While the look of the movie and its playful engagement with film history are not to be ignored, the movie also has a  rock solid plot

Newton’s titular character is the timeless teen heroine with a dead mother, a sensitive, cute crush on an older boy and an evil stepmother (played by Carla Gugino). With her mother’s death, her father’s (Joe Chrest) remarriage and Lisa transferring to a new school, the movie opens like a fairly typical teen movie — right down to the perkier, prettier, cheerleader-ier stepsister (Taffy, played by Liza Soberano).  

After spending days tending the grave of a bachelor, a lightning storm on the night of an unfortunate kegger finds Lisa with that very bachelor, undead and dripping earthworms, hiding in her closet. 

But the bachelor,Sprouse, coated in ghastly makeup even once the graveyard dirt has been washed away, is missing a few parts. During a confrontation with the stepmother, however, the two stumble across a solution. From there, bodies begin to pile up.

The film is, as a sum of its parts (if one will pardon such a turn of phrase), great fun.

It has the feel of a pulp horror novel taking place in the Babysitter’s Club universe. Where murder occurs among a multicolored ’80s backdrop, and giggling teenagers interrupt mayhem to gossip about events only the audience is privy to, Cody and director Zelda Williams craft a nostalgic and fun mood that utterly charms the audience. A sense of familiarity is instilled in the viewer so deeply that the movie hardly needs to communicate finer details — we already know them.

Some tropes are refreshingly subverted. Taffy is hardly the wicked stepsister one might expect in a teen movie; she is truly kind to Lisa, and the relationship between the two drives an unexpectedly compelling subplot. Soberano’s performance steals each scene with a sweetness so genuine it cannot be besmirched as saccharine.  

Soberano is not the only cast member who appears to be sinking their teeth into their role. Newton brings classic adorkable awkward protagonist vibes without falling into the traps of such a character, growing a three-dimensional weird-girl heroine out of what could easily have become a caricature. Her spunk and humor stand out just as well in solo scenes as they do in a crowded frame. 

The only member of the main cast who fails to impress is Sprouse. While he is given nearly nothing in terms of dialogue, the undead aspect of his character being played mostly for laughs, leading to moments that were surely intended to be endearing falling flat. However, the moments that land do so satisfactorily.

“Lisa Frankenstein” is not perfect. It suffers when it gets more wrapped up in its own aesthetics than it does in delivering simple scenes and plot, and when jokes rely too heavily on knowing winks. As much as one may simply yearn for a version of “Heathers” where Veronica and J.D. stay together and get away with it, this does not make for a fully cohesive movie. There must be something new to say, or the film risks being a fanfiction.

As a retelling of Frankenstein, “Lisa Frankenstein” has little to say about its inspiration, rather using an undead creature and sewn-together body parts as window dressing for a campy romp in polyester and pastel eyeshadow. There are few references to the themes of the original story beyond the most superficial aspects of resurrection via lightning. In a way, the movie’s superficiality in this regard could be in tribute to its setting. However, the effect is likely not intentional. 

However, the sheer joy of watching an original script take an idea and run with it cannot be overlooked. Cody’s latest film is a love letter to the awkward teen in all of us. After all, who does not feel occasionally misunderstood? Sometimes, we need someone, or something, that gets us. And as Taffy says, paraphrased by Lisa to her beloved Creature, “You shouldn’t try and change a guy, you should take him how he is!”

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