LISA FRANKENSTEIN Review: A Funless, Formless Zom-Com

Despite impassioned performances, Lisa Frankenstein can't overcome an unconfident screenplay and its PG-13 trappings.
Lisa Frankenstein

Zelda Williams’ feature directorial debut, Lisa Frankenstein, has all of the ingredients for success: a screenplay written by Academy Award-winner Diablo Cody, who penned one of the greatest horror comedies ever made in Jennifer’s Body, a 1980s aesthetic that continuously bathes itself in camp, and a Zombie storyline that pays tribute to some of the greatest masters of horror who paved the way for this film to be made. And yet, it somehow never clicks together.

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For most of the runtime, I kept attempting to figure out exactly where the movie was heading, swerving from one direction to the next without a clear-cut goal. The result, while admirably ambitious, left me cold and massively disappointed that the screenwriter of Jennifer’s Body would pen such a formless affair. 

But who’s to blame for such a listless comedy? No one’s the prime suspect, but Williams’ inexperience at balancing out shocking sequences with a light tone is astounding. But it’s her insistence on throwing a bunch of horror genres at the screen just because she can that sinks the whole affair. Consider the movie’s opening moments: an animated opening sequence that sets a Gothic tone to the whole movie, only for that to be flipped to its head with a When in Rome needle drop to establish its 80s setting. It’s a massive tonal whiplash. 

Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

For a while, it morphs into a John Hughes coming-of-age tale (it is, however, missing a Kajagoogoo needle-drop) as we meet Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), an overtly shy teenager who consistently lives under the shadow of her step-sister Taffy (a remarkable Hollywood debut for Liza Soberano, the shining grace of this dreary mess). She frequently visits the Bachelor’s cemetery and dreams about being with the person inhabiting her favorite grave (Cole Sprouse). When a storm mysteriously awakens him from his grave, the two form the most unlikely of friendships. 

When The Creature stumbles upon Lisa’s house for the first time, it’s the most ingenious sequence of the film because it directly harkens back to George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. As if it wasn’t obvious enough that The Creature is inspired by Frankenstein’s monster, Bub, and Edward Scissorhands (Sprouse consistently channels Johnny Depp-like facial expressions from Tim Burton’s Christmas classic), here’s Lisa watching Day of the Dead, specifically the sequence where Bub frees himself from the shackles of his human captors. And BANG! – The Creature crashes into her house. 

Lisa Frankenstein‘s PG-13 Rating Hampers Momentum

Lisa Frankenstein also consistently wants to push buttons but is shackled by a PG-13 rating. Any sequence where extreme gore would likely enhance the overall vibe of the film is unfortunately hampered by strange cuts or camera angles that decidedly hide the nastiest cuts to body parts depicted on screen. One such scene occurs in slow-motion as The Creature slashes a man while Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love plays in the background. 

Cole Sprouse stars as The Creature and Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

While the musical choice adds a welcomed tonal imbalance to the proceedings, the sequence is also petrifyingly flat, with a visual language that consistently searches for identity instead of heavily leaning into camp and gore. Yes, it can be both. Karyn Kusama did exactly that with Jennifer’s Body.

Why couldn’t Cody follow in that same vein, especially since she says the two films are set in the same universe? You have no idea how ramping up the gore could’ve made this thing soar because what’s on screen feels so toothless as if it’s unafraid to shock audiences when the story itself feels rather shocking and frequently takes risky directions with its characters and core arc. 

At Least Lisa Frankenstein Has Solid Performances

Credit where credit is due: Cody subverts enough Zom com tropes for her story to feel original. Plus, Newton’s portrayal of Lisa is devilishly fun, although she frequently switches tonal intonations from scene to scene, but that’s not her fault. The movie never really knows what it wants to be or do with its protagonists. As a result, the portrayals on-screen fail to draw compelling arcs. The only two actors who remain unscathed are Sprouse, who does his best Bub/Edward Scissorhands impression, and Soberano, whose Hollywood debut is the most remarkable I’ve seen since Deepika Padukone in xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

The hairstyles and costume design also enhance the 1980s vibe on display, but Lisa Frankenstein’s cinematography never goes hard enough to fully lean into a distinct vision of the 1980s – it’s only content to emulate the style in passing. How audiences could ever accept such a lazy way to construct images in the year of our lord 2024 is beyond me. Though I guess it does look better than the $200 million money-laundering scheme known as Argylle, so there’s that. 

But should we be content with movies that merely replicate an era instead of reinterpreting it to its head? Should we accept such dull, cookie-cutter, and unfunny material from Hollywood and call it a day? Beyond two great supporting performances and a couple of sequences that could muster a chuckle, Lisa Frankenstein can’t overcome generic stylistic flourishes and a screenplay lacking a true sense of identity.

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It’s almost as if it wants to blossom much further than its PG-13 trappings but can’t because of studio mandates. What a shame – and what a waste of incredible talent that could’ve made it one of the finest American pictures of the year. 

Rating: 1.5/5

About Lisa Frankenstein

Lisa Frankenstein

Release Date: February 9, 204
Director: Zelda Williams
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Music: Isabella Summers
Executive Producer: Jeffrey Lampert
Producers: Mason Novick, Diablo Cody
Production: MXN Entertainment, Lollipop Woods
Distribution: Focus Features, Universal Pictures
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest and Carla Gugino

Synopsis: A coming of RAGE love story from acclaimed writer Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body) about a misunderstood teenager and her high school crush, who happens to be a handsome corpse. After a set of playfully horrific circumstances bring him back to life, the two embark on a murderous journey to find love, happiness… and a few missing body parts along the way.

Lisa Frankenstein is now playing in theatres. What did you think of the movie? Are you a fan of Jennifer’s Body? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on social media!

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Picture of Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent

Maxance is a freelance film and TV writer, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the University of Montreal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies.