Kathryn Newton is dazzling in Lisa Frankenstein, a laugh out loud funny, bloody love story from the minds of director Zelda Williams and writer Diablo Cody.
Whatever you do, go into Lisa Frankenstein as blindly as possible. The experience will be so much better because of that, at least it was for me. Writer Diablo Cody has crafted a tale that only she could tell properly filled with surprises, hilarity, and winds up being touching. The cast, led by Kathryn Newton, then executes that script perfectly and makes sure to keep things as camp as possible. If this film took itself too seriously at any point, the entire vibe would have shifted in a way that could not be fixed.
Lisa Frankenstein centers on an awkward, misunderstood teenager named Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton). Through a strange set of circumstances, Lisa winds up reanimating a Victorian era corpse (Cole Sprouse) and decides to turn him into the man of her dreams.
This narrative is cut from the same cloth as a film like Beetlejuice (1988) and really mixes horror and comedy well. There are elements of Lisa Frankenstein designed to almost shock you into laughing. The crazy thing is, these elements are silly and frightening at the same time in the same way that the comedy in Tim Burton’s classic was.
A lot of that comes from the very nature of Cole Sprouse’s character, simply known as The Creature. Compared to other Frankenstein’s monster types, he experiences a lot, and sort of comes of age in the 80s. Not only does that very concept lead to the script’s funniest moments, but it also helps what we have on the screen stand out. Sprouse will impress, especially if your only exposure to him is the TV series Riverdale. This is such a physical performance from him in several ways and he never struggles to convey what The Creature is feeling.
While the story will feel familiar and is bound to trigger feelings of nostalgia thanks to the fact it is set in 1989, director Zelda Williams and writer Diablo Cody put their own spin on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” What we have with Lisa Frankenstein is part coming of age story, with a splash of love mixed in, and topped off with some cool horror. Lisa and The Creature grow together in ways that neither of them could have expected and it is quite a sight to see.
There are plenty of references and certain slang terms of the time are used, but they feel rather organic as they should, given we are supposed to believe this is a fictionalized version of 1989. The setting plays a role in terms of the soundtrack and clothing more than anything, and both terrifically complement the narrative that is unfolding.
Cody adds a sort of secret sauce to this story: her seemingly effortless knack for writing dialogue and some comedy that will split your sides in two. Once you put these parts together and flip the switch, this film becomes a gory, deliciously camp, and supremely acted good time.
The true star of Lisa Frankenstein is Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows, who is such a fascinating protagonist. She is complex, which means there will be times when you might not like her. Newton captures her outcast nature so well and makes you empathize with Lisa early on. Those that are awkward in social situations will see her as one of them, and yet all audiences will recognize that she has no problem being herself. This helps make her inner and outer evolution throughout the story much more satisfying. Audiences will likely have been her in some way, and eventually, they came into their own just as she does.
Admittedly, Lisa’s way of growing and expressing herself is vastly different from ours, and Newton’s performance reflects that. She always feels human and adorable, but her confidence and rage are placed on display more and more as things move along. You would not think the girl at the start would go as far as she does here, but you believe she would by the end. Newton is delightfully fabulous, with enough memorable moments here that one could absolutely call this performance her defining contribution to the horror genre.
Speaking of Lisa’s evolution, her costumes play such a pivital role in capturing that. Her initial looks are very teenage outcast of the 80s, with little pop to them. I would call Lisa a cute librarian early on, she looks good, but at the same time you have no doubt as to why she would be excluded. Her outfits do not really fit in with her peers, even if they are uniquely her own style. As things move forward, costume designer Meagan McLaughlin gives her an upgrade that helps cement Lisa Swallows as a phenomenal horror protagonist. Her looks in the back half of the film are to die for and feel very 80s goth but could still be pulled off in the present day. It makes sense that Lisa feels confident and badass with outfits that are this slick.
If there is one criticism I have for Lisa Frankenstein, it is that the film can have these weird tonal shifts. Yes, we cannot take this film too seriously, but that does not mean that everything gets a pass. At times, Diablo Cody loses her footing, and the result are scenes which could be jarring. Thankfully, these moments are brief, and the story moves on to the next sequence before one can think about it too hard. I would be lying if I said that there were not moments that did not always land though. Much of the narrative and the comedy hit the mark, which makes the hiccups that occur much more noticeable.
The best way that I can describe Lisa Frankenstein is that it seems like a film that is destined to be enjoyed by many until the end of time. Like Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009), it will find an audience that fiercely loves it and dissects its every aspect. Kathryn Newton adds another notch to her Scream Queen belt by giving one of her best performances. The film has a story that is littered with love and comedy while not being afraid to get a little gruesome. It is certainly something that I continue to think about and cannot wait to rewatch when I need a horror fix.
Lisa Frankenstein will be released in US theaters on February 9, 2024.