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Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Is Just a Cinderella Story That Shops at Hot Topic

By Melanie Fischer | Film | February 13, 2024 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | February 13, 2024 |


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, arguably, the most influential work ever created by a teenage girl. As such, the idea of reimagining the story to center a teen girl protagonist—especially set in the 1980s, the golden John Hughes era of high-school tales—feels like one that has real potential in it.

Unfortunately, Lisa Frankenstein, directed by Zelda Williams (in her feature debut) from a script by Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body) fails to realize this potential. In the late aughts, Diablo Cody wrote films that felt ahead of their time. She’s one of the very few screenwriters in recent memory who has reached the level of being a truly recognizable name and creative brand unto herself, but this bloated corpse of a script feels like an echo of her former glory. Lisa Frankenstein plays out like a Disney Channel original movie that wants you to know that it’s not like the other girls; it wants to be subversive, irreverent, edgy, and camp but is far too lazy, and derivative to succeed at being any of those things. Sure, there are still a few zingers here, but they’re glimmers of brilliance dotting a bleak landscape.

While borrowing the undead monster-man concept from the OG Frankenstein, the iconic tale that is actually being retold here is Cinderella. Our lead, Lisa (Kathryn Newton) has been forced to move to a new house and a new school district in her senior year of high school after her mother dies and her father remarries the beautiful but cruel Janet (Carla Gugino). Still grieving her mother and resentful of her father moving on, Lisa refuses to play along with his efforts to play happy families with Janet and her daughter, Taffy (Liza Soberano), also a senior in high school and, of course, everything that Lisa isn’t, a popular cheerleader and pageant queen. One night, Taffy convinces a reluctant Lisa to join her in attending a party. Lisa drinks a spiked drink and is assaulted; somehow this seems to inspire some higher or lower power (fairy godmother? Demon? Zeus?) to do her a solid and grant her a zombie boyfriend (Cole Sprouse) who plays the piano and murders her problems away—he just needs her A+ sewing skills to help him attach a few missing pieces.

Zelda Williams’ direction feels, appropriately but disappointingly, akin to an amalgamation of various organs and limbs sewn together. To its credit, the film often does provide a lot to look at—the production design team really earned their keep on this one, and Williams is a technically capable director. That said, Williams wears her inspirations on her sleeve without making them her own, less homage and more Xerox copy. It feels quite possible that, in time, Lisa Frankenstein will be regarded as a cult film, much like Jennifer’s Body before it, but it fails to capture the true spirit of the term. Lisa Frankenstein tries to recreate the air of a cult film by copying bits from various other cult films that have come before, but there’s only so different or actually bold a film can be when it only speaks in echoes.

Take a throughline involving Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, for example. On the one hand, at least the way Lisa Frankesntein utilizes this iconic silent short is visually interesting and displays at least some artistic thought, which is more than can be said for plenty of recent Hollywood releases. But on the other, it’s shoehorned in, detached from the world of the film—it’s something the creatives behind this movie clearly think is cool and fun, but feels disconnected from the characters and themes actually established here (in contrast to how this silent short is similarly utilized in Hugo, but feels very organic in context).

Then, there are the performances. Kathryn Newton is good; Lisa is a character who could have quickly turned insufferable in the hands of a less capable performer. It’s hard not to have at least some fun watching someone who genuinely seems to be having a great time—sometimes too much so; the one place where her performance feels a bit iffy are in some more serious moments, where she almost appears to be holding back laughter instead of tears, reminiscent of Ewan McGregor grappling with some of the clunkiest lines of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Cole Sprouse is not good. On the plus side, the fact that the Creature is nonverbal limits how much he can drag the film down.

On the downside, the lack of dialogue also drives home the limits of Sprouse’s acting prowess. This man has dead eyes. Not undead zombie eyes, spotted-on-ice-at-the-seafood-counter eyes. If eyes are truly the windows to the soul, there is room for concern here.

But you know who is great? Liza Soberano as Lisa’s stepsister, Taffy. She steals the show. Taffy is the most interesting character in the film—she ticks all the typical boxes for a high school mean girl but instead happens to be kind to a fault—but also one of the most unevenly written. It’s a lot to juggle and a character who doesn’t always fully make sense. Soberano manages to pull it off with flying colors, consistently nailing the more abrupt tonal swings that leave most of her castmates stumbling, and with impressive comedic timing to boot. If there’s one good thing to take away from this very mixed bag of a film, it’s her.

Lisa Frankenstein is now playing in theaters.