Lisa Frankenstein Should Have Been Left in the Grave

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

Of all the films that could have made a winking reference to Mary Shelley’s lesser-known legacy (losing her virginity on her mother’s grave), Lisa Frankenstein should have been the one to do it. Perhaps this glaring omission is based on the fact that not enough people are aware of it to be aghast at its exclusion, but it does feel like the central thesis to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to Lisa Frankenstein. The trailer promised a bombastic neon ’80s revenge flick written by the woman who brought us Jennifer’s Body fifteen years ago. All the stars seemed like they were ready to align and lightning was going to strike, but Lisa Frankenstein offers nothing but a whimper.

It’s 1989 and Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is reeling from witnessing the death of her mother at the hands of an axe-wielding home invader. Mere months after this tragedy, Lisa’s father (Joe Chrest) has remarried. His new wife, Janet (Carla Gugino), doesn’t have an ounce of patience for Lisa’s PTSD and is looking for any opportunity to ship her off to a psych ward. Lisa’s new step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), seems to be the only one concerned with making Lisa feel comfortable in her new town and at her new high school. Lisa seeks solace in a local graveyard for bachelors, and finds one grave that is particularly fascinating to her. After a freak thunderstorm, this bachelor, only known as The Creature (Cole Sprouse), comes to life and recruits Lisa to help him collect the body parts he’s missing.

The Creature and Lisa sit on a tanning bed
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Much of Lisa Frankenstein is winningly charming, but it’s ultimately the muddled script that dulls the film as a whole. Newton shines in the role of a weirdo-loner teen who is deeply in love with a reanimated corpse. Despite her teen years being far behind her, Newton captures the dumbstruck, dreamy longing of a teenage crush. She also delivers Diablo Cody’s zingers with an ease that makes her the frontrunner should Juno inevitably be remade for another generation. Unfortunately, Cody’s trademark wit is missing from most of the script, but even when Newton is left to her own devices, she’s utterly magnetic as Lisa. Perhaps no one has ever sung “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon with quite so much angst, hope, and aplomb.

Lisa Frankenstein marks the feature-length directorial debut of Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, and it’s a self-assured one. Williams created a zany, technicolor playground for her actors, all of whom turn in delightful performances. Gugino gets to trade the serious acting she’s been doing for the past few years in Mike Flanagan’s works for the role of campy, evil stepmother in ’90s elastic workout clothes. Soberano is endearing and goofy as Lisa’s polar opposite; the ray of cheerleading sunshine to Lisa’s goth broodiness. Soberano worked for many years in the Philippines, and Lisa Frankenstein marks her Hollywood film debut.

Lisa sits in her high school classroom
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Reanimation and the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seem to be on the minds of many filmmakers. Aside from Lisa Frankenstein, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Guillermo del Toro are each planning an adaptation of their own for 2024. In a sense, we’ve all been going through a reanimation of sorts after the isolating effects of COVID-19. It’s not easy to shake the impact that time has left (and continues to leave) on our lives, so it makes sense that we’re fascinated with the idea of becoming alive again. All of us, though we likely didn’t think of it this way, are in the process of coming alive again in the wake of 2020.

That’s the heart of Lisa Frankenstein: Lisa learning to open up and experience the world in the wake of the brutal loss of her mother. That heart, though, is shrouded and twisted throughout the film, before we ultimately lose sight of it forever. At times, Lisa Frankenstein wears that heart on its sleeve and has moments that are likely the most earnest and vulnerable of any movie Cody has written. It’s these moments when the audience can feel that reanimated heart beat, when everything is coming together in its own weird, lovely way.

Taffy holds Lisa's face closely in their shared bathroom
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

At other times, Lisa Frankenstein is a story of revenge. That can feel warranted, like when Lisa and The Creature fight back against a boy who forced himself on Lisa. Mostly, though, their actions are selfish in a specifically teenage way that’s structured to be a “lesson” at the end. That lesson never comes. In fact, the lesson about suicide that the movie leaves the audience with feels dangerous. Lisa Frankenstein is packaged and rated by the MPA for teens. It’s PG-13, which inherently has the burden of being watched by young people and the potential to greatly impact their lives. A movie about a depressed girl who goes on a murdering rampage to build a perfect (dead) boyfriend and who only finds peace in deciding to end her life feels reckless, even if the movie has fantastical elements. Lisa and her emotions always feel grounded and far too real, which makes the ending too uncomfortable to be written off.

Lisa Frankenstein’s script contains many interesting concepts and scenes from other movies Frankensteined together to become this one. There are times when everything flows together, when it’s charming and lovely, with the makings of a cult classic. Then the script takes a sharp turn, abandoning everything that was working well in favor of awkward, stilted scenes that should have been left in the grave.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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