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Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ is less than the sum of its parts

Courtesy Universal Pictures

By Sarah Motteler     2/20/24 10:02pm

Review: ★★½

“Lisa Frankenstein” is a horror/comedy directed by Zelda Williams and written by Diablo Cody of “Jennifer’s Body” fame. While the film is aesthetic to the max, has interesting cinematography and includes some satisfying performances, it fails to live up to Cody’s previous works. The protagonist is foundationally unlikable, the tonal shifts will give you whiplash and its focus on references of other, better movies just reminds you that you could (and really should) be watching something else.

Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is a high-school misfit, cast out by her peers for, ostensibly, her gothic habits and, in reality, her festering wound of a personality. After the tragic death of her mother at the axe of a masked slasher, her father quickly remarries, expanding the Swallows family with ditzy step-sister Taffy, played by Liza Soberano in the best performance of the film, and wicked stepmother Janet, melodramatically portrayed by Carla Gugino.

Lisa struggles with the many trials of young womanhood — uncomfortable family dynamics, getting her crush to notice her, making friends at her new school — until the Creature (Cole Sprouse), resurrected from the grave of a Victorian bachelor pianist, lurches into her life. With the arrival of her first real friend, Lisa’s focus shifts to bringing the corpse back to working order — he’s missing an ear, a hand and a special extra part that isn’t revealed until the last 15 minutes (but won’t surprise anyone who noticed the film’s PG-13 rating). She helps him by harvesting the needed pieces from those who’ve slighted her, falling in love with the Creature in the process.

Once the opening black-and-white credits finish, the movie’s best quality begins to shine: its presentation. The cinematography is well-done, with interesting lighting and creative camera work. The set design is impressive, layered with details that make the locations feel lived in. The aesthetics of the movie are certainly very ’80s — there’s vaporwave coloring and strong geometric patterns positively dripping from the frames. The style is very in-your-face, which could be too much for some viewers, but I found it to be one of the movie’s strongest points. 

While the style is certainly there, “Lisa Frankenstein’’’s substance is lacking. The plot is consciously derivative, a “coming-of-rage” story in the mold of “Carrie” and “Teeth.” It doesn’t do anything as well as or better than the films that have come before, though, and it doesn’t do anything fresh to make it worth its runtime. The tone lurches between silly and serious, never quite able to blend the horror and comedy together into a cohesive genre. The Creature could’ve counted the number of times I laughed on his one remaining hand, and the “horror” made me cringe more out of cringe than any other emotion. 

The protagonist herself is difficult to root for too – Newton delivers a good performance, but there’s just nothing compelling enough about Lisa to make her acerbic personality worth dealing with. Every conversation she had with another character merited eye rolls or audience cringes: the main reason she has any chemistry at all with the Creature is because he can’t talk.

Overall, “Lisa Frankenstein” is a visual feast but mental famine, lacking a certain cohesion that would bring all of its disparate parts together.

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