‘Lisa Frankenstein’ review: John Hughes and Tim Burton’s twisted love child has risen
7 mins read

‘Lisa Frankenstein’ review: John Hughes and Tim Burton’s twisted love child has risen


Imagine for a moment the teen dreams of John Hughes collided with the goth and gunk of ’80s-era Tim Burton, and you’ll have an inkling of what Lisa Frankenstein has in store for you. 

Heavy influenced by ’80s comedies from both of these iconic filmmakers as well as Mary Shelley’s horror-spawning novel Frankenstein, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Zelda Williams have birthed a coming-of-age romance where weird girl meets undead boy that’s as unholy as it is hilarious. 

Cody, who scribed the Oscar-winning teen comedy Juno and the cult-adored horror comedy Jennifer’s Body, has forged her career in tales of misfit girls coming of age through cutting jokes, clever catchphrases, and carnage — be it emotional, psychological, bloody, or all of the above. Lisa Frankenstein is the sister film halfway between Juno‘s folk-pop quirkiness and Jennifer’s Body‘s gnarly, boy-eating wrath. In Lisa Frankenstein, the titular heroine is allowed to be charming, messy, horny, and even murderous. And we’re invited along for the wild ride. 

Lisa Frankenstein re-imagines Mary Shelley with ’80s weirdness.

Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in "Lisa Frankenstein."


Credit: Michele K. Short / Focus Features

The ’80s were lush with absolutely bonkers comedies, ranging from the horny sci-fi of Hughes’ Weird Science and Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy to the macabre humor of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs and Michael Lehmann’s Heathers to the goth and gross splendor of Burton’s Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (which yes, was technically 1990). All of these were movies that sunk their teeth into concepts of love, sex, and death with relish. Nothing was sacred, so teen boys might accidentally turn a bullying brother into a literal pile of shit, and teen girls might retort, “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.”

This is the era for which Lisa Frankenstein pines. And though the movie’s set is peppered with more cheery iconography from the era, like sneaker phones, REO Speedwagon sheet music, and Care Bears, this gleefully fucked-up comedy walks solidly in the footsteps of those that come before. For here is a movie that isn’t afraid to wear its oddball heart on its sleeve, combining the horny and horrific, the goofy and the gross, to dynamic effect. 

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse make a monstrous power couple. 

Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows and Cole Sprouse as The Creature in "Lisa Frankenstein."


Credit: Michele K. Short / Focus Features

The Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania actress stars as Lisa Swallows, a new kid in high school who’s struggling to make friends, despite the earnest efforts of her stepsister Taffy (a winsome Liza Soberano), a chipper cheerleader reminiscent of Juno‘s perky bestie, Leah. Because of a dark event in her past, Lisa doesn’t share the joie de vivre of her classmates, and so imagines she might be better understood by the long-dead bachelor buried in a nearby abandoned cemetery. (She likes the look of his headstone.)

What might have only been the stuff of confusing sex dreams becomes a bit of a nightmare when The Creature (Sprouse, caked in mud, bugs, and decay) rises from the grave to help Lisa find her bliss. 

Teen girls’ paths of self-discovery are often winding and dramatic, but Lisa swiftly moves from pining and peer pressure to mayhem and murder. You see, The Creature’s happy to lend Lisa a figurative hand in terms of fashion tips and self-preservation. But when he literally needs a hand, homicide is a homespun solution that catches on — with Lisa finding her inner Dr. Frankenstein, stitching fresh corpse bits to her beastly bestie. 

Lisa Frankenstein is wonky, weird, and wondrous. 

Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows and Cole Sprouse as The Creature in "Lisa Frankenstein."


Credit: Michele K. Short / Focus Features

Making her feature directorial debut, Williams gets off to a wobbly start. The film finds its footing through a barrage: There’s a flashback, a drug trip, an allusion-studded dream sequence, and a clunky meet-cute. It can be tricky to get a beat on who Lisa is beyond all the flare. But Newton and Sprouse find their rhythm. She evolves into a cocky big mouth with grand ideas and even grander gestures; he gives a nearly wordless performance that relies heavily on physical comedy with some nuanced grunting. (As May December has shown, Riverdale is truly a masterclass for young actors.) 

Lisa’s world is brought to brilliant life not only by a candy-colored, neon-streaked, and gore-stained production design, but also by some stellar supporting turns. The Fall of the House of Usher‘s Carla Gugino seems to be channeling John WatersSerial Mom as a menacing stepmother who spouts insults along with misapplied new-age terminology. With a dopey grin and an unflappable pluckiness, Joe Chrest is a pitch-perfect parody of many an ’80s dad: nice and oblivious. Then there’s Soberano, who nearly steals the show. 

Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows and Liza Soberano as Taffy in "Lisa Frankenstein."


Credit: Michele K. Short / Focus Features

Because Taffy is pretty, peppy, and popular, teen movies have trained us to hate her. But Soberano complicates matters by making Taffy a undeniable delight. Though the character seem like a throwback bimbo, Cody’s script has a sex-positive and empathetic approach that embraces this smiling stepsister into the sisterhood of misfit teens. She may not be a weirdo, but generously offering her wardrobe, her optimism, and her tanning bed, Taffy is more than just an ally or plot device. While the romance between Lisa and the Creature gets daffy and deranged, it is unexpectedly this big-hearted cheerleader who keeps the film’s stakes grounded. As Lisa Frankenstein frolics into a truly bonkers third act, a single long shot of Taffy’s reaction lingers on, as do some of Cody’s sharpest one-liners. 

Colorful and chaotic, Lisa Frankenstein might look like a quirky confection perfect for Valentine’s Day. But Cody rarely delivers something so simple or safe. Be it Juno‘s purposefully alarming love triangle, Jennifer’s Body‘s complicated portrait of female friendship (and queer girl lust), or Young Adult‘s anti-heroine’s determined refusal to grow the fuck up, Diablo is a provocateur who delights in pop culture. This time, her teen tale collides with horror, trauma, and putrid vomit, making a rom-com that is at times messy — but is ultimately a delightfully deranged treat. 

In that way, she and Williams have hit the sweet spot of those ’80s comedies that have come before. Because, if we’re honest, many of them have wonky bits. But we loved them just the same. And just as the children of the ’80s claimed those creepy comedies as our own, I suspect the new generation will clutch Lisa Frankenstein, seeing every wart as a jewel in its crown. 

Lisa Frankenstein opens in theaters Feb. 9. 





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