The Frankenstein retellings are still in full swing following 2023’s The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster and Birth/Rebirth. This time, with Lisa Frankenstein, acclaimed indie filmmaker Diablo Cody lends her acerbic dialogue and darkly comic underpinnings to a 1989 suburbia where Tim Burton and every mean-spirited high school dramedy of the late 20th century made a creative brainchild. While this chaotic and visually stunning amalgamation will undoubtedly attract a fervent fanbase, unfortunately for director Zelda Williams, her feature debut is the definition of style over substance.
In Lisa Frankenstein, Cody’s first officially announced addition to the Jennifer’s Body universe—but ultimately a separate narrative—Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows, a self-styled social reject with a macabre interest in a particular grave at the local cemetery. One night, during a strange storm that ignites the sky with a sickly green hue, Lisa wishes to be “with” her favorite corpse (Cole Sprouse). Little does the corpse know that Lisa desires death, but she instead finds the zombie crashing through her window while her family is away. Lisa is oddly okay with this after a brief shock and proceeds to help the ‘Creature’ regain its missing body parts—with some forced help from the people who have wronged her.
The concept of Lisa Frankenstein is amusing and benefits from some striking and well-conceptualized production design. Despite existing in the same universe as Jennifer’s Body, this movie’s environment is an exaggerated ’80s dreamscape of ridiculously vibrant outfits, the main character’s big pink house, crimped hair, bright, blocky cars, and cheesy high school tropes. Aesthetically, Lisa Frankenstein hits every mark it appears to be going for, and Lisa herself has a big personality. The social media trend seekers and Gen Z will likely adopt this movie for these reasons alone.
Beyond the Burton-esque glam, fun soundtrack, and admittedly excellent physical comedy in some scenes (Sprouse plays the perfect self-aware zombie with unmitigated sass in the movie’s first half, and Newton is pretty on par), the remainder of Lisa Frankenstein is ironically missing some pieces. Cody’s script is unconventionally superficial here, creating caricatures of characters with very little depth and a story that does not appear to understand what it wants to be.
Lisa harbors a tragic memory of seeing her mother killed by an axe murderer, an interesting backstory that never fully connects to her present state of being. Instead, the movie portrays her seemingly morbid nature and nonconformity as a mere quirk, not a meaningfully defined character trait. She seeks death but later wants sex with her very alive crush while blowing off the Creature and pursuing other selfish desires; Lisa is a bit of a walking contradiction, which makes it difficult to root for her. The Creature is even less established, with only a short title sequence illustrating his history; he remains silent throughout most of the movie, leaving his motivations and personality a frustrating mystery.
The other characters are not much better off. The glorious Carla Gugino plays the stepmom from hell, and that is all; Joe Chrest gets typecast as the airhead father; Liza Soberano gets relegated to the ditzy stepsister despite showcasing the most personality, growth, and humor of the entire cast of characters. The erratic pacing and lack of significant plot points do not help either, moving us from one ridiculous murder to the next at Lisa’s ever-changing whims until the story has nowhere else to go.
Indeed, while much of Cody’s trademark wit, humor, and story structure fails to stick the landing within the movie’s visually dynamic landscape, there are still plenty of delightful moments within Lisa Frankenstein to appreciate. With a better-realized love story between Lisa and the Creature, more tangible conflicts and stakes, and even more ’80s culture bursting through the seams, William’s directorial debut could be an instant classic of unhinged Frankensteinian depravity. Instead, as a whole, it is an entertaining combination of quirky teen comedy and Burton’s signature style without some fundamental parts to make it wholly come to life.
Lisa Frankenstein is now playing in theaters nationwide.