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  • Aliena Abernathy

Williams Family Values: “Lisa Frankenstein” Review

By: Aliena Abernathy 

"Lisa Frankenstein" emerges as a captivating amalgamation, stitching together diverse elements into a Frankenstein's monster of cinematic delight. It is a concoction brewed with the eyes of bright pastel 80s nostalgia, the hands of a darkly funny horror comedy, the heart of a sappy romance flick, all clothed with a dirty suit of satire, and with a brain that operates on the collaboration between first-time director Zelda Williams and writer Diablo Cody ("Juno," "Jennifer's Body"). Though that may not immediately seem like a combination of elements that would produce one of the funniest comedies released so far in 2024, Cody's biting satire and Williams' deadpan direction combine them all together to create what I can best describe as a Tim Burton reimagining of "Mean Girls." 

Movie poster, credit to Michele K. Short/Focus Features

Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams, steps into the directorial spotlight with "Lisa Frankenstein," a decade after her father's passing. Carrying forward the family legacy of timeless comedy, she forges her own path, but one still distinct from her father's career. That said, echoes of their shared comedic sensibilities resound in the film's rapid-fire jokes and nostalgic set design, adorned with movie memorabilia reflecting her father's love for the craft. Nonetheless, Zelda carves her niche, infusing her work with vibrant pastels and expressive costuming, crafting a caricature of 80s society and high school cliques—an evolution from her father's muted palettes and grounded style. 

The film starts off disguised as a typical ‘80s high school comedy. Lisa Swallows, played by Kathryn Newton ("Lady Bird," "Freaky"), acts as the dejected girl whose dark wardrobe contrasts with the more popular cheerleaders. She pines after Michael, the editor of the school's literary journal, played by Henry Eikenberry. The dark insanity promised by the film's promotion shortly exceeds expectations as a surprise PCP-fueled trip derails the main character's night. Things take a morbid turn when that trip takes her through a cemetery during a thunderstorm, and inexplicably (the reason behind resurrection is never explained) Lisa's other love interest is brought back from the dead with a strike of green lightning. That other love interest is only named The Creature, and is played by Cole Sprouse ("Riverdale," "Suite Life of Zack & Cody"). The Creature (as credited in the film), is a mute zombie plucked straight out of his grave, previously having a life as a pianist in the 17th century. Lisa, who used to frequently write poetry at the cemetery that The Creature once inhabited, immediately recognizes him from his old tombstone and accepts him as a companion and source of moral support. The issue arises when he wants something in return: body parts to rebuild himself to his former heartthrob glory. Initially unsure of how to go about doing this, the two quickly turn themselves down a path of murderous intentions. A premise as over-the-top and out there as that, demands a specific mix of nuance and camp from its actors, and under the direction of Williams, it is a mix that is achieved.

Lisa and The Creature, credits to Michele K. Short/Focus Features

Lisa's popular stepsister Taffy, played by Liza Soberano (“Alone/Together”), her oblivious father Dale, played by Joe Chrest ("Stranger Things"), and her step-mother-from-hell Janet, played by Carla Gugino (“Watchmen,” “Midnight Mass”),  have a relatively normal family life all while Lisa digs herself into a deeper grave with her and The Creature's never-ending murder plots. Despite this fact, Soberano and Chrest provide a wonderful contrast to the increasingly chaotic antics of the protagonists and give the film a solid and real world to root itself in to prevent the absurd from becoming mundane. To further the differences between Lisa and her family, she starts out as a homebody poet diagnosed with traumatic muteness (due to the death of her birth mother), until eventually becoming a bombastic and loud tour de force wreaking havoc and chaos in her surrounding environment. It is a constant crescendo of wild action and self-destruction as Lisa reassembles the film's Frankenstein, a science experiment that is equally exciting and darkly funny. 

What holds "Lisa Frankenstein" back the most is its age-rating, coming in at a safe and marketable PG-13. For a script that aims to be a black comedy, making jokes of drug use, cold-blooded and gruesome murder, and postmortem mating rituals, it is painfully obvious when the film is restricted to fit into these rating parameters. One third-act scene, which relates to Lisa wanting to lose her virginity before she dies, is abruptly cut short via a closing-curtains animated transition. What follows is a baffling Tim Burton-esque animation that serves as a confusing homage to Georges Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" in an otherwise completely live-action film. Though it is clear the animation is meant to represent the growing love between Lisa and The Creature, it is unclear why this scene was presented with animation and tacky transitions when no others were. It makes one wonder what other scenes and gags may have been put on the chopping block, as well as how much further Williams could have propelled the film's comedy if she were not subjected to those limitations. 

Despite that, "Lisa Frankenstein" stands as a testament to the sick and wonderful humor of not only Williams but also Diablo Cody, who has now written three movies that feature teenage serial killers, in some ways perfecting the thriller sub-genre with her skill for weaving comedy into the darkest of situations. A laudable entrance into the horror comedy genre, "Lisa Frankenstein" stitches together a madcap mosaic of cinematic nods, weaving a tale that electrifies the audience with its irreverent humor and monstrous mischief, proving that even amidst decomposing corpses, laughter is the most monstrous creation of all. 


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