VERDICT: This female-gaze take on 1980s teen movies must have looked great on paper, but it never comes to life on screen.
A collection of 1980s style choices, catchphrases — “Bag your face!” is unleashed in the first five minutes — and needle drops in search of a movie, Lisa Frankenstein is a deadly dull and stitched-together effort that doubtless worked better on paper than it does in execution.
Its unfulfilled promise begins with the title, which mashes together Mary Shelley’s Mad Doctor with the graphic designer famous for her wildly psychedelic color palette. Screenwriter Diablo Cody admirably sets out to subvert tropes from popular and wildly misogynistic Reagan-era teen comedies like Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds, but the results never come alive.
It’s 1989, and teenager Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton, Freaky) has had to switch high schools in her senior year. Six months after her mother’s murder at the hands of an ax-wielding serial killer, Lisa’s father Dale (Joe Chrest, Stranger Things) has remarried and moved the family in with psych nurse Janet (Carla Gugino), and her somewhat ditsy daughter, cheerleader Taffy (Liza Soberano).
Despite the kind-hearted Taffy’s best efforts, Lisa has no friends at school, so she spends a lot of time in a local abandoned cemetery, Bachelor’s Grove. She feels a special affinity for one tombstone, which she tidies up, even leaving her late mother’s rosary entwined in the marble hands of a memorial statue. So when lightning revives that tomb’s resident — a long-dead musician played by Cole Sprouse, Riverdale — he naturally seeks out Lisa.
She seems unfazed by this development — although she’s utterly grossed out by the smell that emerges every time he cries — and hides the living dead man in her walk-in closet. It’s not a love match at first, since Lisa has eyes for the school’s self-consciously cool lit-magazine editor Michael (Henry Eikenberry, Euphoria), but they grow closer when the dead guy becomes Lisa’s angel of vengeance, dispatching first Janet (who has threatened to ship Lisa off to a psychiatric hospital) and then Lisa’s lab partner and would-be date-rapist Doug (Bryce Romero).
Despite the occasional zinger one-liner from Cody’s script, Lisa Frankenstein shuffles from scene to scene like Boris Karloff in heavy boots, never landing on a pace or a tone that might imbue the comedy with a pulse. A trying-on-clothes montage featuring the reanimated corpse no doubt seemed hilarious on the page, but first-time director Zelda Williams snuffs out any spark it might have had.
Newton tries hard but clearly struggles to make sense of a character who’s supposed to blossom from mousy nerd to goth glamour girl in a film that has no idea how to build or sustain that transition. Most of the other characters are given one or two notes to play: Gugino commits to playing a 1980s monster, more concerned with Precious Moments figurines and self-help tapes than her stepdaughter’s problems, and while one of the film’s best ideas is to make Soberano’s Taffy kind and supportive rather than a one-dimensional villain, “kind and supportive” (and a little naïve) is all she’s given to play.
It’s Sprouse who winds up making the biggest impression since his role is mostly wordless. He’s spared the clunky era-specific shout-outs — references to Pepsi Free and the Chrysler LeBaron thud like anvils — and he makes a wonderfully brooding romantic lead, becoming more handsome and less corpse-like with each new murder victim’s body part that Lisa sews onto him.
There are hints of broad caricature in the ’80s look of the film, mainly centered on the character of Janet: from her salmon-colored-dollhouse home to her garishly-hued ensembles, she represents an unholy collaboration between Laura Ashley and Jem and the Holograms. But the rest of Lisa Frankenstein can’t decide if it wants to be realistic or cartoonish, and that indecisive color palette, combined with the muddy cinematography from Paula Huidobro (CODA), makes for a visually unappealing film. The rare moments that pop are in the animated fantasy sequences from Tulips and Chimneys that use George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon as a reference point.
The smarter, sharper, funnier version of Lisa Frankenstein hovers tantalizingly over this movie without ever coming to fruition. Back to the morgue with it.