2 out of 5 stars

Lisa Frankenstein wants you to cuddle up on the couch and experience something fun. This film is self-consciously made for a sleepover; for a basement full of teenagers sat on beanbags and under blankets. It’s not perfect, but its imperfections are likely purposeful. It aims to deliver lines that fans will quote for the next decade. Lisa Frankenstein wants to be the latest camp classic, but it unfortunately lands short of the mark.

The film opens to find the eponymous character, Lisa Swallow (Kathryn Newton), whose mother was killed by an axe murderer, navigating an abandoned graveyard. She’s there to visit the bust of a handsome 19th-century man and adorn it with another of her gifts. Later that evening, as fate would have it, the bust is struck by lightning, miraculously granting life to an unnamed Frankenstein’s Monster-esque zombie (Cole Sprouse).

Lisa must quickly learn to conceal her undead ‘Creature’ from her remaining family; her father, stepsister, and her dreaded stepmother. Playing the latter, Janet Swallow, Carla Gugino (Gerald’s Game) delivers a detestable (in a good way) performance, making you genuinely frustrated for Lisa. Janet embodies the archetype of the unbearable stepparent; a living manifestation of Lisa’s worst fears. Hiding a zombie at home becomes a tense feat when getting caught means facing the self-righteous wrath of Janet.

Liza Soberano is equally compelling as Lisa’s stepsister Taffy. Though portrayed as a quintessential ‘mean girl’, Taffy is intended to elicit sympathy for the protagonist. However, a central issue arises: she’s a better-developed character than Lisa. While initially cold at school, overly concerned with collecting cheerleading merits and attending exclusive parties, Taffy possesses a genuine human side beneath the surface. But even though Taffy strives to be a true sister to Lisa, her efforts are rejected. In contrast to Taffy’s complexity, Lisa remains frustratingly one-dimensional. Throughout the movie, it feels like we’re rooting for the wrong characters. 

One possible explanation for this problem is the film’s self-awareness of genre. Lisa Frankenstein operates in the rich tradition of female teen angst, in the vein of modern films like Do Revenge (2022) and Booksmart (2019), and older classics like Clueless (1995) and Heathers (1988), among many others.

Feature debuting filmmaker Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin Williams) has a deep affection for this type of film. Lisa Frankenstein is very aware of itself, which makes sense for a genre that’s often so referential, relishing in its longue durée. Do Revenge was based on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, much like how Clueless was based on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, jointly planted the seeds for Lisa Frankenstein. This intertextuality is where much of the love for the genre originates. These films are structured like a house of cards, each scene pulled from the same, abundant deck of options. The challenge lies in placing those cards in a new and interesting arrangement.

For Lisa Frankenstein, Zelda Williams pulls the right cards from the right deck, but the tower doesn’t stand up for long. The individual beats of the film make sense, but once combined in this specific arrangement, nothing sits correctly. Taffy is a recognisable archetype, but not one that gels with Lisa’s personality. Their sisterly bond and repartee thus fails and the one-liners don’t land. The pacing is also off and the humour isn’t particularly funny.

It’s surprising because screenwriter Diablo Cody certainly has the credentials to deliver on this wacky premise. After all, she wrote Juno (2007) as her debut screenplay and won an Academy Award for it. However, where heart and compassion propelled Juno, there’s much too little at the core of Lisa Frankenstein. Cody seems to have taken too many cues from her other, less successful horror-comedy film, Jennifer’s Body (2009).

Early on, Lisa recounts her mother’s gruesome axe murder, which she witnessed. Lisa, however, isn’t troubled by the experience. It’s become more of a joke to her, and she tells it as a fun story at a party. As a result, Lisa never registers as a believable person. Her lack of emotion is simply too unnatural, so we’re left with only a small idea of who she is or what she thinks. This is to take nothing away from Kathryn Newton (Freaky), who manages to elevate the part with an energetic performance and keeps Lisa’s confusing interiority afloat by matching the material’s tone perfectly.

However, this lack of an emotional core to Lisa becomes an increasing concern as the story progresses. Bad things happen to characters who deserve it (that’s about as nuanced as the film’s heart gets), but the consequences are extreme. Then good things happen to bad people, and bad things to good people.

I don’t mean to come across as moralizing (as no scene in Lisa Frankenstein would be so troubling as to necessitate censure), but the film laughs at trauma and death in an off-putting way. There’s an odd sensibility to this film and it eventually became clear why the comedy wasn’t landing: it’s just too cruel.

I understand the desire to write a lighthearted horror-comedy. We all enjoy, and sometimes even need, stories that aren’t burdened by weighty themes. Camp films are inherently tongue-in-cheek and deliberately avoid too much seriousness. There’s a tipping point, though, where constant irony becomes self-defeating. Lisa Frankenstein falls victim to this. Overly reliant on grotesque and superficial humour, it squanders its potential, leaving Taffy as a better antagonist by neglecting Lisa’s opportunity for a stronger character arc.

In fairness, there is fun to be had and some of Zelda Williams’ directorial choices work well. The soundtrack, filled with 1980s pastiche, is superb and includes some effective needle-drops. The colour palette is appropriately neon, and the sets are almost satirical in their exaggeration of a retro style. The movie looks and feels like an embellished memory of the ’80s, rather than a faithful period piece, and this approach works excellently.

I should have been having more fun with Lisa Frankenstein. But with a weak central character and some upsetting comedy, it just didn’t come together. I can only hope future films in this genre avoid its many mistakes.


frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

director: Zelda Williams.
writer: Diablo Cody.
starring: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest & Carla Gugino.