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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Lisa Frankenstein': A Darkly Sweet Teen Rom-Com

In 2009, the film Jennifer's Body was released to mixed reviews and disappointing box office numbers. The film is a horror-comedy that sees a demon-possessed high school student killing her male classmates and eating them in order to survive. The film was notable for being screenwriter Diablo Cody's follow-up to her Academy Award-winning debut, Juno, but many at the time wrote it off as a sophomore slump. In the years since, Jennifer's Body has been reappraised and has become a cult classic, largely for its blend of dark humor and feminist themes. 15 years later, history seems to be repeating itself, as Cody is back with yet another horror-comedy with a feminist bent. And once again, it appears that audiences are a bit mixed on it. This film, Lisa Frankenstein, plays out like Heathers by way of Tim Burton, intersecting dark humor and horror to tell a story about an unusual young girl who begins to fall for the re-animated corpse of a Victorian man. Between the general premise and Cody's distinct voice, the film isn't exactly for everyone, but those who are more fond of what the film is doing will find plenty to love about it, and even if the film isn't getting the best reception right out of the gate, it just might be a cult classic in the making.

Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is an awkward teenage girl who is still processing the brutal death of her mother that occurred just months earlier. In the meantime, her father has remarried, and she has gained a stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano). Lisa spends a lot of time in a nearby cemetery, taking particular interest in the grave of a young man who died in 1837. After a bad experience at a party, she returns to the cemetery and speaks to the grave, saying she wishes she was with him. Shortly after, a bolt of lightning strikes the grave and the man, credited as "The Creature" (Cole Sprouse) comes back to life. He breaks into Lisa's house, and she decides to protect him. However, their relationship soon takes a dark turn, with murder and severed body parts accompanying their path to true love and happiness.

It's a little surprising that this is Diablo Cody's first produced screenplay in 6 years (her last credit being 2018's Tully), given her consistent output in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s. Granted, she did take a detour to write the book for the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, but it is still intriguing that there has been such a wide gap in between film projects. Regardless, Cody's script for Lisa Frankenstein features her unmistakable voice, and is definitely cut from the same cloth as Jennifer's Body. Granted, this film is a bit more toned down by comparison, at least in terms of its violence and humor. This is likely to make the film a bit more palatable to a wider audience, but it is still able to get a way with a decent amount of blood, gross-out gags, and dirty jokes despite its PG-13 rating. It has a nice edge to it that should appeal to the same people who enjoyed Jennifer's Body, although some might struggle to get on its wavelength. It does a fairly good job of balancing horror and comedy, and has a fun energy that helps redeem its shortcomings. The film's narrative is kind of predictable, and feels slight in a few areas, but the vibes it puts off are so infectious that I didn't mind all that much.

A lot of credit is due to the foundation that Cody's script lays, but director Zelda Williams is just as responsible for how well this film works. The two are a good match for each other, as they both do a great job of keeping the film engaging and exciting, while establishing a distinct style that helps it stand out. It does feel a bit indebted to Tim Burton in a way, but Williams still makes the film her own for the most part. With this being her feature debut, she does a great job of showing what she's capable of, and I am excited to see what she does going forward. I would honestly be interested in seeing her and Cody reuniting on a future project, as they are a good team, but I really want to see what other stories she has to tell.

It did take me a minute to get on board with the two lead performances, as they operate on two opposite ends of the spectrum before settling into a nice groove. Kathryn Newton's Lisa is a bit subdued in the early moments, but once her character becomes clearer, I was much more engaged by her performance. I do think she is much stronger in the moments where Lisa is coming out of her shell, but in retrospect, she does good work all throughout the film. Cole Sprouse, on the other hand is a bit more cartoonish in his early moments, which is needed, but a bit distracting at times. His physicality of The Creature is a bit in line with the stereotypical movements we see of zombies in media, and feels a tad forced in his first couple of scenes, but he feels much more natural and dialed in for the remainder of the film. Newton and Sprouse have good chemistry, which is quite impressive considering that Sprouse communicates through grunts and gestures for 99 percent of the film. Newton does a lot of the heavy lifting in their scenes together, but Sprouse still makes some interesting choices in these moments.

The supporting characters grabbed my attention far more than the leads, especially Carla Gugino and Liza Soberano. Gugino is an absolute scene-stealer here as Lisa's new stepmother, Janet. The character is very vain and antagonistic toward Lisa, and Gugino eats up every bit of this. Out of the whole cast, she is the most in tune with the type of film this is and is so funny in every scene she is in. Liza Soberano was the biggest surprise of the film for me, as this is the first role I've seen her in. She has had great success in various Filipino films, but she makes her Hollywood debut here. After watching this film, I would love nothing more than to see her show up in more projects as she is so great all throughout the film. From her first scene, we know exactly who she is, and she nails the film's comedy and the character's more emotional moments. Soberano is truly a great talent and I hope more people will take notice of her.

Lisa Frankenstein is the type of film that you are either on its wavelength, or you aren't. If you aren't a fan of the weird mixture of horror and comedy that this film offers up or the work of Diablo Cody in general, this film might not be for you. But if you are a fan of these things, this film will hit with you incredibly well. I have my issues with the film, but I can't deny how much fun I had while watching it. Once it settles into a good rhythm, I was fully on board with it, and laughed out loud several times throughout. Sure, it could stand to be a bit more polished, but I like that it is a bit rougher, and that it doesn't make too many concessions in appealing to a larger audience. As far as debut features go, Zelda Williams shows that she is capable of pulling off something as wild and stylized as this film, and that she has a lot of potential as a director. For Diablo Cody, this film shows that sometimes you can go home again, and that she still has what it takes to craft a solid horror-comedy. And much like Jennifer's Body, audiences might be divided on this film now, but I can see this catching on with younger generations and becoming a cult classic with time.

Rating: 3.5/5

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