sat 20/04/2024

Lisa Frankenstein review - a bitchy trawl through the high-school horror movie back catalogue | reviews, news & interviews

Lisa Frankenstein review - a bitchy trawl through the high-school horror movie back catalogue

Lisa Frankenstein review - a bitchy trawl through the high-school horror movie back catalogue

Diablo Cody delivers a comic but gory pastiche of 1980s pop culture

Cool ghouls: Kathryn Newton and Cole SprouseFocus Features

Diablo Cody’s biggest screenwriting hit was 2007’s Juno, a larky but tender story of teenage pregnancy. She’s gone back to high school for her latest, Lisa Frankenstein, which focuses on another troubled teen. This one has goth looks accessorised with an axe.

With director Zelda Williams hammering home the horror, it’s a black comedy but not quite as radical as Cody’s 18-rated Jennifer’s Body (2009), in which another young woman went gorily rogue. This one stars Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows, who has witnessed her mother being murdered in a home invasion. Within a year, her father married a psychiatric nurse, Janet (Jennifer Pierce, pictured below, right), with a daughter Lisa’s age, cheerleader extraordinaire Taffy (Liza Soberano). Now the two girls are in senior year together. 

The year is 1989, for those who can’t tell from the 1980s rock ballads on the soundtrack from REO Speedwagon, Echo and the Bunnymen, Jeffrey Osborn and (ho-ho) the Zombies. There are no mobile phones, which always helps a plot along, though the cars are mostly late-1970s survivors. The film’s art direction is knowingly OTT, full of the garish kitsch of the time, from bright aqua walls and fuchsia pink tiling to sneaker-phones and fairy lights everywhere indoors. 

Jennifer Pierce as Janet in Lisa FrankensteinLisa has remained largely mute since her traumatic experience, channelling her feelings into poetry. She also visits the local graveyard known as Bachelors’ Cemetery, where the tomb of a young composer handily named Frankenstein (Cole Sprouse) is her favourite hangout.

From its opening monochrome credits onwards, using Tim Burton-esque stop-motion animation silhouettes to spell out Frankenstein’s brief love affair and early death, the film tosses horror and sci-fi references around inside the pressure cooker of high school life. Mean girls stalk the lockers and cafeteria tables; cheerleaders rule; parties are orgies of sex and bad booze. 

At one such party, to impress the literary magazine editor Michael (Henry Eikenberry) she has the hots for, Lisa downs a plastic cupful of PCP-laced drink and soon begins to hallucinate. Her bedroom poster of Méliès’s Journey to the Moon becomes a clip from the real film; her doll is straight out of Coraline; the invader she conjures up bursting into her home this time is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most significant of all is that, back at the cemetery, a bolt of lightning has reanimated the corpse of composer Frankenstein and triggered a plot surge. He is aware of Lisa’s visits to his grave and tracks her to her home.

This is Edward Scissorhands without the blades, or the sweetness, but still a similar comedy of errors where Lisa tries to humanise her rank-smelling monster, whose body scatters creepy-crawlies as it moves. While he hides in her wardrobe, he turns fashion guru, choosing what she will wear that day from Taffy’s prom-wear. Lisa starts arriving at school in modish black-net outfits and full goth slap, her long hair frizzed out like Elsa Lanchester’s in The Bride of Frankenstein. 

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa FrankensteinHer new monster-buddy has not survived two centuries in the grave intact, naturally, so part of their friendship involves culling body parts from living bodies for Lisa to sew onto him. (They have an ingenious way of making sure this amateur surgery takes.) While he gradually regains his bodily functions, she begins to speak again, prattling away at him; he comically grunts and gestures back at her, which she immediately understands. It’s an outlandish metaphor for establishing that they are on the same wavelength.

The body count mounts, but Lisa’s affections are still fixed on Michael, the pretty but pretentious literary type. It’s clear her new pet monster is in love with her, but he doesn’t have the equipment for the job. It is duly found, in the funniest, darkest scene in the film. 

There are witty little touches throughout, such as Frankenstein stealing a car and putting Vivaldi on the car radio, Taffy’s dire mother drinking a breakfast cocktail while listening to a gloopy self-help tape, neighbours ignoring Lisa’s battle with the Creature from the Black Lagoon and dismissing her simply as “odd”.

Cody’s skill at barbed dialogue has not grown dull with age. Frankenstein’s corpse-tears, Lisa yells at him, smell like “a hot toilet at a carnival”; her stepsister Taffy, without obvious irony, suggests Lisa could do beauty pageants “if she had congeniality” and might even attract a “cute guy with bad skin”. The high schoolers bandy terms like “bitchin” and “beer-slut”; for Lisa’s dad, the word du jour is “rad”.

The script’s zingers are delivered with spot-on timing and just the right tone of casual bitchery, especially by Soberano’s Taffy. Even the near-silent Sprouse adds to the comedy with his deadpan contributions to the dialogue. Ultimately, though, this is a schlockfest for horror fans still yearning for the ersatz flavours of 1980s pop culture, from the novelty phones to the ornamental flamingos on the lawn. It’s an amusing exercise in style, but emotionally thin, despite the bravura of its presentation. 

It's Edward Scissorhands without the blades, or the sweetness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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