Watching Lisa Frankenstein—the new horror-comedy from screenwriter Diablo Cody and first-time director Zelda Williams (in theaters Feb. 9)—is akin to getting caught up in a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Which came first, the idea for this ’80s-inspired monster romance, or the pun in its title?
By how staunchly the movie clings to its collage of nostalgic iconography, I’d say it was the latter. The film’s title is a cheeky take on Lisa Frank, known for her signature neon-colored landscapes and doe-eyed animals, and Frankenstein, whose creation was a little less…vibrant. The portmanteau reflects the film’s design palette, with its lush hues, teased hair, and sallow reanimated monster skulking around the frame in a Violent Femmes t-shirt. But the era-specific visual aesthetic only underlines how markedly out of step the film is by contrast.
It would be difficult to make a movie about a lonely high school senior in 1989 who accidentally revives a dapper corpse that isn’t at least somewhat fun, and Cody’s typically trenchant screenplay holds just enough of the wit that has won her legions of fans. But this macabre love story doesn’t bite hard enough, with its initial promise trapped somewhere in the disconnect between its dawdling direction and a tonally erratic script. Despite its dazzling style and a handful of big laughs, Lisa Frankenstein takes far too long to get properly weird, its freakish moxie hindered by plodding editing that keeps this wannabe midnight movie at the pace of an afternoon siesta.
These inconsistencies take almost no time to make their presence known. A delightfully animated opening credits sequence sets the tone nicely, only to land smack-dab against a five-minute, bizarrely laughless opening scene. Social outcast Lisa (Kathryn Newton) and her popular step-sister Taffy (Lisa Soberano) are getting ready to go to a kegger. The girls trade archetypal barbs back and forth, their leaden thuds muted by the dulcet synths of When In Rome’s “The Promise.” It’s not until Taffy suggests that pale, goth-in-training Lisa use Taffy’s tanning bed to get some color that the film finds its footing—as well as one of its muddled plot points.
This defective spa device will later be key in Lisa’s journey, but first she’ll have to survive a high school party. That’s much easier said than done for Lisa, who has been recovering from selective mutism after witnessing the brutal murder of her mother, another narrative element that should be revisited in the film far more often than it is. It’s not just that Lisa Frankenstein has few emotional stakes; that can be just fine in a movie that’s aiming for little other than kitsch. But Lisa’s character is so thinly written that it’s almost impossible to fall for her until the film’s tonally jarring third act, when it’s nearly too late. Newton is game for anything as Lisa, but not even her lively spirit can transcend this lifeless character.
One might argue that’s the point: Lisa coincidentally comes alive when she happens to reanimate the nameless corpse (Cole Sprouse) whose gravesite she likes hanging out at. But given the film’s dearth of laughs and odd ambiance throughout, Cody and Williams must take the blame for its of lack of vivacity. It’s certainly not the fault of Lisa Frankenstein’s talented ensemble, who wring out every possible chuckle that they can get out of their lines. Besides the evident joy that Newton displays throughout Lisa’s transformation, Soberano’s deadpan, earnest Taffy is a joy to watch—even when her hilarious line delivery is undercut by Williams’ reluctance to call “cut.” The director lingers on punchlines and holds shots for a peculiar amount of time, letting the air out of Cody’s jokes. It’s as if Williams is pausing for laughter that has long since dissipated. These delays undermine the actors’ prowess on display.
Lisa Frankenstein does, however, come armed with an ace in the hole to keep baffled audiences from contemplating walking out. Carla Gugino, who plays Lisa’s uptight stepmother, Janet, is unsurprisingly excellent in her bit part. Fresh off her wicked turn in The Fall of the House of Usher, she takes the absurdity of Cody’s screenplay up to an 11, finding the punchy humor in every word of dialogue. Gugino can go obvious and hammy or deceivingly clever in her line readings, and each of them is a treat. She alone can take a line like “You’re either crazy, or you’re just goddamned inconsiderate” and play it with all of the impudent brilliance of Mink Stole in a John Waters movie. Though her role is small, Janet’s laughs-to-screentime ratio is the highest of anyone else in the film.
Gugino may be the movie’s brightest spot, performance-wise, but other radiant elements cut through the haze too. Lisa Frankenstein’s faultless set design, costuming, and hair and makeup are its main appeals. The technicolor pigments throughout, offset with Lisa’s burgeoning goth wardrobe, recall the discordant visual appeal of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. It’s all sumptuous to look at, which only makes the disconnect between these stunning, carefully constructed visual elements and the film’s writing and directing even more frustrating.
Cody knows how to craft a biting screenplay, especially for teen-centric movies like Juno and Jennifer’s Body. But in Lisa Frankenstein, Cody can’t meet the sweet emotional center of the former film—which made her a major Hollywood power player and earned her an Oscar—or the nasty cruelty of the latter. It doesn’t help that, while Williams’ direction is often admirable—there are a handful of truly fantastic shots—the movie feels like that of a novice director. Had she been more critical of the film’s pacing, and shaved off 11 minutes to turn this into a cool 90-minute crowd pleaser that gets from joke to joke faster, Lisa Frankenstein could easily be a rousing success.
Instead, the film is content with coasting on its concept’s idiosyncrasy. It’s certainly weird, but a movie that’s Heathers meets The Stupids can only ride on its own strangeness so far. There just isn’t enough undead meat to chew on here, and as the body count rises and Lisa adds appendages to her corpse boyfriend, the passing minutes only feel more noticeable. It’s commendable that the film is so confident in its eccentricity, but its foolish final moments feel insistent making the movie a cult classic. That’s a moniker that’s earned, not forced, and I’m not sure that Lisa Frankenstein can sew together enough goodwill to keep it alive for years to come.