If your idea of a laugh riot is a high-school dreamboat being separated from his penis by an axe while treacly ‘80s classic “On the Wings of Love” soars on the soundtrack, then Lisa Frankenstein might be for you. So long as your frame of reference doesn’t go as far back as Edward Scissorhands. Diablo Cody’s screenplay about a maladjusted teen who finds a sense of purpose by bonding with a reanimated corpse delivers enough funny lines to make you want to cut it some slack for a minute. But Zelda Williams’ clunky direction soon stifles that good will as this retro-minded horror-comedy-romance lurches from scene to scene without ever building much steam.
Focus is positioning the release as a Valentine’s Day date movie for young audiences who like a touch of graveyard humor and gore with their canoodling. Maybe they’ll get a kick out of its garish candy colors, schlocky practical effects and its amusing genuflection at that altar of hazardous ‘80s self-care — the tanning bed. Not to mention a liberal sprinkling of the decade’s power ballads, synth-pop and post-punk hits.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
But Lisa Frankenstein is a painful reminder that for every 1980s horror comedy consecrated in the pop-culture pantheon — Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Beetlejuice and An American Werewolf in London, to name a few — the dusty Blockbuster shelves were home to countless others that merely threaded together dumb jokes in the hope that their campy silliness might disguise the lack of directorial command or narrative momentum. Anyone remember Vamp?
A cool black and white animated title sequence that sits somewhere between Edward Gorey and Kara Walker hints at the tragic backstory of the man behind the 1837 gravestone that captures the romantic imagination of 17-year-old outsider Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton). Understandably shaken up after witnessing a murderous home invader hack up her mother, Lisa resists becoming part of the new family her dad, Dale (Joe Chrest), has formed by hastily marrying psych nurse Janet (Carla Gugino). Not even the sympathetic coaxing of Lisa’s cheerleader stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) seems to help: “How can we Brady if we don’t bunch?”
Aside from perky Taffy, who thinks “cerebral” means wheelchair-user, Lisa has no friends at school. But she experiences a moment of hope when her secret crush, literary journal editor Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), expresses admiration for her dark poetry at a party. That dream fades instantly, however, when a spiked drink makes her lose control, fleeing from public humiliation to her cemetery sanctuary. As a storm brews and lightning strikes, Lisa turns to her favorite grave and mutters, “I wish I was with you.”
What Lisa meant was dead and buried, but the nameless Creature (Cole Sprouse), who rises from the grave and shows up at her house the next night, received a different message. After the mandatory freakout, Lisa figures out that the mute, mud-caked zombie is her fantasy Victorian lover, so she cleans him up, hides him in her closet and gives him a makeover. Mayhem ensues.
Having cooked up a viable enough scenario, Cody doesn’t quite seem to know how to flesh it out beyond going increasingly over the top, giving the comedy a nagging air of desperation. Unlike in the messy but enjoyable Jennifer’s Body, the screenwriter doesn’t have a director with the consistent aesthetic sensibility or firm grasp of tone that enabled Karyn Kusuma to glide over the weaknesses of a script more attentive to zingy teen-speak one-liners than character development.
One issue is that Lisa’s attachment to the Creature dawdles too long before abruptly shifting into romantic gear. Instead of giving us a window into whatever’s going on in her head, we just get the external transformation as her shuffling undead friend liberates her inner Goth chick and she starts sashaying down the school corridors dressed as Helena Bonham Carter.
The movie wants to be a celebration of the defiant weirdo rising above high school conformity, but it’s less subversive than gonzo goofball. That applies also to the carnage, when the devoted Creature starts eliminating anyone who upsets his sweetheart and using their corpses to replace his missing body parts. It starts with an ear and a hand, and you can guess where it’s headed long before Lisa wields a needle and thread to attach one last crucial appendage. And too much of the comedy relies on the easy laughs of ‘80s cheese, like Lisa singing REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” accompanied by the Creature on piano.
Newton, Sprouse and the delightful Soberano are all more appealing than the sloppy package and undercooked characters deserve. Cody has cited Weird Science as an inspiration, but neither the writer nor director Williams has John Hughes’ gift for making his archetypal misfit teen protagonists relatable. The biggest mystery is what the talented Gugino is doing here, basically playing a very shrill Amy Sedaris. Her scenes as the venomous Janet make you wish they had just cast Sedaris, the gift that makes any comedy better.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter