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Lisa Frankenstein: The Reanimation of the Horror Comedy

While at times overly referencial and derivative, does Lisa Frankenstein has the potential for cult-classic status?

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse in Lisa Frankenstein
Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

From the popularity of Stranger Things to the trending of The Cure on TikTok, we live in a time where 80s nostalgia reigns supreme. Possibly due to their parents, Gen Z has become enamoured with this culture, reclaiming it for their own. And while trends may come and go, Lisa Frankenstein (2024) proves two undeniable constants: 1. The enduring legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its influence on horror and 2. The challenges of teenage girlhood. 

Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), just like the heroines of many popular 80s films, is your typical teenage protagonist. Struggling with the loss of her mother and adapting to her new stepfamily, Lisa navigates the difficulties of teen life. Yet she differs from the challenges faced by any Molly Ringwald character. She’s in love with the 19th-century Zombie. 

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein
Diablo Cody’s script takes the iconic aspects of Frankenstein and recenters them to an 80s setting. Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Diablo Cody and the Horror of Girlhood

This film serves as the debut picture from director Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams. Screenwriter Diablo Cody, however, is who truly defines it. Cody first gained widespread acclaim for Juno (2007), winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Her next film, Jennifer’s Body (2009), was not as well received but found its second life as a cult classic.

While Juno could be viewed as terrifying for its depiction of the realities of teen pregnancy, Lisa Frankenstein echoes the tone of Jennifer’s Body more directly. Both films use supernatural situations to address more nuanced and relatable experiences, sprinkling in classic one-liners and irreverent humour to add levity to their more gruesome aspects. 

Unlike Jennifer’s Body, however, Lisa Frankenstein feels underdeveloped, unsure if it wants to adhere to the quirkiness of Cody’s writing. As a result, many characters seem flat and the plot becomes predictable. Nostalgia and pop culture references crowd the film, becoming it’s crutch.

Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein
The filmmakers have visually incorporated the aesthetics of Tim Burton and Universal’s classic monster movies into the film’s style. Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Lisa Frankenstein and its Influences

If Lisa Frankenstein is one thing, it is beautiful. The sets and costumes perfectly encapsulate 80s suburbia while offering something visually unique. In a Tim Burton-esque introduction, its animated title sequence provides exposition in addition to defining the film’s aesthetic. The script additionally plays with references to pop culture including a cleverly placed Rocky Horror joke and niche references to classic silent films.

But therein lies one of the film’s biggest problems, it lacks great originality. Instead of simply paying homage to 80s high school films and the gothic stylings of Tim Burton, Lisa Frankenstein uses nostalgia for these works as its content, offering little novelty. The film doesn’t search to find new audiences but instead just appeals to the ones it knows it has.

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein
The Creature (Cole Sprouse) and Lisa (Kathryn Newton) in Lisa Frankenstein. Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Scream Queens and Undead Boyfriends

What the script lacks in distinctiveness, however, is made up by some stellar performances. Newton’s portrayal of an awkward teen goth is masterfully done with an underlying genuineness through its campiness. Newton’s no stranger to the horror-comedy genre, starring in Freaky (2019), where she plays a murderous high school student after switching bodies with a serial killer. This previous experience is truly evident in her performance, where she can not only seamlessly switch between comedy and horror but synthesise the two when the scene demands it.

Newton’s acting is only elevated by the film’s supporting cast which features familiar faces and newcomers. Carla Gugino terrifically scares as Lisa’s overcontrolling stepmother, whose performance characterises Lisa as a Cinderella-like character. Like Newton, Gugino has had several horror-related works under her belt, notably partnering with director Mike Flanagan multiple times. Her performance here, however, is much more playfully cruel, matching the archetype of the “Evil Stepmother” perfectly.

Liza Soberano and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein
Liza Soberano brings a sincerity to the film as Lisa’s (Kathryn Newton) new stepsister. Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

Lisa’s stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), is a much fresher take on the portrayal of this blended family, upsetting the Cinderella dynamics established by her mother. Attempting to bring the family together and get on Lisa’s good side, Taffy is adorably peppy if not somewhat dim at times. In a role that could easily become annoying, Soberano brings authenticity to an overly perky character and leaves audiences excited for her future roles.

Of course, we can’t talk about Lisa Frankenstein without acknowledging The Creature (Cole Sprouse). While The Creature is more of a zombie than the traditional reanimated corpse found in Frankenstein adaptations, Sprouse adapts the conventional stumblings and groanings of the classic monster in his own unique way. Despite having virtually no lines, Sprouse conveys The Creature’s thoughts through calculated facial expressions that clearly depict his intentions. Alongside Newton, this pair’s performances raise the script from cliched to noteworthy.

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein.
Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton perfectly play off of each other’s respectively unique characters. Credit: Focus Features and Universal Pictures

The Potential for Cult Classic Status

In 2009, critics panned Jennifer’s Body upon its release, failing to comprehend its dark humour and exaggerated nature. In recent years, it has found its place as a beloved cult classic, with younger generations clinging to its campiness.

Ultimately, Lisa Frankenstein lacks the same intense freshness as Jennifer’s Body. While it may make it more palatable, this possibly harms its chances of being as memorable. Though its script and directing lack newness, Lisa Frankenstein should be commended for its visuals and performances, which take it from forgettable to a fun time. Despite its flaws, it’s a visually stunning horror comedy that may not receive the same attention as its predecessors, but will hopefully usher in a return to camp horror comedies.

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