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‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Review: A Campy Homage To ’80s Horror Cinema

From the mind of Diablo Cody comes Lisa Frankenstein. Directed by Zelda Williams, the film stars Kathryn Newton, Liza Soberano, Cole Sprouse, Carla Gugino and Joe Chrest. With the Burtonesque visuals and deadpan dialogue, it’s an ambitious swing that will find an audience with some, and may not land with others. The film is headed to theaters February 9.

In 1989, anxiety-ridden teenager Lisa Swallows (Newton) is getting ready to go to a party with her stepsister Taffy (Soberano) and is having a hard time getting ready. Poor girl is grappling with the challenge of adjusting to both a new school and the aftermath of her mother’s tragic death, alongside her father Dale’s (Chrest) new wife Janet (Gugino), who hates Lisa. To take her mind off of reality, Lisa hangs out in a nearby abandoned graveyard, where she cares for the headstones. She’s taken a particular liking for the grave of a man who passed away in 1837.

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Life takes a strange turn for the girl after getting high at the party leads her to the graveyard where lightning strikes her favorite headstone and, next night, she gets to meet her favorite dead Creature (Sprouse) in the flesh. Lisa is scared at first but eventually commits herself to helping the distressed corpse reclaim his lost humanity by acquiring new body parts by any means necessary … and I do mean any.

Lisa Frankenstein ambitiously intertwines classic Frankenstein lore with a memories of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, all colliding with an ’80s teen slasher film complete with Sprouse donning garb that could make Ichabod Crane feel at home in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. This fusion sets the stage for a narrative that is sometimes funny, and at other times bewildering.

The film unapologetically embraces its camp nature, serving as a playful nod to ’80s horror conventions of forgoing logic, acting and dialogue to prioritize the overall experience. However, this sometimes feels pared down to its most basic elements. Instead of aiming to stand on its own there is an earnest attempt to mimic Burton’s distinctive style, but the film struggles to capture the whimsical charm that characterizes that director’s best works.

Music plays a critical role in Lisa Frankenstein, acting as both a narrative driver and a mood setter. Yet, its application tends towards the overt, with selections that directly underscore the on-screen action, sometimes sacrificing subtlety for impact. This approach, while effective in reinforcing the film’s tone, occasionally borders on being too on the nose, and distractingly so.

The film’s biggest hindrance is its pacing. At times, the story propels forward with the energy and urgency one might expect from a classic horror or an ’80s slasher, pulling the viewer into its fast-paced, eerie suspense. However, the sequences of introspective slow-downs left me feeling disengaged before being thrust back into the action. This inconsistency in pacing, though reflective of the film’s ambition to blend genres and tones, might detract from the cohesiveness of the narrative.

Despite the shortcomings, Lisa Frankenstein compensates with its visual and thematic spectacle, engaging audiences with its vibrant portrayal of the era. The film excels in its meticulous re-creation of the period’s aesthetic. From the elaborate hair and makeup to the carefully chosen costumes, the attention to detail in the film’s design immerses viewers in the distinct feel of the decade. The production’s commitment to authenticity extends beyond appearances to include the setting and props, contributing to a vibrant and atmospheric viewing experience.

Also, Newton and Soberano shine in their comedic roles. Newton as Lisa skillfully employs a range of facial expressions and physical movements to convey sarcasm and humor because, as an actress, she understands comedy and timing. Soberano, as Taffy delivers her lines with a humor that, whether by design or by accident, adds a quirky charm to the story. Her portrayal injects a dose of levity, highlighting the film’s campy sensibilities amidst its darker moments.

Title: Lisa Frankenstein
Distributor: Focus Features
Release date: February 9, 2023
Director: Zelda Williams
Screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Liza Soberano, Cole Sprouse, Carla Gugino, Joe Chrest
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 41 min

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