The ’80s nostalgia wave is still in full swing. But just because a tired trope is still doing its dance doesn’t mean there can’t be some gems left within the woodwork. Enter “Lisa Frankenstein,” the latest from the witty pen of “Jennifer’s Body” screenwriter Diablo Cody. The silly and sexy horror comedy brings an edgy twist to the adored subgenre and, through its reverence for the beloved decade’s penchant for gothic charm, makes for a ridiculously brilliant spin on a timeless story over 200 years old.
“Lisa Frankenstein” follows the titular Lisa (Kathryn Newton), an eccentric teen loner who doesn’t entirely fit in at her suburban high school. Existing on the completely opposite social spectrum from her well-meaning step-sister Taffy (Liza Soberano), Lisa moves through the periphery mostly unnoticed until her crush, Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), starts giving her the time of day.
But, naturally, teen love is never without complications and as soon as Lisa starts forming a connection with Michael another guy (Cole Sprouse), for whom romantic feelings have blossomed, shows up in her life. Oh, and he’s a corpse.
The ’80s vibes burn bright in “Lisa Frankenstein” with a slick combo of smart costuming, seamless set design, and a pitch perfect score and soundtrack. The movie feels like ’80s done right. It’s not such an overt nostalgia piece that you’re being beaten over the head with visuals and references, but it’s also clearly a love letter to the era in the way director Zelda Williams builds out the world of the film. Lisa’s costumes, which at their height end up resembling the best of Stevie Nicks’ wardrobe, feel so quintessentially of the time while also doing a wonderful job of visually chronicling Lisa’s inner evolution as the events play out.
Similarly, the set design takes the best elements of the overall ’80s look and fuses them into something that feels very, well, Diablo Cody. There is, for instance, a novelty corded phone that gets a bit of a spotlight here—and it’s a moment that proves that the specific world building of Cody’s stories has continued to resonate with the greater audience. The soundtrack features tons of ’80s gems—highlighting Echo and The Bunnymen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, and The Zombies—and maintains a great grunge/goth element in its overall sound that straddles feeling classic and modern.
None of those elements matter much if the performances don’t stand out, though. Lucky for this film there are tons of noteworthy, hilarious and touching turns. Newton is no stranger to the scream queen vibe, having helmed 2020’s “Freaky,” but with the quirks of this horror comedy on full tilt there is a really human sense of nuance on full display between the gags. Newton gives us a brave and lovable character who feels generational, the kind that can find a home in the hearts of outsider teens and young people who see Lisa as a bold and authentic kindred spirit. It’s hard not to get completely wrapped up in her zany spell.
Soberano has a similar effect on the audience in her polar opposite role of Taffy, Lisa’s cheerleader step-sister—and if there was a breakout star of this film she is certainly the one. Soberano is hilarious and heart-warming and it never feels as though she’s making fun of the archetype she’s inhabiting. There’s a genuine quality there that makes the performance work.
Carla Gugino, who plays Lisa’s step-mother Janet, also stands out with a caricature performance of an overprotective, obsessive mother that borders on amusing frivolity and a knowing cruelty. In this way she brings a great rendition of the “evil step-mother” trope to the film that feels like a worthy and true conflict.
And, finally, there is Sprouse. It’s always fun to see how actors handle complicated roles and Sprouse’s turn as the non-speaking corpse hunk of the film is honestly one for the books. Fresh from the ground to barely passing as a hip ’80s teen, he embodies the role in the physical, using gestures and sounds to build a truly charismatic corpse. It’s great seeing him do something equally as weird as his “Riverdale” role because that is clearly a space where he thrives.
These performances excel in partnership with a fun, punchy script that feels in line with Cody’s past work, the obvious offspring of the films that made her a household name. She has always been gifted at channeling the teenage experience and boiling it down to universal truths, and “Lisa Frankenstein”—I’m happy to say—is no exception, especially as she marries the themes of the older text with her own modernized story.
Her words are well matched with Williams’ strong directorial eye. This is her debut feature but it doesn’t feel that green. Williams has a keen sense of tone and it works wonders for the overall feel as you’re taken on Lisa’s wild ride. Her impulses feel sharp and smart, and it shows in elements like the way she blocks scenes and frames shots, from the romantic to the sinister. It’s clear Williams knows how to tell a story and with “Lisa Frankenstein” as her first wacky and wonderful calling card, there’s no denying she is a filmmaker to watch.
“Lisa Frankenstein” is in theaters Friday.