Directed by Zelda Williams | Written by Diablo Cody | 101 min | ▲▲▲△△ | In Cinemas
This is an odd one: a gothic comedy set in 1989 channeling the teen and horror movies of the era — Weird Science, Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and any number of John Hughes movies are deeply plumbed — while also being a scrappy, indie coming-of-age picture. It doesn’t all hold together, but there’s something of that Diablo Cody magic that made Jennifer’s Body such a joy.
Of course Cody also wrote Juno, Young Adult, Ricky And The Flash, and Tully. She’s got a knack for vivid, punchy female characters. That talent doesn’t let her down here, though it takes a little running time to manifest.
We’re in a Chicago suburb in the late 1980s — though it’s clearly shot in Louisiana given the swampy flora — and Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is new at school. Months ago her mother was murdered by a home invader, but her father promptly remarried, and now Lisa has a new family with sweet stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), and evil stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino). Her father, Dale (Joe Chrest), is pretty much a non-entity.
Lisa’s a burgeoning goth, a poet and artist, but without much self-confidence. She has a crush on school hunk, Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), who she runs in to at a party. Lisa is given a spiked drink, which sends her wandering through the woods, though an abandoned cemetery that’s her happy place. Lightning strikes, bringing to life a young zombie (Cole Sprouse), who Lisa takes in and cleans up.
His presence and attention somehow gives her the gumption to deal with her stepmom and punk at school who harassed her, and inspires her to borrow a few lacy black items from Taffy’s closet to wow her classmates at school.
All of which is fine, though a little undercooked. First time feature director Williams (who happens to be Robin’s daughter) doesn’t inspire much confidence with a largely style-free approach, and Cody’s script isn’t nearly as sharp or funny as you’d expect given her experience. Even some of the performances feel a little amateurish. None of this can compare to the excellent 2023 teen movies like Bottoms or Totally Killer.
But as it goes along, Lisa Frankenstein pieces together a good time. Lisa’s delicious tip into sociopathy gives her agency, which pulls her and the movie out of a funk. You’re never sure what she’s capable of once she’s really found herself, and her association with the undead gives her genuine gothic power. If the picture is never gory or violent enough, nor hilarious enough, to be profound, the characters are likeable and the end result is a fun little timewaster in a Tim Burton vein.