‘Lisa Frankenstein’ Tries To Zap Life Into Its Reanimated Corpse Romance With ‘80s Nostalgia

Decent camp knows what it is and lets its freak flag fly. That kind of spirit helps “Lisa Frankenstein” deliver a cute bit of half-baked ‘80s nostalgia that gets edgy in a few places, while never trying to pretend it is anything other than an entertainment fit for a drive-in theater date. It might be the feature debut of director Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin Williams), but much of its anticipation will no doubt be owed to the screenplay being the latest from Diablo Cody. Much of Cody’s obsessions are present here, mainly in how the hierarchies of high school are always their own monstrosity. Compared to the teens, the wandering reanimated corpse feels the most humane.

As advertised, it is a love story. Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) walks around school like an outcast. She is known to classmates for having witnessed the brutal murder of her mother by a slasher. Now she has moved in with her father, ultraconservative stepmother and cheerleader stepsister, Taffy (Liza Soberano). Lisa spends much of her time at the local cemetery, where she swoons over the 19th century bust of a romantic-looking fellow buried there. No romance is to be found at school, where most of the guys are creeps or overly confident smooth talkers, like the student paper’s editor, Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry). A series of weird events follow when Taffy suggests Lisa try out her tanning bed, then an electrical discharge zaps the corpse beneath Lisa’s favorite bust back to life. Now, Lisa has to hide the reanimated being (Cole Sprouse) while she is developing feelings. It also feels the need to seek replacements for its body parts.

It is curious how the best thing about “Lisa Frankenstein” is the idea on paper. As a writer, Diablo Cody’s material has never held back, whether penning heartwarming films like “Juno” (which won her an Oscar), wrenching portraits of adult dysfunction (“Young Adult”), or popcorn genre material such as “Jennifer’s Body.” The latter is the closest for comparison here. In that one, Megan Fox plays an attractive high schooler whose eventual demon possession becomes a striking metaphor for the aftershocks of teen violence and sexual assault. “Lisa Frankenstein” is meant to be lighter ‘80s fun with its magenta palette, Madonna-inspired wardrobe and winks at films like “Beetlejuice” and “Heathers.” Yet, it never goes beyond almost feeling like a simpler kind of streamer movie. Williams never aims for truly edgy, as if the few moments of body-chopping should be enough to count. 

There are elements that work, even if many are left without full narrative circles. Kathryn Newton is perfect as the high school outcast who suddenly starts looking “hot” when “The Creature” picks out her new, gothic wardrobe. Cole Sprouse, best known as Jughead in the CW’s “Riverdale,” has the harder task of playing a walking corpse whose dialogue mostly consists of grunts and moans. When it works, Sprouse is funny, even endearing. He’s the perfect boyfriend because he respects Lisa and is willing to commit murder to have the perfect ear, hands and eventually, penis, to be a good partner. But how he comes to life is never quite explained. It has something to do with the tanning bed, but like many of the movie’s best gimmicks, it’s never fully realized. We also wonder about some of the murders that eventually take place, considering no one in town appears to notice. Carla Gugino is also great as the unbearable stepmother who celebrates Taffy while scolding Lisa. You also can’t go wrong with celebrating monstrous love with REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

“Lisa Frankenstein” is not a great film but is a fine enough start for Williams’ career as a director. She just needs to expand her visual boldness. Her directing choices feel too restrained for this material. It needs to get wilder and truly throw political correctness out the window. When it does, the movie genuinely works. Is an earthworm falling out of the creature’s shirt really the most Cody can come up with? We’re talking about a walking dead person. In the ‘80s, a movie like “Heathers” truly felt like it wanted to blow up the school. “Lisa Frankenstein” doesn’t have dynamite, just cuteness with a dash of blood. Liza Soberano is having the most fun, relishing in being the stereotypical cheerleader who knows all the boys just want sex, but sleeps with them anyway. “Lisa Frankenstein” then becomes a half-baked nod at “Bride of Frankenstein,” leaving us wondering how the eventual bride even survived a particular inferno in act three. In the end, this is a sweet serving that could be better, but still makes for a fun Valentine’s date night.

Lisa Frankenstein” releases Feb. 9 in theaters nationwide.