The opening of the cheekily-titled Lisa Frankenstein tells you all you need to know at the start: After a Tim Burton-esque credit sequence detailing the short, sad, tragically unmarried lifespan of The Creature (Cole Sprouse), we flash-forward to today—that is, 1989—where sparkly goth teenager Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) traces an etching over his gravestone. Like one of her peers doodling an imagined married name in her notebook, she caps off the “Frankenstein” with her own name scrawled in fuchsia lipstick. All this is set to When In Rome’s yearning banger “The Promise,” an ambitious needle drop that director Zelda Williams and writer Diablo Cody’s film unfortunately never quite fulfills.
It should be a killer mashup of a premise, but the emotional underpinnings don’t even reach six feet deep. Not about Lisa and The Creature’s forbidden love as two misunderstood misfits, nor the Heathers-esque killing spree that inflames their twisted (yet also very sweet) passions. While stylistically it’s a lot of fun, and there are a few laugh-out-loud surprises, this won’t live on forever as a cult classic like Jennifer’s Body.
But it is a promising start: 18-year-old Lisa possesses Mary Shelley’s penchant for pining at a graveyard (but no more funny business than that) while rocking a wardrobe that would aspire to Lydia Deetz’s iconic style except for them being contemporaries. She’s drawn to Bachelors’ Grove because it’s (in her words) desecrated land, the promising young suitors all abandoned by time—much the way that Lisa, transplanted into a new family and a new school after a devastating tragedy, must feel about her own unpromising senior year.
As reasons to uproot her life go, Lisa’s is pretty harrowing: The year before, she watched her mother get brutally cut down by a random axe murderer who burst in on their mother-daughter game night. It’s an excellent bit of urban legend backstory that immediately sets her apart from her peers, a distance that she encourages despite the best efforts of her bubbly teen pageant queen stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). With her widower father having assimilated seamlessly into this Stepford family made up of Taffy and her psychotically chipper mother Janet (Carla Gugino), Lisa is the odd one out… until a freak ball lightning storm reanimates young Mr. Frankenstein himself, delivering The Creature to the doorstep of his not-so-secret admirer.
From there on, Lisa Frankenstein sees its titular character go through the usual hijinks of hiding her undead crush in her closet from her family, while he slowly encourages her—despite not saying a word—to recognize that she still has her whole life ahead of her. If that path to self-actualization involves killing everyone who’s wronged them, from certifiable stepmonster Janet to a handsy lab partner… well, the movie wants you to just go with it.
The trouble is, all of Cody’s past films have been layered with fraught meaning—about growing up (or arresting oneself at a life stage you can’t get past), about the thin line between love and hate in toxic female best friendships, about the personas we project when we can’t handle life on our own. Lisa Frankenstein, by contrast, would rather make Rocky Horror and Evil Dead jokes while riffing on Mary Shelley and calling it a day. The film is littered with winking references and full-throated homages, yet they’re strung along haphazardly like mismatched beads on a friendship bracelet that never coheres into a complete piece… or like random body parts that don’t actually make up an entire undead boyfriend.
The same goes for how matter-of-factly the movie addresses female desire; Lisa daydreams about giving up her virginity to the school lit mag editor, yet that exists in parallel with her appreciation for electronically-powered toys; there’s a great Magic Wand joke that only a handful of female critics snickered at at our press screening. Lisa’s compartmentalization between her unattainable and undead crush versus one with a pulse, as well as virginity versus desire, are fascinating aspects of her character that are tossed off instead of explored.
Instead, the movie’s most fascinating relationship is between Lisa and Taffy, who couldn’t be more of her polar opposite, yet unlike Janet, she doesn’t hold this disparity against them. It’s a refreshing take on the clique-crossed sisters who want nothing to do with one another; by contrast, Taffy eagerly brings Lisa along to house parties and regularly checks in with her, cheerleader squad in tow, in the halls of their high school. The only reason they’re not closer is that Lisa holds her at such arm’s length; and because she does so, the film follows her lead.
On the opposite end of the chattiness spectrum, Sprouse deserves equal kudos for how much pathos he communicates through an almost entirely nonverbal performance. His Creature is brought back to life as a swooning romantic and musician—complete with rancid green tears whenever he wallows in self-pity—and he immediately imprints on Lisa, to which she responds with a fascinating bit of friend-zoning while she’s still mooning over the aforementioned tortured intellectual. This contextualizes The Creature’s journey of self-actualization into something closer to Shelley’s novel; the improvements he makes are equally for himself as they are for her attention. But could he survive without her? The movie seems to say no, in either case; these two are weird soulmates, attracted to the aspects of one another that would make everyone else recoil.
Frankenstein is The Creature, Lisa Frankenstein is the monster. Or is she? If only the movie would let her be, or say something more incisive about the big swings we’ll make for young love, all the haters be damned.
Lisa Frankenstein hits theaters on Feb. 9.