A few years ago, I wrote — and later produced — a female-driven adaptation of “Jekyll and Hyde”. In the process of writing, I took a draft to an esteemed colleague and she suggested I lean harder into the “mad scientist” trope. I didn’t fully understand the note, but I gave it a try and let my Professor Jekyll rant about how she’s pushing boundaries and taking risks while all her bold new ideas get shot down by small-minded men with tenure and I swear I could literally hear a light bulb click on in my head.
A few years before that, I saw a feminist adaptation of “Frankenstein” with a cast and crew comprised entirely of women. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but the play did a remarkable job tying the source material’s concept of creating life with the feminine process of childbirth. I might add that the prospect of crafting the perfect human body takes on whole new meanings and connotations from a female perspective.
The point being that while the “mad scientist” trope has fallen out of favor in recent years, there are many possible ways for a clever screenwriter (or playwright, if I say it myself) to adapt mad scientist characters and classic mad science stories into timely feminist commentaries. And now we’ve got Lisa Frankenstein, starring talented up-and-comer Kathryn Newton reading from a Diablo Cody script, with Hollywood royalty Zelda Williams making her feature directing debut. I was all manner of hyped for this one, and you’d think I’d know better than that by now.
Newton plays Lisa Swallows, a high school senior whose mother was brutally slain by a random axe murderer. No, this is not a recurring subplot and the murder is never solved. There’s a red flag off tops.
Anyway, Lisa’s dad pretty much immediately shacked up with a psychiatric nurse (Janet, played by Carla Gugino). So now Lisa’s mourning her mother while also going through senior year at a new high school while also adapting to life with a new stepmom and stepsister (the latter is Taffeta, or “Taffy”, played by Liza Soberano). On top of all that, Lisa is a social misfit with distinctly macabre taste, growing up in a squeaky clean suburbia where everybody seems to have a personal vendetta against her in particular.
The one major bright spot in Lisa’s life is an old bachelor’s cemetery, where Lisa daydreams over the bust of an unnamed young man (played by Cole Sprause) who’s been dead since the mid-19th century. After a freak weather event strikes that exact grave with lightning, Lisa’s dead crush comes back to life and follows her home. Hilarity ensues.
To start with the obvious, this movie wears its influences on its sleeve, but in charming ways. For instance, Lisa is written and played in such a way that she could easily be a second or third cousin to the freaking Addams Family, and she looks exactly like Helena Bonham-Carter out of a Tim Burton movie in some scenes. Thus we get a comical juxtaposition of dark and macabre sensibilities against anodyne modern suburbia. The production design makes it abundantly clear, with Lisa’s dark colors popping against so many pastel pinks.
To take the contrast even further, the film takes place in the late ’80s, a decade defined by its shallow materialism and heightened neon aesthetic. I might add that Lisa is obsessed with retro cinema, explicitly name-dropping G.W. Pabst (he who directed The Threepenny Opera in 1931), wallpapering her room with posters of the classic Universal Monsters films, and making Melies’ famous A Trip to the Moon into a recurring motif. Not that retro cinema has anything to do with the plot or themes, aside from making the lead character more aggressively quirky, but the black-and-white cinema is another point of contrast with the colors in the rest of the production design.
As to the script, Diablo Cody has a well-known penchant for writing characters and dialogue a bit too bluntly self-aware for anyone’s good. The trick is that this film leans into that sensibility, delivering characters who are aggressively arch. Lisa is of course a key example, but her cheerleader stepsister Taffy is played to the rafters as annoyingly vapid. I should also mention Carla Gugino chewing scenery as the evil stepmother — playing such an obnoxious hate sink isn’t exactly in Gugino’s wheelhouse, but she certainly tackles the role with aplomb.
(Side note: Newton is definitely hitting the upper limit as to how long she can keep playing a teenager. I’ll be fascinated to see how she ages artistically.)
Couple all of this with the late ’80s setting, and this definitely feels like something made in homage to the Barry Sonnenfeld Addams Family movies or anything Tim Burton was making in his ’80s heyday. Yet this film touches on harsh themes like sexual harassment and outright murder in a way that Burton and Sonnenfeld never did back then, so there’s definitely a hefty dose of Heathers in there as well.
But none of those films were ever written or directed by women, which makes a huge difference. Then again, Diablo Cody can’t write dialogue anywhere near as witty or memorable as anything Daniel Waters wrote for Heathers, and that makes a difference as well.
Overall, the film is cute. It’s funny, it’s stylish, and it pays homage to its influences while successfully crafting its own identity. All the ingredients were here for an effective horror/comedy/romance. But it still doesn’t work. Why? Well, let’s start with the Creature.
The monster of the source text was an eloquent creation who could give voice to his own existential angst and his grievances against his creator. The iconic Boris Karloff portrayal could barely string two words together, but his monster was a simplistic brute without the capacity to form complex relationships. Meanwhile, the Cole Sprause portrayal here is pretty much entirely mute, without a single spoken line until the epilogue. And he’s supposed to be the romantic male lead.
Through pretty much the entire movie, the Creature only serves as a sounding board for Lisa. His ability to converse with her is practically nil, and it’s not like a guy from the mid-19th century has any idea what she’s talking about anyway. (Though he can apparently drive a car, what the fuck?) That said, it’s clearly established that the Creature was a gifted pianist who lived an accomplished life, and he could almost certainly hold a fascinating conversation if Lisa ever thought to get him a tongue.
The upshot is that the monster has pretty much zero agency in the plot, his potential for character development is almost completely untapped because he has no voice, and the Newton/Sprause chemistry is nowhere near powerful enough to be viable when only one of them can talk. The Lisa/Creature relationship is nowhere near strong enough to support the plot and premise of the whole damn movie, which is very much a dealbreaker.
Moreover, the film was made and marketed on the premise of a teenage girl literally making her own perfect boyfriend from scratch. Yet for the vast majority of the movie, the Creature merely sits by as Lisa opines about her living crush (Michael Trent, played by Henry Eikenberry). The Lisa/Creature romance doesn’t kick into gear until the third act, when it’s too little and far too late.
Speaking of which, it makes a difference that Lisa isn’t a mad scientist. While she does eventually move on to killing people for spare body parts that the Creature needs, she never takes that first step of directly building or vivifying the Creature. For what’s supposed to be a Frankenstein riff, that’s kind of a big problem.
The source material is evergreen because it’s rich with themes of scientific ethics, the cycle of life and death, fatal hubris, and so on. And as I implied at the start of this review, there’s so much untapped potential for a feminist story about a female mad scientist struggling for accomplishment and recognition in a misogynist world. Hell, going back to the Heathers influence, that movie was a whip-smart black comedy about disaffected youths and the glorification of violence.
What does the movie have to say about any of this? What does the movie have to say about anything? Pretty much fuck-all. There’s maybe something about bullying and peer pressure, but not enough to make a coherent point. There’s something early on about sexual assault and victim-blaming, but it’s too brief and shallow to mean anything. All throughout the movie, we get these little hints at timely feminist statements, all of which are abruptly halted before any of them can get to an actual point.
(Side note: I need hardly add that the film is in theaters while Poor Things is getting re-released and nominated for multiple Oscars. A far superior Frankenstein riff, with a more effective feminist bent on the classic themes of the source material, and it wasn’t written or directed by women. I ask you, what the ever-loving fuck? Did Emma Stone have that much power and input as a producer or something, what the hell?!)
Lisa Frankenstein had everything it needed to be an effective horror/comedy/romance, but it’s not good enough at any one of those things and it’s too unfocused to blend them effectively. It doesn’t even work well as a Frankenstein riff, because so many wrong decisions were made in adapting the source material and none of the classic themes — or much of any themes, in fact — are developed with any kind of significant depth.
Zelda Williams has tremendous potential as a filmmaker, and she successfully crafted a movie with its own identity and a sense of fun. That’s a fine accomplishment for a debut director and I eagerly await her next picture. This one, however, is so superficial and hollow that I can’t recommend it for anything more than a rental. Not necessarily bad, but it damn well should’ve been better.