“Lisa Frankenstein” reanimates a morbid classic

Cole Sprouse (left), most known for his work in “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” plays “The Creature” and Kathryn Newton, known for her work in “BigLittleLies,”(right) plays Lisa Swallows in director Zelda Williams’ new dark romantic comedy,“LisaFrankenstein.” // Photo courtesy of IMDb

People have seen plenty of classic literature film adaptations. Books that many read for the first time in a high school English class, from “Pride and Prejudice” to “Romeo and Juliet,” have made appearance after appearance on the big screen, each time with a different, unique take. Now, director Zelda Williams digs up Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with the horror rom-com, “Lisa Frankenstein.”

Set in 1989, “Lisa Frankenstein” tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster through the lens of ‘80’s camp and teenage romance. In the movie, withdrawn high school senior Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”) struggles to fit in at a new school, instead preferring to spend her time at an abandoned cemetery amongst weather-worn headstones. One headstone becomes her favorite: the grave of a young man from the Victorian era.

One night, a lightning strike from a powerful storm reanimates the young man (Cole Sprouse, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”), who finds his way to Lisa’s house. After her initial panic, she quickly decides to hide him. Unable to speak and missing a few parts, the young man — known only as “The Creature” — is enamored with Lisa, who seems relatively unphased by her newly undead confidante.

As the film continues, the two realize they can acquire new parts for The Creature by killing people and taking what they need. With the help of Lisa’s sewing skills and a defective tanning bed with an electrical-safety problem, The Creature slowly becomes more alive and more in love with Lisa, a feeling that she appears to reciprocate. However, murder always has its consequences, and the young lovers find themselves racing to stay ahead of the authorities.

The movie itself feels like a reconfiguration of cult classics like “Heathers,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Jennifer’s Body” mixed with the sometimes questionable elements of ‘80’s teen movies like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.”

Written by Diablo Cody, known for “Jennifer’s Body,” a horror-comedy cult classic, “Lisa Frankenstein” also marks the directorial debut of Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams. Cody’s offbeat writing style and penchant for snappy dialogue are apparent throughout the movie, and Williams’ ambitious homages to other directors, such as Tim Burton, are commendable. Though Williams’ lack of experience made some of the movie feel overstuffed and disjointed, “Lisa Frankenstein” shows a promising future for the director as she continues to improve.

Leaning into the weirdness of movies like Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” the plot does not always make the most sense; it has a fair number of holes and occasionally leaves audiences unsure of what they just watched.

Despite these shortcomings, the movie is held aloft by not taking itself too seriously. The sheer ridiculousness of Lisa’s nonchalant, one-sided discussions with her new companion and the strange charm of The Creature himself create an end product that can still be enjoyed despite its imperfections.

The bright color palette and bizarre home decor of the late ‘80s setting also offset certain morbid and gross parts of the movie. Crimped and teased hair, puffy shoulders, ruffled collars, blue eyeshadow and a generous number of patterns grace the screen, courtesy of the makeup and wardrobe teams.

Alongside the iconic clothes (much of which was authentic vintage from head wardrobe stylist Meagan McLaughlin Luster’s storage unit, as well as eBay, Depop and other thrift sites) is a fun and nostalgic soundtrack, including songs like “The Promise” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” One of the best parts, however, is the gothic styling of Lisa’s clothes, as she embraces a darker aesthetic throughout the duration of the film.

With Madonna-esque black lace and tulle, the audience gets to watch as Lisa gains new confidence as her style evolves. At the same time, she and The Creature dig themselves further into a hole of murder and lies, symbolized by the darkening of her wardrobe.

“Lisa Frankenstein” also includes much of the slang and social attitudes prominent in the ‘80s. From harmless throwbacks, such as Lisa’s step-sister rattling off a series of nicknames for social cliques, to lines that exhibit some of the more questionable views of the time, such as Lisa’s boss commenting on the size of her breasts, the movie has an air of authenticity.

Because “Lisa Frankenstein” is written through a modern female lens rather than the typical male view of most ‘80s movies, Lisa’s reactions are the focus of shots during these “problematic” moments. Outdated comments are treated as the questionable statements they truly

were, as opposed to exploitative attempts to make people laugh.

In terms of the cast, Newton threw herself into the role of Lisa Swallows, giving a terrific performance. Recognizable from her role as Cassie Lang in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Newton settles into the horror genre with skillful grace, starting the movie as a shy outcast and transforming into a slightly deranged murder accomplice. Newton’s acting successfully shows how Lisa rationalizes her actions, even if viewers are well-aware that those actions are wrong.

Sprouse plays Lisa’s recently reanimated love interest, an unmarried young man from the Victorian era. Despite having virtually no lines in the movie, Sprouse shines as a modern take on Frankenstein’s monster. Recognizable to many as Jughead from “Riverdale,” Sprouse’s skills are tested as he relies on facial expressions, body language and the occasional groan to create a character that can stand on his own.

As the creature becomes more human, less zombie with each new body part and zap from the tanning bed, his movements become less lurchy and his face more expressive. In every stage of recomposition, Sprouse’s well-timed eyebrow raises, shrugs and vulnerable expressions help viewers understand The Creature without needing to hear a word of dialogue from him.

Lisa’s step-sister, Taffy, is another character worth mentioning. Played by Liza Soberano, the preppy cheerleader genuinely cares about Lisa, contrasting her unbearable mother (Lisa’s new stepmother), Janet. Though the step-sister of the protagonist archetypally seems like a character that audiences are supposed to dislike, that is not the case with Taffy. Her moments of catty dialogue have audiences wrinkling their noses and wondering where she got such audacity, but, ultimately, she is not written to be an antagonist. Instead, viewers can tell that she is a product of her environment.

Targeting people with a penchant for the unconventional and moderately gruesome, “Lisa Frankenstein” is a compromise for those who love full-fledged horror movies and those who lean towards romance.

Piecing together a modern, feminine take on a classic story, Cody and Williams paid their respects to Mary Shelley and the hits of the ‘80s in this charming romantic horror comedy. A macabrely funny, cute, campy and wholly weird experience, “Lisa Frankenstein” seems poised to follow in the footsteps of “Jennifer’s Body” and rise to the cult classic status it deserves.