This horror-comedy is too edgy for its PG-13 rating, but not edgy enough.
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“Lisa Frankenstein” (now in theaters) as a title evokes thoughts of Mary Shelley’s monster novel classic as well as the maker of rainbow and unicorn-adorned Trapper Keepers that were all the rage among young girls in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a fitting name indicative of this flick’s vibe.
It’s 1989 in the greater Chicagoland area and Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) has had a rough go of it. Her Mom (Jennifer Pierce Mathus) was murdered by an axe-wielding home invader. Her Dad Dale (Joe Chrest, essentially extending his “Stranger Things” role) has remarried a woman named Janet (Carla Gugino, giving the evil stepmother role an admirable spin), who’s like a cross between June Cleaver and Nurse Ratched replete with a strong dislike/distrust of Lisa. Serving in stark contrast to Janet is Taffy (Liza Soberano), Lisa’s sunny cheerleader of a stepsister who sweetly embraces having a new sibling despite her social pariah status.
Lisa’s the kind of kid who wears black eye makeup and spends her free time hanging out in cemeteries. It’s in one such graveyard that she becomes attached and/or attracted to a headstone featuring the bust of a deceased, handsome Victorian young man. Lisa wishes that she were with him and as luck would have it she soon will be. Lightning strikes his gravestone awakening The Creature (Cole Sprouse), who comes a-calling.
“Lisa Frankenstein” is the feature directorial debut of Zelda Williams (Robin’s daughter) and although it’s got tonal issues (mostly stemming from Academy Award-winner Diablo Cody’s script) it’s a promising start. The ‘80s vibe is capably captured through the threads (kudos to costume designer Meagan McLaughlin) and a bitchin’ period-appropriate soundtrack (the picture opens with When in Rome’s “The Promise” and includes other cool tunes from the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Pixies).
I generally liked the performances. Newton tends to do her best work with more comedic or edgier material such as this, “Freaky,” “Blockers” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She seemed ill at ease reacting to wonky CGI in last year’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” She’s a natural fit here and therefore gives us a far more appealing turn. Sprouse is OK in what’s largely a dialogue-free, physical performance, but I’ve seen better work with similar roles in recent memory (David Harbour in “We Have a Ghost” springs to mind). The stand-out to me acting-wise has to be Soberano whose character would often be lazily portrayed as a villainous bitch, but instead becomes the beating heart of this horror-comedy. (Kudos also to Cody for not making Taffy entirely daffy and actually imbuing her with a great deal of warmth.)
I’m not entirely sure how “Lisa Frankenstein” got a PG-13 rating (a character has his penis and testicles removed via hatchet and they’re seen flying through the air in silhouette), but I do think it would have benefitted from being rated R. This is a tale in which Lisa and The Creature gather body parts (an ear here, a hand there, the aforementioned genitals) to help make him whole and yet everything feels too sanitary. Williams and Cody needed to better commit to the bit, but I could easily see this becoming a cult curio and sleepover staple. One thing’s for certain: Goth girls everywhere will go gaga for it.