An early draft of this review was originally published on February 17, 2024,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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What a perfect conduit for the talents of REO Speedwagon.

Forgive me — I try to avoid co-opt lines from a movie’s dialogue for review purposes, but that one is just too fitting to pass up. Director Zelda Williams’ Lisa Frankenstein is, above all, an excuse to revel in some distinctly 1980s’ pop culture, from the needle drops (which are effective, and surprisingly eclectic) to the costumes (which raid the closets of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna), to the analog Edward Gorey-ish aesthetic of early Tim Burton.

With a whimsical if anticlimactic script by Diablo Cody — yes, the filmmaker who wrote Juno, Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult, and Tully  it’s a whole lot of frivolous fun as it plays, striking some charming notes that will remind you of Edward Scissorhands’ fairy tale fantasy, and more dissonant notes that recall Heathers. And it’s that rare comedy that knows exactly how long its silly little premise will last and then neatly wraps things up and lets us go home. Hard to believe that that is still possible.

Kathryn Newton is Lisa, whose childhood trauma inclines her toward all things goth and counterculture.

The pitch is so simple and sure to sell, it’s shocking we haven’t seen this movie before. The year is 1989 (I’m already sold, as that’s the year I graduated from high school), and Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is suffering serious PTSD from the horrific murder of her mother. Finishing high school in the home of her half-wit father (Joe Chrest), a jazzercizing Maleficent of a stepmother (Carla Gugino), and a cheerleading Heather-of-a-stepsister (Liza Soberano), she’s a class outcast for being out of step with the narrowly drawn “types” of students.

When one of those magical movie lightning storms jolts a corpse into Franken-animation, Lisa is somewhat distracted from her crush on the school literary journal editor by a tall, dark, and slimy stranger (Cole Sprouse). Hiding him in the closet like her teenage fantasy E.T., Lisa slowly discovers that she has a new secret weapon against anybody who might inconvenience her. After all, he’s willing to kill if he can score replacement body parts by doing so. (This zombie has higher priorities than brains). Over-the-top bloodshed ensues, all but guaranteeing that this will be a Halloween party favorite for decades to come.

It’s strange that Heathers seems to be the trending reference point for high school sex comedies right now. Bottoms is still fresh in our minds, right? But that film’s reckless audacity seems to be reminding a new generation of filmmakers of the value of surprise — even nasty, R-rated surprise.

Lisa and her zombie beau (Cole Sprouse) consider the risks of going public.

While ‘80s sex comedies have never been a brand I’ve been eager to revisit, I liked Bottoms a lot, and I had a lot of fun with Lisa Frankenstein. I’m not fond of revenge stories, but there is something cathartic and truthful, something valuable in good-humored reminders that our sins will find us out — whether we be the sort who uphold the harmful cliques of adolescence or the uglier sort who commit sexual assault if they have the chance. Lisa is a victim of violent crime, and in her compromised state she is prone to endorse violent revenge if she can. I don’t applaud her methods, but I understand and empathize. Let this review be an endorsement of stories that warn against transgression, not a vote cast for violence.

The cast of Lisa Frankenstein, while unremarkable, is clearly having fun. The costuming is a joy. And it’s a delight to be reminded of how brightly movies like Tim Burton’s early work shone while we weren’t distracted by the turbulence their young stars suffered soon after. (I wonder what the late careers of Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp, and Christian Slater might look like today if they’d had wiser career mentors along the way.)

My enjoyment may have been influenced by a couple of unlikely factors unique to my screening:

First — the crowd, if you can call a dozen moviegoers a crowd. The young women in the almost-empty theater were screaming with laughter whenever Newton and Sprouse were alone on screen together. Diablo Cody has their number, let me tell you. I haven’t heard so much girl-power solidarity in a theater since opening week of Barbie. I’m curious to see if word-of-mouth makes this thing a bigger hit than anybody saw coming.

Lisa and her zombie beau (Cole Sprouse) consider the risks of going public.

Second — the timing. I was wearing my headphones, with only one ear uncovered so I could track the movie. In the other ear, I was listening to the live broadcast of the Super Bowl’s fourth quarter plus overtime. (Don’t judge me: No one else had reserved seats in the back-right quadrant of the theater, so nobody even noticed.) And you know what? I enjoyed both the game and the movie just fine.

While it’s a shame that none of the cast show the potential to become this generation’s Depp, Ryder, or Slater, or look poised for long-running careers like most of the cast in the retro-80s Stranger Things, the whole thing feels like joyous cosplay. Lisa Frankenstein may not be much more than a flimsy tribute to the days of Beetlejuice and She’s So Unusual, but that’s enough to make my late-80s high schooler heart happy for a fleeting 101 minutes.

What They Said:

Alissa Wilkinson at The New York Times:

Perhaps you spent the late 1980s and early ’90s doing something other than being a school-age girl. So it’s worth noting that the title of the film is a nod to a company, named for its founder, that produced brightly colored stickers with characters like unicorns and kittens and bears that eventually made their way to the broader school supply set. (In grade school circa 1992, my friends and I yearned for Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, the true marker of cool.)

I was a little bummed out to discover that, despite the title, the nostalgic brand never really shows up in the movie — in fact, the vibe isn’t Lisa Frank-esque at all. But it’s OK, because “Lisa Frankenstein” is girly-gothy, in a way that’s a lot of fun once you get used to it. In fact, the best thing about the film is its production design, which takes familiar trappings from movies of the era (I thought of everything from “Poltergeist” to “Edward Scissorhands” to “Pretty in Pink” to “Weird Science,” itself a loose “Frankenstein” adaptation) and just dials up the color temperature a few degrees. It’s a pastiche crossed with a tribute, complete with references to slasher films, Cinderella, loner high school flicks and a makeover montage. Plus, of course, “Frankenstein.”

Kevin McLenithan at Letterboxd:

Lisa Frankenstein is mostly interested in asking what it would be like if Frankenstein’s monster wore a Violent Femmes t-shirt and had to learn what a vibrator is.