If you’re looking for alternative programming this Valentine’s Day season, look no further than Lisa Frankenstein. The new 80s-set horror comedy directed by Zelda Williams and written by Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body) is the unconventional look at love filled with humor and gross-out moments you should watch.
The film, cheekily marketed as “a coming of RAGE love story,” follows Lisa Swallows, played by scream queen Kathryn Newton. Lisa is a typical misunderstood teenage protagonist except for a few quirks: her mother was murdered by an axe murderer, and she pines at the grave of a long-dead boy.
She’s not coping well while also dealing with her over-bearing stepmother Janet (played by a scene-chewing Carla Gugino), clueless father Dale (Joe Chrest), and well-meaning but shallow stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). Her loneliness changes when a freak accident brings the dead boy whose grave she visits back to life as a zombie and they form an unconventional friendship.
Lisa Frankenstein is a worthy addition to the “weird girl movie” canon, a subgenre that’s always existed but grown in popularity as a descriptor as online platforms like Letterboxd and even TikTok bring a different, more inclusive cinematic discourse. (For all the negatives of online movie discourse, the diversification of whose voices get heard is one of the positives).
These films in particular feature young adult and teenage women who feel like outsiders due to reasons ranging from angst-based (the melodramatic Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen) to literal (the demon-possessed Jennifer and her estranged friend Needy in Jennifer’s Body). As a result, these movies frequently appeal to a female audience because they feel represented in a way they don’t in other films.
Lisa fits into this category as she struggles in isolation to cope with the loss of her mother and her father’s remarriage. Her fascination with morbid things, like the local bachelor’s cemetery, doesn’t seem nearly as strange to her as the fact that everyone wants her to move on already.
Lisa’s transformation from an everyday weird girl goth to the accidental accomplice of a serial killer zombie provides a perfect setup for an entertaining and gruesome comedy.
Newton, who earned her place as a 21st-century scream queen and proved her comedic abilities in Freaky, is perfectly cast. Despite not exactly fitting the mold of an outcast (not even a lot of bad makeup and teased hair can help that), Newton knows how to convincingly play an awkward teen.
Lisa’s droll persona and Newton’s deadpan delivery combine to deliver laughs as the absurd events unfold. Lisa’s projected comfort and ease with the macabre while simultaneously being grossed out by the body horror of the Creature at times makes the character more relatable than aloof.
It would be easy for Lisa to stray too far into being the antagonist to remain sympathetic, especially as the body count racks up as she and the Creature attempt to repair his missing parts. Newton’s fun, sincere performance makes you want to keep on with her journey.
After all, it makes sense Lisa turns to the only person who seems to accept her for her, even if that person is a zombie who keeps murdering people.
Lisa’s “cool guy” speech towards the end of the film targeted at her crush who rejects her for the very attributes he flaunts reminds you that murder or not, someone like Lisa can’t win. Just as her justification for her behavior starts to wear thin and she’s starting to lose your empathy, you’re reminded how damn hard it is to be a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in.
Sprouse as the Creature also deserves credit for his almost silent performance as he still conveys emotion that makes Lisa’s conversations seem slightly less one-sided. It’s also notable how his physicality changes to sync with the Creature’s increasingly more reanimated form from bumbling zombie to almost human each time he’s repaired.
Soberano is also a breakout as Taffy, who while having her flaws is the perfect foil to Lisa and lightens up Lisa Frankenstein from its grim content. Even within the film, Lisa must acknowledge Taffy comes from a good place, and Soberano communicates that with her earnest delivery of lines that could otherwise be read as condescending.
Although the story could have easily been set in modern times and still worked (the way trends recycle so quickly you could keep the costuming), the late 80s setting adds some extra camp with the slang, fashion, and over-the-top interior design of Lisa’s house. The use of a retro tanning bed, which helps recreate the lighting electrocution of the Creature each time they sew on a new part, also feels distinctly of a past era.
The decade also gives the excuse to revisit your favorite 80s music including a great sing-along to REO Speedwagon and a joke about how listening to The Cure doesn’t fix physical ailments.
Lisa Frankenstein going retro allows it to pay direct homage to films that seem to serve as inspiration like Weird Science, Heathers, and early Tim Burton films. Both director and writer aren’t afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves while still keeping the story fresh and unique.
Whether the film’s ending will satisfy viewers largely comes down to how you feel about Lisa herself. Is she a villain? An anti-heroine? In my estimation, she’s just a girl trying to survive, and she does that in a surprising but satisfying manner.
Lisa Frankenstein is currently playing in theaters.