By Sarah Musnicky
Frankenstein adaptations are a dime a dozen. Mary Shelley’s words have been the source of inspiration since its publication, and for good reason. There’s plenty to explore and play around with, particularly with reanimation and sculpting the perfect being. In LISA FRANKENSTEIN, screenwriter Diablo Cody pulls inspiration from the classic horror novel, and gives it a moody teenage twist. Led by Kathryn Newton and the wholly committed Cole Sprouse, what results is a delightful, albeit uneven, messy romantic tale.
Starting off with a beautiful credit sequence, the stage is set for the macabre. Before we get there, characters need to be established. Kathryn Newton’s Lisa is socially awkward and dark. Dealing with untapped trauma left over from her mother’s death, life as she knows it is gone. Her dad moves on with a new family – the oh-so-awful stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), and the kind, perpetually smiley Taffy (Liza Soberano). The recipe for Lisa’s anger is easily set up here.
An absolute rager, a storm, a near sexual assault, and a wonderfully executed series of location transitions lead to The Creature’s inevitable awakening. Once the two subsequently meet, it is an uneven journey watching Lisa transform, both in attitude and bloodthirstiness. It’s never wholly unwarranted, though. Lisa’s been failed mostly by everyone around her. As rebellious phases go, Lisa could have been a lot worse.
The back and forth between Lisa and The Creature often results in some quirky comedic moments that, at least for this reviewer, work more often than not. It's a testament to director Zelda Williams for playing with this balance. Kathryn Newton’s delivery is quick. She knows when to nurse those moments for the laugh. Cole Sprouse, who is unable to speak throughout LISA FRANKENSTEIN, proves why physical comedy is so great. When it works, it works. As The Creature, Sprouse conveys so much with his face, his physicality, that if he dared speak, I’d rush to cover his mouth before being taken out of the illusion.
Carla Gugino’s Janet embodies the awful stepmother stereotype with an '80s aerobic twist. Not once does she exhibit maternal care for Lisa, instead preferring to label her unhinged. Liza Soberano’s Taffy contrasts against Janet wonderfully. She at least tries to help Lisa acclimate to her surroundings. As the most normal character onscreen, her presence provides balance with Newton’s and Sprouse’s more eccentric performances.
The color palette of LISA FRANKENSTEIN is heavenly. Girlish pinks contrast against the gothic stylings of Lisa and The Creature. It embraces both the dark and the feminine, crafting a memorable aesthetic. Michelle C. Harmon's art direction plays a heavy hand here, with the production design by Mark Worthington bringing it to life. Paula Huidobro's lens comes in, creating snapshot portraits of our onscreen couple. There's a particular shot featuring the neon blue glow of a tanning bed that serves as another reminder of why blue light should be used more in fun ways.
A major part of selling the overall vibe of LISA FRANKENSTEIN is Meagan McLaughlin's costuming. The costumes play a part in the storytelling. Lisa's transformation is easily observed through the costuming. From awkward gangly geek to goth femme fatale, McLaughlin has fun bringing these clothing elements together to craft this journey. For Sprouse's Creature, the influence of Victorian-era fashion is present. As LISA FRANKENSTEIN progresses, his appearance almost evokes Victor from Corpse Bride as well. Little touches involving crimped hair, the tease of it all, and makeup touches bring the appearances of the character onscreen together in a modern twist to the '80s.
LISA FRANKENSTEIN is a little weird, chaotically messy, and a bit uneven at times. It's got its charm, though. No one onscreen is blameless or wholly good, which is refreshing for a YA-oriented film where such things tend to be sanitized. Featuring some strong tongue-in-cheek awkward comedy, invested performances from its performers, and tapping deep into gothic teenage angst, LISA FRANKENSTEIN hits the spot.
LISA FRANKENSTEIN arrives in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 9th.