Review: In 'Lisa Frankenstein' the shocks feel warmed-over, the special effects secondhand

Don’t wish too hard for a perfect Valentine.

February 9, 2024, 4:19 AM

Don't wish too hard for a perfect Valentine. If you're like 1980s goth girl Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) you might accidentally reanimate Creature (Cole Sprouse), a scabby relic from the Victorian era who needs a hell of a makeover. That's the basic plot of "Lisa Frankenstein," now hunting down an audience in theaters where it enters the game with two strikes against it.

For starters, there's already a spectacular spinoff of Frankenstein called "Poor Things," which boasts 11 Oscar nominations and a career-best Emma Stone as a reanimated corpse, also from the time of Queen Victoria. Strike 2 for "Lisa Frankenstein" is that this misbegotten patchwork can't hold a candle to "Poor Things" or generate a vital life of its own.

It's not for lack of trying. Debuting director Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin Williams) and screenwriter Diablo Cody, an Oscar winner for "Juno," knock themselves out trying to drum up laughs and a radical romcom gut punch. Too bad their strenuous effort is all sweat and zero inspiration.

PHOTO: A scene from the movie  "Lisa Frankenstein."
A scene from the movie "Lisa Frankenstein."
Focus Features

When we first meet Lisa, the poor thing is mourning the ax murder of her mother, not to mention adjusting to a new town, a new school, and the marriage of her dweeb dad (Joe Chrest) to nurse Janet (the reliably terrific Carla Gugino), the ultimate wicked stepmom.

A rare bright spot for Lisa is her cheerleader stepsister Taffy, played by live wire Liza Soberano. But Taffy's attempts to draw Lisa into the social scene fail since Lisa would rather read Sylvia Plath in a cemetery near the grave of a pianist who killed himself in 1831 for unrequited love.

"I wish I could be with you," Lisa whispers to the marble bust of her dream lover. And wham, lightning strikes and suddenly he's there in all his mute, messy, skin-crawling glory.

It must be said that Newton ("Blockers") and Sprouse -- so good as Jughead on TV's "Riverdale" -- have the makings of a dynamite duo. She's a motormouth and he barely grunts, but the two young stars bring a sweetness to the party even when the movie itself goes off the rails, which it does when Creature reacts violently to anyone who crosses his new bestie.

The killings, of course, allow Creature to replace his missing hand, ear and penis with a fresh supply that Lisa sews on with delicate care, often to the cornball tune of "On the Wings of Love." These are the jokes, folks, and despite the efforts of all involved, they rarely land.

PHOTO: A scene from the movie  "Lisa Frankenstein."
A scene from the movie "Lisa Frankenstein."
Focus Features

Lisa uses a tanning bed to deal with Creature's deathly pallor and supplies clothes to spiff up his look. He even accompanies her on piano when she sings REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." What a shame that his tears still smell from centuries of decay. Well, nobody's perfect.

The 1980s needle drops and references to "Beetlejuice," "Weird Science" and "Edward Scissorhands" only underline how dated the recycled material comes off. It's a movie constructed from spare parts of other, better movies.

In "Lisa Frankenstein" the shocks feel warmed-over, the special-effects second-hand and the love story drained of sexy yearning.

Cody handled similar material with R-rated pow in 2009's "Jennifer's Body." So what happened this time? Neutered by a PG-13 rating and a timid reluctance to offend, "Lisa Frankenstein" becomes the one thing Lisa and a hardcore screenwriter who calls herself Diablo should never have allowed it to become: tame.