Author Mary Shelley has inspired horror creators since the 1800s, but never like Lisa Frankenstein. Zelda Williams brings Diablo Cody's undead teen romance to life like the second coming of early Tim Burton, harvesting an uncanny gothic romance from spare human parts. It's caught somewhere between Riverdale, Edward Scissorhands, and Warm Bodies, a good crossroads to call home. Williams and Cody inject surges of teen girl empowerment through their morbidly adorable Frankenstein tale, which can feel like a hammy 1980s sitcom, yet transcends expectations with an avalanche of campy, almost wall-breaking silliness.

Kathryn Newton shines as the horror-loving Lisa Swallows, a high school recluse who rarely speaks after the axe murder of her mother. Lisa now lives as a black sheep with her cheerleader stepsister "Taffy" (Liza Soberano), high-strung stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino), and easygoing father Dale (Joe Chrest). Taffy tries to help socialize her squirrely new sibling, but Lisa would rather hang around graveyards tracing tombstones on wax paper. "Frankenstein" reads her favorite. Lisa jokes about joining the namesake corpse buried six feet under, because the dead typically stay dead, until a lightning zap awakens "The Creature" (Cole Sprouse)—and brings him to Lisa's doorstep.

Williams isn't mimicking Burton's quirky gothic style like an imposter; it comes naturally. There's something impeccably "Lydia Deetz" about Newton's Lisa and Sleepy Hollow about Sprouse's Creature. Lisa's tickled pink home is just one of many out-of-place details that cut through mundane suburban conformity, much like the visual oddities of Edward Scissorhands. Performances project past the camera’s lens with overly emotive features, again mimicking Edward Scissorhands or any of Burton's works. Williams' vision is like a little Teen Vogue spirit spilled atop Tim Burton's signatures, which the filmmaker owns as her own fresh brand. 

Newton and Sprouse are delightful as Bonnie and Undead Victorian Clyde—Newton especially, keying into the film's unserious yet outspoken depiction of young, against-all-odds love. Cody brings that trademark zippy dialogue to Lisa Frankenstein and Lisa in particular, which comes off as macabre yet comforting, on par with Brian Duffield's masterful Spontaneous. Sprouse lumbers about and humorously groans without a vocal range, playing tight-lipped yet effectively forgiving against Newton's zany chatterbox, but he never steals the spotlight. Newton is the glue holding everything together, the lightning bolt that energizes Lisa Frankenstein, antagonized by a society that degrades outcasts until she finds her dream helper vomiting slimy green goo. Newton's a mix of Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham Carter in a spunky, black-laced package, as charming as she is alarming as Lisa.

It's not a perfect Frankenstein subversion. Lisa Frankenstein takes a minute to find its groove before Lisa and her monster man start vibing. There's an ’80s authenticity that's frequently hilarious—Dr. Frankenstein's table swaps for a fritzing tanning bed — but humor (being subjective) can ring a little flat in terms of time-warp aesthetics. Expect the same ’80s jokes, Violent Femmes tees, and quirky dialogue for quirk's sake. Supporting castmates like Liza Soberano and Carla Gugino find many opportunities to flash their talents, but how characters are steered into overacting like a Pleasantville gag can be slightly off-key.

Although, these are fleeting complaints. If a joke bombs, there's another laugh-out-loud delivery from Newton to jolt the audience back to life. Or a killer needle drop from REO Speedwagon, or a cover of "I Can See Clearly Now" at an opportune and decidedly not-sunshiney time. Williams is always in control of Lisa Frankenstein; she's unafraid to take risks. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fail. That never stops Williams, and her cutely distorted vision holds firm.

Lisa Frankenstein is a Valentine's Day treat for horror fans who might not want something as heady as Spring (perfection) or as creepy as Bride of Chucky (also perfection). Williams doesn't downplay the film's feminine themes and embraces the "Teen Screams" perspective that gives the film an edge. Watch Larry Fessenden's Depraved if you want a contemporary take on the traditional Frankenstein mythos. If you're looking for something a tad more juvenile and in line with youth-oriented horror releases like Warm Bodies or Totally Killer, schedule a date with Lisa Frankenstein.

Movie Score: 3.5 / 5

  • Matt Donato
    About the Author - Matt Donato

    Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Critics Choice Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.