Campy teen comedies are back from the dead with Lisa Frankenstein

Campy teen comedies revived with ‘Lisa Frankenstein’

Review: Kathryn Newton stars in the self-aware black comedy that walks the tightrope perfectly between absurdity and embarrassment.

Lisa Frankenstein
Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows and Cole Sprouse as The Creature in Focus Features’ “Lisa Frankenstein.”

Diablo Cody, screenwriter of cult classic comedies like Jennifer’s Body and Juno, is back with a reanimated vengeance. Cody specializes in the niche genre of teen movies mature enough to be taken seriously by their intended audience, but self-aware enough to acknowledge the petty, often absurd conflicts of teenaged life. The world Cody creates with screenplays like Body and Frankenstein – which take place in the same universe, reportedly – and brings to life here with the help of director Zelda Williams creates a safe space for young adult audiences to indulge in their wildest fantasies, and forget, for at least a little while, about the consequences.

The film focuses on awkward teenager Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), who is struggling to fit in at her new school despite the persistence of stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). Lisa finds solace in hanging out at the local Bachelor’s Graveyard – at least until the grave of her favorite bachelor opens up, and the man in question comes stumbling out. Things only escalate from there.

While the title Lisa Frankenstein might indicate a direct reference to the seminal Mary Shelley novel. the film keeps its homages tangential. Cole Sprouse’s delightfully expressive dead man is credited only as The Creature, despite a few visual cues that in another life, he might have borne the eponymous surname. Lisa, too, is no mad scientist – just a lonely girl with a malfunctioning tanning bed.

In an era of remakes, adaptations, and franchises galore, it’s refreshing to see a familiar concept reworked to fit not only the style of the film’s period (Frankenstein relishes in its glorious 1980s setting) but also the sensibilities of the modern day. Frankenstein has mean girls and teased hair, but it also features heartwarming relationships between female characters and a charmingly offbeat protagonist who feels emblematic of plenty of Gen Z influencers who turn to fantasy in lieu of real-life interaction in their small towns.

Lisa Frankenstein adopts a style of self-aware black comedy that walks the tightrope perfectly between absurdity and embarrassment; impromptu renditions of “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” and well-timed slo-mo slaughter sequences craft the perfect basis for Zelda Williams’ zany direction and color palette. The visual style  of Frankenstein is reminiscent of late-80s teen movies like Heathers and The Breakfast Club, but with a heightened twist. Every color is ultra-saturated, and creative red and blue lighting gives the appearance that this sleepy suburban town doubles as a neon acropolis. Each frame is a delight.

Adding to the visual style is Sprouse’s impressive silent performance; his aristocratic pout both defines his character and endears him to the audience as the friend-zoned guy who just wants to get the girl. The film balances stiff physical comedy with a series of zingy one-liners that you’ll remember long after you leave the theater.

In the end, Lisa Frankenstein is a story about reckless actions and their consequences, but it showcases this theme in a way that feels organic within the confines of the world of the film, even if it’s absurd for our own reality. The film’s ending is both tragic and comedic, nailing the perfect tone that the rest of the film exemplifies: it’s not easy being a teenager, but it’s not easy being dead either, so why shouldn’t these two completely different people find something in common?