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Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ is a Quirky Romantic Comedy that Turns Serial Killing into a Love Language

February 7, 2024Ben MK

For avid moviegoers, the mere mention of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may conjure up all manner of iconic imagery. From Boris Karloff's unforgettable portrayal to Kenneth Branagh's gothic retelling, not to mention the campy sitcom parody that was The Munsters, Shelley's story of a scientist in conflict with his maligned creation has captivated audiences for decades. With Lisa Frankenstein, however, director Zelda Williams is putting her own twist on that all-too-familiar tale, in this not-quite-modern-day reimagining that's part love story, part horror, and equal parts John Hughes and Tim Burton.

The year is 1989, and 18-year-old Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is having a tough time adjusting at her new school. Two years earlier, her beloved mom (Jennifer Pierce Mathus) was brutally killed by an axe-wielding intruder in their home, and six months after that, Lisa's dad, Dale (Joel Chrest), met and remarried psychiatric nurse Janet (Carla Gugino). However, despite gaining a new stepsister named Taffy (Liza Soberano) out of that terrible ordeal, Lisa has never been quite the same. While her fellow Brookview High classmates are busy partying and going on dates, Lisa spends her time reading at Bachelor's Grove Cemetery, where she's developed an affinity for one grave in particular — that of an unnamed bachelor who died in 1837. What she never expected, though, was for the corpse she's been conversing with through six feet of dirt (Cole Sprouse) to suddenly come back to life, after a freak storm one night sends a mysterious bolt of green lightning directly into the heart of Bachelor's Grove.

Faced with the unbelievable reality of coming face to face with a real-life member of the undead, Lisa's initial reaction is absolute shock, which eventually gives way to compassion, as she finds herself taking pity on her zombie-like suitor, who would do anything to be restored to his flesh-and-blood former self. Little do either of them realize, the solution to all their problems lies with the tanning bed Taffy keeps in the garage. And when a gruesome act of self-defense inadvertently leads the pair to discovering that newly severed body parts coupled with the apparent healing properties of the tanning machine can help the previously living reattain their youthful glow once again, it sets Lisa and her new undead beau on a quest to reinvigorate him back to a recognizable human state, while also taking revenge on a few people who wronged her along the way.

Written by Diablo Cody, what follows isn't quite as demented as it sounds on paper. Still, what Lisa Frankenstein lacks in hardcore horror scares it more than makes up for with its quirky overall aesthetic and engaging performances, with Newton and Sprouse giving off major Edward Scissorhands vibes as their characters unconventional meet-cute slowly blossoms into a potentially doomed romance, not unlike Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde. Suffice to say, the result is everything one could hope for from a John Hughes x Tim Burton mashup. And when you factor in the authentic '80s soundtrack, it only adds to the movie's appeal.

An offbeat and charming tale that turns serial killing into a love language, Lisa Frankenstein is by no means a straightforward adaptation of Shelley's genre-defining tome. What it is, however, is a film that takes some of that story's core elements and rearranges them into a patchwork love letter that pays homage to both the rom-com and horror genre's most beloved classics. And while some of the stitching that holds the movie together could be a bit more subtle, for the most part, it's more beauty than monstrosity.

Lisa Frankenstein releases February 9th, 2024 from Focus Features. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for violent content, bloody images, sexual material, language, sexual assault, teen drinking and drug content. Its runtime is 1 hr. 41 min.

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