It seems that, these days, teenage girls only want one thing and that’s a long-dead Victorian boyfriend roused from his grave by an ardent wish and a strike of lightning. He’s sweet, he’s chivalrous, his tongue has fallen off so he can’t speak: dreamboat alert!
It’s a setup that’s a little bit “Freaky Friday” and little bit “Night of the Living Dead,” but in “Lisa Frankenstein,” screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Zelda Williams take Mary Shelley’s iconic horror text and juice it up with “Heathers”-inspired dialogue and a romantic hero in the mold of “Edward Scissorhands.” But for all its forbears, this spooky-ooky 1989-set romance has a thoroughly modern sensibility, and it’s about to be the new obsession of quirky teens everywhere.
The good news is that “Lisa Frankenstein” is so chockablock with references that span the gamut of film history — from the silent era to the Brat Pack years — that it might inspire younger generations to explore films outside their comfort zone. Cody’s script may be totally ’80s (a nostalgic era for a Gen-X writer) and indebted to filmmakers like Daniel Waters, John Hughes and Amy Heckerling, but director Williams, making her feature debut, has embroidered the text with her own flourishes, nodding to Georges Méliès, James Whale’s Universal monster movies and Tim Burton’s early studies of suburban absurdism. And yes, there’s a passing shout-out to Weimar-era filmmaker G.W. Pabst if you listen closely.
Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa, an odd outcast with a slasher-movie-ready tragic backstory and a predilection for hanging out in the cemetery, leaving trinkets at the grave of a handsome young dead guy. She has an evil stepmother (Carla Gugino) and a clueless father (Joe Chrest of “Stranger Things”); her stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) is a chipper cheerleader earnestly concerned with Lisa’s popularity or lack thereof.
Try as she might, Taffy just can’t make Lisa fit in, but it’s only when Lisa starts to embrace standing out that she starts to find her power. Her transformation is largely thanks to her new beau, the reanimated hunk from the cemetery (Cole Sprouse), who shows up on her doorstep caked in bugs and rot and, after some initial tension, encourages her to embrace an edgy new goth-princess look. He needs a makeover and a few new parts himself, so Lisa and her friend have to resort to sordid, murderous means to acquire the limbs he’s lacking.
With this performance and 2020’s “Freaky,” Newton has proven herself to be that rare starlet who seems to be a real weirdo with the face of an angel. With her long, curly mane and large, doleful eyes (here adorned with excessive makeup), she has the look of a silent-film star outfitted in a wardrobe that’s Madonna by Lydia Deetz. She adopts some melodramatic body language in the style of Elsa Lanchester’s performance in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” combining all of these influences for a truly memorable turn as Lisa. Sprouse, as the wordless, devoted Creature, delivers a physical performance that is surprisingly moving and romantic.
But the breakout star and true discovery of “Lisa Frankenstein” is Soberano, who has a real gift for imbuing Cody’s famously clever and convoluted dialogue with a sincerity that elevates the character beyond an ironic archetype as she morphs from mean teen to scream queen. In fact, Soberano might be too good in the role — she’s so charming and sympathetic that there’s an emotional domino effect that exposes some problems with the script.
At a certain point, “Lisa Frankenstein” loses some heart and becomes more about the idea of a monster as a man devoid of toxic masculinity, literally sewn and zapped into Lisa’s ideal mate. The script fumbles a complicated emotional through-line about the trauma of losing one’s mother violently, and careens into a doomed lovers’ story, a “supernatural born killers,” if you will. At times, the dialogue is interrupted by what seem to be Cody’s personal rants and 2020s-friendly social messages, and even if they are relatable, the lunge is transparent.
Still, there’s enough verve in the concept and performances — and in debuting feature-maker Williams’ exuberant direction — to carry “Lisa Frankenstein” through. Williams’ approach is refreshingly tactile and practical, filled with design elements and influences, like a title animation made of Victorian silhouettes. Her style is neon-gothic splendor, combining turn-of-the-century elements with a bold ’80s color palette.
Assembled lovingly from many different parts, “Lisa Frankenstein” flips the switch thanks to an overall commitment from cast and crew — and make no mistake, it’s alive.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.