Hollywood’s obsession with the 80s might as well be its own genre at this point. It feels like that decade never left us, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere any time soon. So let’s talk about “Lisa Frankenstein” – the latest nostalgia-filled attempt to combine teen angst with big hair, bold patterns, and in this case… casual dismemberment? On paper, “Lisa Frankenstein” does look like a quirky premise right out of the 80s. It’s 1989, and a misunderstood, angsty teenager finds herself befriending a reanimated corpse. Together they embark on a murderous journey to find love, happiness and
a few missing body parts. Directed by Zelda Williams (the daughter of the legendary Robin Williams), written by Diablo Cody, and starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse, the movie is a horror rom-com, light on the horror, heavy on the aesthetics and classic movie inspirations. Think something like “Warm Bodies” in terms of tone – it is not scary at all, it’s meant to be cute, funny, occasionally gross, but in this case it’s a lot more visually striking. Now, I do want to get into the many influences of “Lisa Frankenstein” and how specifically that referential approach affects the
overall perception of the movie, but first let me give you my quick, overall take. The movie is fine. It’s entertaining enough to watch once, it has some fun with
the show – she really understood the assignment and had a great time with the role. But… the movie is also failed by the editing and, to a certain extent, by the writing. The pacing never really lets the story take off, the humor is not quite as sharp as you would hope, the romance doesn’t really feel like it’s crazy enough or really has any kind of stakes because it’s so obvious where it’s going. And that’s actually surprising because with a premise like this, I should have come out of this movie feeling like that was was insane,
and yet somehow all of this feels very tame and neat. This is also interesting because the movie tries to be super fun and casual about murder, which once again should add to its craziness, but instead it hits this weird tone where nothing really matters and you’re just not sure what to do with it. It’s not making any kind of statement to pass for some sort of satire, and it’s not over-the-top either to take it towards being comically ridiculous. In almost every aspect, the movie just doesn’t go far enough to take things somewhere interesting, and as
a result it eventually just starts feeling a bit aimless. For lack of a better word, it’s missing some kind of spark to really bring this story to life. The other big issue I had with this movie (probably the biggest issue, honestly) has to do with the way it uses its influences. Let me explain. “Lisa Frankenstein” definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. Even the title takes us back to “Frankenstein”, a timeless classic, mixed with the vibrant colors of Lisa Frank, which are both relevant to this movie: it’s a mix of classic tropes packaged in bright
colors. The movie pulls from multiple “Frankenstein” films as well as Mel Brooks comedies. It’s got a bit of “Weird Science” and a lot, a lot of “Heathers”. A dash of “Death Becomes Her”, as “Day of the Dead” plays in the background. It has Tim Burton written all over it from, from “Beetlejuice” to “Edward Scissorhands”, and the lead character slowly but surely turning into a Helen Bonham Carter. Even The Creature is a little bit Sweeney Todd, which isn’t 80s or 90s, but it’s still on-brand with Tim Burton. I mean, look at them! Look at these two!
And here’s the thing: I’m all for paying homage and respecting influences in a movie, and it is fun to discover Easter eggs as you’re watching, but “Lisa Frankenstein” goes way beyond that. It’s a movie that feels like a mashup of 80s and early 90s themed tropes and ideas without anything to make it stand on its own. It’s a neat and clean version of the 80s that feels more like a themed Halloween party than anything remotely authentic. It’s an idealized, movie version of the 80s for the younger generation, it’s mostly about the look and it completely
misses the point of its own references. And you might say “Marianna, why are you taking this so seriously? This is just a silly comedy, not everything is meant to be deep and meaningful.” To which I say… sure, but when you position your movie next to something like “Heathers” you immediately make that connection for the audience, and when you keep referencing all of these 80s and 90s classics you are just inviting the comparisons. Let me stick with “Heathers” for a little bit. “Heathers” uses comedy and violence to address the high school experience, connecting it to society
as a whole. It tackles bullying, alienation, the cult of popularity, and while it uses violence as a crucial element of the dark comedy, it still takes it seriously. Just like it takes its characters and their arcs seriously. The thing that “Lisa Frankenstein” takes seriously are the aesthetics. And I’m not here to tell you that every 80’s teen comedy is deep and flawless, of course not. But many of them are iconic for a reason, and that reason is not because they mushed a bunch of tropes together from older movies – they had something to say, even
if in some cases that message was cheesy or simple. What’s frustrating too is that the potential is there: Lisa is a character that has a lot going on and Kathryn Newton is actually really good in this role, but she is never truly given the opportunity to blossom into something more. And I know there will be people who connect with this character, who have already typed the comment of how much I just don’t get it – guys, I get it, I promise, but it doesn’t mean I respond to it the same way. Also, can we just
have higher standards for entertainment? “Oh look, a cool reference” doesn’t make a good movie. All it did for me is made me think of all these other movies that did all of this better, which is why I rewatched “Heathers” the next day after watching “Lisa Frankenstein”. It’s a masterpiece. Look, there isn’t anything terribly wrong with “Lisa Frankenstein”, and I think for a specific audience this is going to be a lot of fun. I didn’t hate it, I had some fun with it as well, and I love a vibrant, visual treat of a movie as much
as anyone else. I’m not even opposed to seeing an homage to a certain era of filmmaking or using established tropes from said era to tell the story – all of that can be done well. But I did find it disappointing, lackluster, and mostly just OK. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and it is clear that the filmmakers have a lot of love and respect, not just for the 80s and 90s, but also for older, classic cinema. I relate, I love the same things and watching those movies really takes me back to seeing them for the first
time on TV as a kid. But when it comes to revisiting all of this in modern movies, what matters to me is how the story is told, how the characters are treated, and what’s actually done with the se tropes. How much more interesting would this have been if these tropes were examined? If the character types had a unique spin on them? What if it wasn’t so clean and polished? What if the humor was rooted in satire that actually mattered? Because what is the point of reanimating the past if, instead of really looking at it, all
we do is stumble around a neatly packaged collection of references without actually giving them a new life.