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HomeWorldLisa Frankenstein review – Diablo Cody’s throwback comedy-horror is monster mush

Lisa Frankenstein review – Diablo Cody’s throwback comedy-horror is monster mush

The blindsiding success of 2007’s Juno gave Hollywood an unusual new star, a young and outspoken stripper-turned-screenwriter whose very existence upended dusty industry expectations, and one who became hard to easily pigeonhole. Diablo Cody, who wrote her first hit screenplay before she turned 30, was rewarded with an Oscar, and within a profession where household names are rarer than rare, she became a minor celebrity, all eyes fixated on whatever her next move would be.

Cody’s follow-up – the poppy supernatural horror Jennifer’s Body – turned those cheers to jeers, an Oscar winner suddenly attracting the unfair attention of the Razzies (an admittedly heinous institution with a profoundly stupid voting record) and repelling that of audiences. The response was a mix of bafflement and bile and it was only years later that it started to find an audience as a Midnight Movie mainstay and the subject of thinkpiece upon thinkpiece praising its sly feminism and deeply underrated Megan Fox performance. Its stature has grown to the size that Cody’s new movie Lisa Frankenstein arguably only exists because of it, another high school-set comedy horror sold as the latest from the writer of Jennifer’s Body, a curious about-turn and an encouraging sign of how streaming access has helped transform misses into hits in recent years.

But while as a green light in itself, it’s the deserved win Cody was owed years prior, the actual result is not quite a slam-dunk for those of us watching, and those of us who have been waiting, a wannabe cult classic that you’ll have sadly forgotten by the morning.

Like with the far superior (if still patchier than its keenest defenders would like to admit) Jennifer’s Body, Cody takes the elements of a classic monster movie and gives them a remix. This time it’s the late 80s, a period perfectly suited for Cody’s nostalgia lust, and our unpopular teenage girl protagonist is now Lisa (Kathryn Newton), struggling to find her place in a new high school. She carries a dark, lurid history (her mother was slaughtered by a masked killer) and would rather spend time at the local cemetery than at house parties, despite her new stepsister (Liza Soberano) trying to involve her. In a set of circumstances involving an accidentally ingested hallucinogen, an attempted rape and an eerie green thunderstorm, Lisa’s favourite grave is unearthed and a reanimated corpse (Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse) becomes a secret she has to keep hidden in her closet.

It’s very much the easy PG-13 gateway drug to Jennifer’s Body’s harder R-rated horror, a sprightlier, sillier film that isn’t just set in the 80s but demands comparison to the kind of adolescent comedy-horrors released back then. But director Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin, isn’t just aiming for the lesser-known comps (My Boyfriend’s Back, My Demon Lover, Teen Witch, Weird Science), she’s boldly trying to riff on Heathers and mainly conjure the spirit of Tim Burton, all the way down to the surreal suburban setting and a gothic animated sequence. There’s a real commitment to the bit, aided by Cody’s attention to detailed period references, but the film never reaches the lofty heights it aims for with some pacing that feels a little off and a script that’s slapdash when it should be slick. Lisa’s willingness to help her zombified new friend’s murderous quest for body parts never makes all that much sense given how grotesque and unresponsive he is and how relatively easy it seems for her to find acceptance elsewhere. We’re never that sure of who Lisa really is, styling aside, and Newton, who nailed the comedy-horror balance in 2020’s far more assured genre mash-up Freaky, feels similarly lacking in confidence. Her performance works in parts but it’s a note-perfect Soberano and a roaringly nasty Carla Gugino as her evil stepmother who steal the show, both more finely attuned to the tropes of the era.

The film feels a little trapped between two worlds, a tween sleepover comedy on the verge of full body horror, and so some scenes feel clumsily sanitised, as if an unrated DVD is on the way complete with gory excess, Cody’s spiky dialogue also feeling a little defanged by her need to hold back (her wildly underappreciated 2011 comedy Young Adult remains one of the finest, and nastiest, films ever made). Rather than proving itself as a rewatchable new favourite for a teenage audience of goth-lite Wednesday fans, it ends up more suited for their parents, to point and recall. To its credit, Lisa Frankenstein wears its inspirations on its black lace sleeves, never feigning true originality but there’s only so much looking back we can handle without things being pushed at least a little bit forward. In bringing a subgenre back from the dead, Cody and Williams could have used a little more life.

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