Kathryn Newton has spent the last few years being cast as conventional pretty girls in such different films as the addiction drama Ben Is Back, the raunchy comedy Blockers, and the Marvel film Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. She’s been fine in those, if not much more. As her performance in Lisa Frankenstein shows, she has been seriously misused. She’s far better suited to playing the latest in Diablo Cody’s gallery of smart, well-read, odd, moody, glowering, wisecracking teenage heroines who somehow all have cheerleader types as their best friends. It’s generally more fun playing these somewhat dangerous girls who are a lot of fun to be around, and seeing Newton do it is revelatory.
She portrays Lisa Swallows, a high-school student in 1989 who has had a bad year, what with witnessing her mother’s death at an ax murderer’s ax, fleeing to another town, and seeing her dad (Joe Chrest) hastily marry a horror show of a psychiatric nurse (Carla Gugino). Her one source of solace arrives in the form of a decomposing corpse (Cole Sprouse) who wanders into her living room after busting through the window.
Newton delivers the sort of uncorked performance that you wouldn’t have guessed she was capable of from her previous work. She tosses her body around freely, whether she accidentally drinks a PCP-laced beer at a party and starts hallucinating, runs around town trying to gather the corpse’s missing body parts, gives a sarcastic thumbs up to her stepsister (Liza Soberano) making the cheer squad, or dances around her living room while singing her own version of “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Her wardrobe goes from high Goth to Madonna’s look from Desperately Seeking Susan, and she has a blast staring daggers through her frizzy 1980s hair. She makes a splash like never before, but she’s also subtly funny with the torrent of jokes that result when the corpse finds her vibrator in her closet. (“Aunt Sheila gave it to me for my birthday. She said it would improve my personality.”)
This is the first feature film directed by Zelda Williams, and the 34-year-old daughter of the late Robin Williams flashes more than a bit of talent behind the camera. The small-town setting appropriately feels like a mashup of Tim Burton and John Waters, a great backdrop for the highly stylized performances here. When the corpse dismembers a toxic guy in Lisa’s life, the scene is hilariously set to Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love.” The animated sequences over the opening credits and when Lisa has sex with the creature are distinctive touches as well, and Williams pulls off a superb slow burn when Lisa’s evil stepmother calls her a bitch and a whore and promises to lock her up in the psych ward while the closet doors behind her slowly open.
Cody’s writing is sharp as ever, too. I laughed out loud when Lisa refers to the German Expressionist filmmaker G.W. Pabst and the guy she’s with thinks she’s talking about his beer. For its PG-13 rating, the film gets away with quite a lot in the way of both violence and sexual references. As much as I admire Cody’s grown-up stories such as Young Adult and Tully, I enjoy her horror movies much more, where her twisted wit receives free rein.
I went into this movie wondering what was left for this riff on the Frankenstein story (maybe the 1990 comedy Frankenhooker is the better citation) after the success of Poor Things. Turns out there are still plenty of laughs in the premise. The Oscar-winning Cody has said that this movie is part of the same fictional universe as her 2009 classic Jennifer’s Body. The best thing I can say about Lisa Frankenstein is that it fully earns the comparison.
Starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse. Directed by Zelda Williams. Written by Diablo Cody. Rated PG-13.