Usually, when you’re planning what movie to watch on Valentine’s Day, a few genres come to mind: romantic comedies, period romances, or tear-jerker dramas. That’s all fine and dandy — but some of us want a splash of horror in among the romance, something a bit quirkier and edgier to wash down those candy hearts.
So a perfectly good Valentine’s Day movie might, for instance, involve a couple getting together to harvest body parts from people who’ve wronged them. Oh, and one of the partners is an undead Victorian musician, and the other is a misfit 1980s Goth.
That’s the general gist of Lisa Frankenstein, a horror-comedy scripted by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult, Jennifer’s Body) and directed by Zelda Williams. It’s a comedically morbid, grimly romantic time. Though the pacing is disjointed, Lisa Frankenstein has all the elements of a killer black comedy, worthy of following in the footsteps of Heathers and Jennifer’s Body.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Lisa Frankenstein.]
Kathryn Newton (Detective Pikachu) stars as Lisa, a misfit 1980s teenage girl who’s still processing her mother’s violent death at the hands of an axe murderer. While her perky cheerleader stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano) does her best to help Lisa acclimate to their new high school, Lisa struggles to connect with her peers and would rather spend her free time writing poetry in an abandoned cemetery. In particular, she’s drawn to a grave with a handsome bust of a mysteriously deceased Victorian bachelor.
Her time at school is hard, but Lisa’s sullen attitude is also exacerbated by her stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino), who’s bent on sending Lisa away to a psychiatric hospital. Everything seems awful — until a freak storm somehow resurrects that mysteriously deceased Victorian bachelor (Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse), and he crawls out of his grave and finds Lisa in her stepfamily’s picture-perfect suburban neighborhood.
The juxtaposition of gloomy Lisa and the undead Creature (the corpse’s official name in the production notes) in the otherwise pastel neighborhood sets the overall tone of the movie. Clearly, this is a place where Lisa does not fit in. She’s tried to make her new room her own, taping her dark drawings and horror movie posters to the bedroom’s pink walls. But having one other person who gets her is the outlet she needs.
Everyone else around her has been trying to jam her into a mold: Her father moved on immediately after her mom’s death, her stepmother loathes her, and even though Taffy is infallibly kind, she still insists that Lisa date a hot jock and come to parties where she’s obviously an outcast. But in the Creature, Lisa finds a confidant, someone who listens and understands her rage and despair, even if he can’t communicate back. She starts to spill her feelings and secrets to him, something she hasn’t been able to do with anyone else. That could suggest a sweet, unconventional paranormal romance à la Warm Bodies or Twilight, but there’s a big catch.
The Creature is missing several body parts, and the gaps seem to prevent him from fully coming back to life. But he and Lisa figure out a handy (albeit ethically difficult) way to remedy that. After he steps in with an axe when someone threatens her, she realizes they can murder the people who’ve wronged her, and harvest their body parts. Thus begins a murder and dismemberment spree, which flips the movie from a supernatural meet-cute into black-comedy territory.
The romantic throughline is still sweet, even amid the axe-murdering. As the Creature, Cole Sprouse is hilarious. He doesn’t speak for most of the film, and his expression is fixed in a permanent rigor-mortis scowl, which means he conveys his entire character through body language. Sprouse has the chops to pull off some hilarious physical comedy, thumping his stiff body around. In spite of his decaying exterior and his inability to do more than grunt to communicate, he ends up becoming an endearing romantic interest, paying close attention to Lisa’s needs and feelings and showing he’ll do anything to make her happy, in spite of his limited physical capabilities.
Newton also has a great command of her character’s physicality. She starts off hunched and slumping, obviously misplaced and unsure in her new school and neighborhood. But armed with more confidence (and a sick goth wardrobe), she starts to strut her stuff, without ever losing that distinct Siouxsie Sioux flair to her movements. She’s just as hilarious as Sprouse, and the scenes where she rambles to him while he stoically stares at her and grunts are some of the movie’s best, brimming with humor and genuine connection between the two characters. Even though Sprouse isn’t even talking much and is also a decaying mess, they have tangible chemistry.
Many of Lisa Frankenstein’s individual scenes are strong, but like the decaying male lead, the movie could use more connective tissue. One of the movie’s first scenes takes place at a party, and drags on way longer than it needs to, burying Lisa in the shuffle of moving parts. When Lisa first encounters the Creature, there’s an involved sequence as she runs away from him, through the house, ultimately dangling out of a window in an effort to get away. But not even a full minute later, she’s tenderly taking care of him, before she even recognizes that he’s the same man whose grave she’s been enamored with.
This all happens abruptly and without much explanation, so it’s hard to buy. What suffers the most is Lisa’s transition from shy, macabre outcast to confident murder accomplice, which happens suddenly — and seems to occur only because Lisa just happened to be in a sexy black dress (an upgrade from her usual plain clothes) when the Creature murders the first victim.
Even so, Lisa’s wardrobe upgrades throughout the whole movie are amazing. Williams takes deliberate care with the movie’s aesthetics, using the characters’ wardrobe to tell a story, then building out the set design to really cement it. Lisa clearly feels out of place when she wears regular clothes, but once she starts gaining more confidence (and killing more people), she dresses in increasingly dramatic Goth outfits, and commands the room with her presence. Her new look is a strong juxtaposition against the idyllic suburban neighborhood and her preppy high school, but that’s the point. The more Lisa escalates, the more comfortable she becomes in herself, but the more at odds with the rest of her peers she is. No one understands her — except for the dead Victorian hottie.
Even though this movie is sometimes haphazardly stitched together, like a dismembered hand added onto a corpse, Lisa Frankenstein is shocked back to life by magnetic visuals, engaging chemistry, and deliciously escalating motives. Lisa isn’t trying to stop the Creature from his murders; in fact, she starts scheming her own revenge plots. At first she tries to justify this, but then she accepts her own satisfaction and eager participation in these bloody events. Lisa’s unhinged escalation is a nice twist, an alternative to the Heathers and Jennifer’s Body routes, where a good girl tries to stop escalating violence from someone close to her.
It’s cathartic to see a girl embrace her dark side, both in an aesthetic fashion and in a literal one — even if that transformation happens a mite too quickly. Lisa is a misunderstood teenage girl, pushed by everyone around her to get over her grief, so she decides to take matters into her own hands with a hot undead man. She becomes more and more unhinged, leading in bleak, hilarious, and absolutely fitting directions. And all throughout, her loyal corpse lover is there to hold her hand and raise an axe — a very bloody Valentine, indeed.
Lisa Frankenstein hits theaters on Feb. 9.