Lisa Frankenstein: patchy zombie teen horror goes gravedigging in 1980s pop culture

Writer Diablo Cody and debut director Zelda Williams disinter a murderous monstrousness from female adolescence with a story of a 1980s teen goth who reanimates a Victorian-era musician.

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse as Lisa and the Creature in Lisa Frankenstein (2024)

Zelda Williams’s debut feature is set in 1989 – nestled snugly between Michael Lehmann’s Heathers and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (both 1988), and Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) – with a heroine that gradually morphs into a teen goth closely modelled on Winona Ryder (who starred in all three of those films) as the plot thickens. 

The actual surname of Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is not Frankenstein but Swallows – a cheap gag in a film full of the kind of sexual innuendo befitting the story of a young woman’s cringy coming of age – but nonetheless this is a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. 

Frankenstein is implied to be the surname of the 19th-century musician, credited only as the Creature (Cole Sprouse), whom Lisa accidentally resurrects and helps to stitch back together, transforming him from dismembered zombie to Byronic hero. Meanwhile Lisa shares her forename with the computer-generated male-fantasy figure played by Kelly LeBrock in John Hughes’s Weird Science (1985), except that here the genders are reversed and it is the traumatised, unhinged Lisa whose vengeful/horny dreams – including one in which she is a monochrome Bride of Frankenstein under a Méliès (man in the) moon – are being realised. 

The monster’s missing parts – ear, hand, penis and balls – are gradually supplemented by appendages lopped from Lisa’s enemies, whose mutilated corpses are then dumped in Bachelors’ Grove Cemetery from which the Creature was reborn. But there is also more than a mere hint that this monster is not so much a flesh-and-blood creature as an imagined composite of Lisa’s desires and neuroses. After all, just as Lisa is still recovering from traumatic mutism after her mother was murdered, the Creature too is mute (although, like Lisa, gradually finding its voice), and in their ‘conversations’ Lisa does all the talking for it. 

Only Lisa sees the Creature (or refers to having seen it), it is kept hidden literally in her closet, and its preferred weapon is the same type – an axe – that butchered Lisa’s mother. Lisa’s grotesque stepmother Janet (Carla Gugino), who is a psychiatric nurse, certainly thinks Lisa is “crazy”, and there is a (credible) rumour circulating that Lisa was really the one who killed her own mother, rather than some random, never-caught home invader straight out of the 1980s slashers on which Lisa’s generation was reared. 

Like Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009), also scripted by Diablo Cody, Lisa Frankenstein disinters a murderous monstrousness from female adolescence, empowerment and eros, while gradually reaffirming the (step)sisterhood. It‘s just a pity the jokes, like Lisa’s bitty beau, are so piecemeal.

 ► Lisa Frankenstein is in UK cinemas now.