Lisa Frankenstein Is a Brilliantly Bloody Update on the ‘80s Teen Satire

Heathers meets Weird Science in this frothy fun debut.

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Capturing the teenage experience in a movie is a daunting task, but 1980s Hollywood seemed to nail it. The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, and countless other high school movies each told their own tale of that turmoiled period of adolescence, but a new subgenre rose from that trend: the twisted high school movie; sci-fi or darkly comedic movies like Heathers, Weird Science, and even Back to the Future.

More than 40 years later, Lisa Frankenstein, the sparkling directorial debut of Zelda Williams, proves that she not only harbors a deep understanding of how to portray a teen romance on screen, but how the classic 1980s movies that came before this understood it too. The result is a dark, neon-tinged sci-fi tale that combines a classic romance with a vengeful teen story so authentic it could be pulled from a diary with a novelty lock.

The movie follows Lisa (Kathryn Newtown), a dweeby high schooler whose life has circled around a single tragedy: the tragic death of her mother after a robbery. Since then, her father has remarried a control freak named Janet (Carla Gugino) and she’s had to learn to coexist with her new queen bee stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano).

The Creature isn’t awoken through Lisa’s efforts, just a freak storm.

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She doesn’t have much going for her outside her job as a laundromat seamstress, her crush on the editor of the school’s literary magazine, and her frequent trips to the abandoned Bachelor’s graveyard. But everything changes when a freak storm reanimates one of the bodies buried there (Cole Sprouse), and he instantly finds the girl who has spent so much time with him. Lisa and The Creature bond over feeling ostracized, and together they embark on a murderous quest both for revenge and for body parts.

The screenplay, penned by the always whip-smart writer Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, Juno), is where the movie really shines. The humor bounces from 1980s pop-culture references to classic one-liners and dark jokes that test the limits of the movie’s PG-13 rating. The characters are heightened to the point of camp, but never do they feel like the caricatures so many 1980s-set movies resort to.

Even though the story is romantic, it’s romantic in spite of its tone, not because of it: Lisa isn’t looking for a boyfriend when The Creature is revived, nor is he created just so she can be with him. They’re both just lost souls who suffered tragic losses and need each other to achieve that. As The Creature becomes more and more human with each missing piece added, Lisa becomes more and more confident and sure of herself. Nobody is created in Lisa Frankenstein. They’re only discovered.

Lisa Frankenstein is as much a coming-of-age movie as a rom-com — even if that “age” is about 100.

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With such a complex script, the two leads are exceptionally well-suited for their roles. Kathryn Newton brings her years of experience in genre teen romps to make Lisa more than just a Molly Ringwald clone, and Cole Sprouse manages to communicate so much meaning through grunts and sidelong glances. Despite the fact the two can’t even speak to one another, they manage to have a chemistry that rivals the heat conjured by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in Heathers.

It’s these nuances that prove Zelda Williams is a name to watch beyond just her familial connections. Even though this movie has a kill count, it manages to balance the brutality and lighthearted adventure while still having its characters face real consequences for their actions. The direction feels grounded, and while the characters may become murderers, it’s never shot like a slasher.

Lisa Frankenstein is the rare kind of movie that balances an innovative story with a nostalgic setting through a lens that actually speaks to Gen Z. It may feel like Mary Shelley fan fiction, but that’s just because it knows how to paint a portrait of teenage loneliness — and the teenage rage that follows.

Lisa Frankenstein premieres in theaters on February 9.

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