What exactly does Lisa want? This very screenwriter-y question is allowed to hang over much of the movie. She spends time in a nearby graveyard, mooning over the headstone of a long-departed young man; understandably, her greater priority is the more active crush she nurses on a lit-mag-editor classmate. So when that mysterious young man somehow claws his way out of that grave, kind of alive but still rotting, Lisa is more intrigued than besotted. Cody gets that her protagonist’s goth leanings and her love for The Cure alone aren’t enough to explain why she’d fall in lust with an undead Creature (even if he is played by Cole Sprouse from Riverdale)—at least not right away. For reasons that are, I admit, genuinely unexplained, Taffy’s overcranked tanning bed also gives the Creature extra jolts of life, smoothing over his initially gunked-up appearance and fusing replacement parts to his body. That only leaves the small matter of where to obtain those replacement parts.
You can see where this is going—sort of. In the movie’s physical logic (or lack thereof), there’s more than a hint of fantastical ’80s teen comedies; Cody takes the shruggy science of something genuinely kinda vile like Weird Science and gives it a dark-comic poetry, with director Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin) providing music-video style that mixes pastels, neon, and verdant graveyard gunk. Part of what makes Lisa Frankenstein so beguiling is the way Cody and Williams let some of their scenes play out longer and weirder than you might expect. There’s a little of this rambling quality in Paradise, Cody’s sole film as a director. This obscurity from a decade ago also features a lonely young woman unsure of her place in the world (albeit one with less macabre tastes). It’s the only outright miss in Cody’s filmography, in part because it’s only stylized enough to feel phony. Lisa Frankenstein, by contrast, often feels like a teenage dream; it has moments so genuinely (if gently) hallucinatory I wondered more than once if the Creature was meant to be a figment of Lisa’s fevered imagination.
For a while, Lisa Frankenstein is more overtly comic than Jennifer’s Body; if it feels less rooted in specific social realities than its predecessor, it still gets laughs from recognizable truths. Cody remains wonderfully fixated on youthful tastes as a means of self-expression, and their limits in rounding you out as a person. “It’s just that I like the same thing she likes,” Needy says by way of explaining/defending her friendship with Jennifer; here, Lisa, in a fit of rage, spits at her non-creature crush that he doesn’t actually want someone who likes the same cool stuff that he does. He wants, of course, to have a girl willing to learn from his great taste.
That’s a side concern, though, compared to the well of sadness beneath the zany horror-comedy antics, especially when Lisa expounds on her rejoinder to the cliché “time heals all wounds.” When it comes to her traumatic past, she explains, time itself is the wound, and so the bouts of shallowness and selfishness that follow make sense; this is a girl unable to heal, without a magic tanning bed to help jolt her back together. Newton augments her considerable comic charm with physical parallels to the Creature: she moves with an uneasy gait, and often stands with her mouth slightly agape.
The movie itself staggers a bit as it goes on, yet it also becomes increasingly clear that the acuity of Cody’s understanding of classic monsters—the Universal Pictures kind, the ones that ride the line between pitiable human and unspeakable creature—rivals that of Tim Burton, whose work this film sometimes resembles. (Specifically, it’s like Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows Frankensteined together.) As with Jennifer and Needy, there’s the actual monster, and then the human companion who may have some monstrous instincts—and here, there’s more of a discomforting balance between the two. If Jennifer’s Body is sort of a Dracula riff and Lisa Frankenstein is—well, you know, then I can’t wait to see her werewolf, her mummy, her creatures from the Black Lagoon. Cody obviously doesn’t see monster pictures and teen dramas as spare parts she’s haphazardly stitching together for a laugh. Rather, she’s reuniting two soulmates.