Warning: We get into major spoilers for Lisa Frankenstein near the end of this story. We’ll warn you again when we get there, so just FYI!
What if I told you teenagers have a lot in common with necromancers? Both are aesthetic trendsetters shrouded in an air of soul-burdening melancholy – and, more importantly, very willing to defy the laws of god and the universe if it gets them what they want. Lisa Frankenstein takes this a step further and asks: OK, but what if a teen girl wanted a boyfriend so bad she raised him from the dead?
Kathryn Newton’s Lisa is lonely. That’s really the crux of the film: watching an outcast struggle to find a place until she decides she’s going to have to find that place somewhere much darker than the conventional society that shuns her. She exemplifies the complex heroine. The crimes she commits for the sake of the Creature (Cole Sprouse) are objectively morally reprehensible but maybe, deep down in the most hurt places of our hearts, entirely understandable.
“Complex is such a nice, charitable way of putting it,” says writer Diablo Cody, who basically set the standard for bloodthirsty teen girls with Jennifer’s Body 15 years ago. “I love Lisa. She’s complicated, yes. Problematic perhaps. She’s navigating her own grief with the help of the Creature, who’s the literal embodiment of death.”
Director Zelda Williams explains that this aspect of Cody’s script particularly resonated with her. “I’m so drawn to empathetic monsters,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I love Guillermo del Toro so much. He talks about that quite a lot, that a lot of times in his movies the humans are monstrous and the monsters are very human. So to get the opportunity to approach a zombie that’s madly in love was a large part of what I was really drawn to right off the bat.”
The Creature may amble around in all his undead-ness, evoking fear via the ghoulish appearance of his rotting flesh, but he’s ultimately not who the townsfolk should be most afraid of. Lisa doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t feel loved, and she embodies one of the scariest things of all: someone who doesn’t have anything left to lose. It’s been said that grief can make us monstrous. When your heart is wrenched open and gapes like an open wound, of course there’s always the possibility of infection. Especially in a society with rigid expectations of what women can or can’t feel, do, and think.
Weird Science… I remember watching as a little girl. … I thought, ‘Oh, what about a story where a young woman gets to create a man according to her specifications?’ -Diablo Cody
But how do you make a character like Lisa truly empathetic? How do you keep the audience on her side?
“The second that you bring anyone into a universe where there’s some fantasy element – in this case, death not being permanent – the stakes are changed,” explains Williams. “It’s a lot easier to support someone like Lisa’s rights and wrongs in a world where [death] is not the finality of the repercussion that it is for us. She’s going into this as someone that I don’t think necessarily is murder-hungry.
“I do think she does like a healthy dose of vengeance,” Williams adds. “And I like that in a woman.”
And what about the Frankenstein of it all? Frankenstein’s monster has become a lasting mythology within our cultural ethos, referenced again and again in film,TV, music and more – sometimes parodying the famed moment in 1931’s Frankenstein in which the doctor declares his success by shouting “It’s alive!” An archetypical Frankenstein story begins with close proximity to death – generally the loss of a loved one – that coaxes a character into a sort of mania that drives them to pursue the key to resurrection. Lisa Frankenstein starts here, informing the audience early on of the gruesome death of Lisa’s mother.
However, the film takes the additional step of dissecting Pygmalion-esque stories within pop culture. Rather than a man in pursuit of creating the “perfect woman,” here we have a young girl creating the perfect man.
“The heartthrobs that I see women really holding onto tend to be all about longing,” says Williams. “It’s not about six-pack abs, it’s not about the fancy car. They love Mr. Darcy – despite the fact he never takes off any clothes – because that man genuinely from afar is just staring at [Elizabeth Bennet] like she’s a box of Legos and that’s all he wants to do with his day.”
As a staunch Mr. Darcy lover myself, this makes perfect sense. We’ve got a phenomenon of sitcoms wherein the entire premise relies on a very particular dynamic: goofy-guy-nagging-wife (The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens) an unrelenting representation of relationships where a man’s dismissal of his cranky wife borders on cruelty but is consistently played for laughs. AMC’s “Kevin Can F**k Himself” subverts this very trope, contrasting a multi-camera sitcom format with that of a single-cam drama to follow a wife as she endeavors to murder her incompetent, bumbling husband. What a contrast, then, to have a dashing character like Mr. Darcy whose entire character arc revolves around improving himself for the sake of the woman he loves. Referencing the hand scene alone is enough to send people swooning.
“I felt like growing up I was exposed to stories about creating the perfect woman. That was always a fantasy that was in the zeitgeist,” says Cody. And in many cases, being “the perfect woman” depended entirely on physical appearance. This exact trope has been dubbed Born Sexy Yesterday, which references material in which the allure of a woman hinges on her attractiveness and her wide-eyed, childish naivete. “In the ‘80s we had this movie, Weird Science,” Cody explains. “I remember watching as a little girl, and it’s these two nerds sitting at a computer literally designing the perfect woman and playing with the size of her boobs. The seed was planted where I thought, ‘Oh, what about a story where a young woman gets to create a man according to her specifications?’”
We’ve seen more and more subversion of Born Sexy Yesterday. Poor Things, for instance, is a recent Frankenstein-esque story that attempts to dissect this very trope by placing agency back into Emma Stone’s resurrected Bella’s hands (though the film is arguably not always successful). Lisa Frankenstein tackles this idea too: placing the power of creation in a woman’s – and very specifically, a teen girl’s – hands.
“It was fun to have [Lisa] literally dig up a boyfriend from another era,” Cody says of the Creature. “He’s a Victorian man. He comes from an era of etiquette and manners. There was originally a scene in the screenplay where she realizes that before he breaks into the house to try and claim her, he took his boots off. I’m not necessarily saying we want to regress to Victorian times, but there’s something about the men of that era that I just thought, oh, this is going to appeal to the girlies.”
There’s something particular about being the object of adoration that acts as a sort of drug. “Be worse!” a tiny part of the brain screams. “Be worse and see if they’ll support you anyway!” It’s a spiral of sorts for Lisa in which she’s willing to stray further from her own morality for the sake of pleasing the Creature. For our lovestruck zombie, murder doesn’t really mean much. Instead, he sees Lisa’s actions as a kindness to him and therefore devotes his loyalty to her. For misunderstood and rejected Lisa, that’s really all the motivation she needs.
The movie’s final scene is relatively kind to Lisa in a way that’s sort of surprising.
Spoilers ahead for the end of Lisa Frankenstein.
After Lisa’s own death, the Creature resurrects her himself and the audience watches as he nurses her back to whatever we’d consider the undead equivalent of health. I was endeared by it, but also honestly quite shocked. Stories about enraged women tend to become tragic cautionary tales (think the end of Promising Young Woman) and for a moment that’s what Lisa Frankenstein was shaping up to be.
However, Lisa gets her happy ending. She’s escaped a society that wanted nothing to do with her, she’s gotten her revenge on the people who wronged her, and, somehow, she’s survived it all to get the guy. It felt so rare, so significant, that I had to know if there was ever a version of the ending that saw her punished rather than, ostensibly, rewarded.
“There was never a plan for her to have a comeuppance in terms of being arrested or anything like that,” says Cody, explaining that instead the original ending was less definitive in reuniting Lisa with the Creature.
“It used to be more open-ended,” Williams agrees, “As if we were implying that she would get resurrected similarly to him. In the end, there was just something so lovely about the tactile nature of now she’s the monster and he’s taking care of her.”
Maybe it’s not the love stories we’ve grown up with, full of dashing princes rescuing their morally spotless damsels. This isn’t Cinderella and her slipper; it’s a young, angry, grieving girl on a rampage alongside her devoted, decomposing suitor.
“It’s definitely kind of a twisted fairy tale,” Cody says, “But there’s a lot of love in the darkness.”