Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Franken Watch: Lisa Frankenstein (2024)

Watched:  04/23/2024
Format:  Peacock
Viewing:  First
Director:  Zelda Williams
Selection:  Joint household

First, it was someone on social media who pointed out the title to Lisa Frankenstein (2024) is less random than it appears and is maybe a reference to Lisa Frank products, and I think it's great, and maybe part of the winky "we're not going to explain everything to you dummies" vibe this movie has.

One thing social media has accomplished is that you've shoved generations of people together who normally would not have opportunity to speak to one another about pop culture minutia.  And through this, I've become acutely aware of how media and a few other artifacts can give a very peculiar idea to subsequent generations about what things were really like.

As someone born squarely in the mid-70's, the 1980's loom large in my head.  And of the things made in the years since the 1980's that tried to recall that era - this one may have actually stuck the landing in ways that I have to assume were incredibly off-putting to The Kids(tm).  This is not their dad making them watch their greatest hits of the 1980's.  

The movie is hovering in the mid-40's on Metacritic and over at RT a 51% critical score, with a 42% with top critics.  I'm not exactly sure how or why, but the people giving this movie bad reviews kind of uniformly seem to have missed the gag of 1980's trash/ underground cinema.

You can tell, because they seem mystified why this movie is set in the 1980's, why Lisa is dressed in what were actually pretty common outfits in movies from the 1980's, and why the movie is so goofy while being morbid.  And to these people I say "you've never seen Frankenhooker, I guess."  Because this movie is not a remake but - maybe through the power of an unlikely wish and a lightning storm - a rebirth of a kind of gonzo horror comedy movie that filled the late night hours of both pay and basic cable television during so much of my middle and high school life - the likes of which made up the programming for USA Up All Night, early Joe Bob Briggs and other outlets.   And it's a kind of movie I still quite like when I come across one.

Those movies were *chaos*, usually made by Hollywood outsiders and sold on the cheap, offering murder, mayhem, mutants, bad special FX, characters who were cartoons more than real people, often with the promise of sex and nudity (if a producer could afford nudity, which they usually could not).  The acting was often specific and nuts, with dialog intended to sound ludicrous.  But from Eating Raoul to Night of the Comet to A Polish Vampire in Burbank (hell, I'll throw Repo Man in there), the 1980's served up Valley Girls being grossed out to the max, horny nerds and insane scenes of the barely held together world of 1980's suburban domesticity that just begged to be blown up - or at least terrorized by someone with a hatchet.  At minimum, if you were of age to appreciate Heathers, hopefully you can see where this is coming from.  What the movie is not - and it's lazy to think so - is a Tim Burton pastiche - girls were digging sad Percy Shelley types way before Burton rolled out Edward Scissorhands, chums.

It's not that we don't get these movies from time to time now.  I was a big fan of Psycho Goreman, which was just modern enough in its sensibilities that I think critical ratings nudged higher.  But nobody made the OG version of these films with dreams of critical praise in official channels.  And, many actively worked against the Hollywood ideal.

There's a weird, studied manner to these movies, and to recreate the spirit of those movies - while also making top notch 1980's callbacks in song - is nothing short of remarkable.  

I'll completely disagree with the critics that say screenwriter Diablo Cody has lost her touch - this is probably the most I've ever enjoyed a Diablo Cody script.  She's dialed back her native Enid from Ghost World vibe enough to let the movie's concept take firm hold - because it already exists in a world of camp and punchy dialog.  The script is, minute over minute, really fucking funny, and has the potential to be a bonafide cult classic.

The movie follows Lisa Swallows, a girl whose mom was brutally murdered two years prior, and whose dad has just remarried and moved her into a new school for her Senior year.  She has a cheerleader stepsister who is genuinely excited about having a sister, but maybe doesn't get Lisa so well - but she'll fix her!  And a step-mom (Carla Gugino!), who definitely would not get Lisa a Pepsi if all she wanted was a Pepsi.  

Near the new home is an abandoned 18th and 19th century graveyard where Lisa goes to be a moody teen.  She's even picked out a favorite tombstone.  

One night after a bad experience at a party, she passes through the graveyard, wishing she could also be dead, by stating "I wish we could be together" to the dead fellow at her favorite grave as a lightning storm commences.  The next night, he sure as shootin' shows up as the undead.  

Lisa befriends the creature (who - in a nod to Frankenstein - goes nameless throughout the movie), and as she has someone to talk to, she starts to come out of her shell.  And part of that shell is figuring out she might be okay with murder?  

I didn't care one way or another about star Kathryn Newton seeing her in Quantumania,  I blamed no actors for how that came out.  But here she's actually pretty f'ing solid, asked to carry 85% of the movie as the focal character - and she does it.  But the whole cast is pretty great - not least of which is Liza Soberano, who plays Taffy the stepsister, who goes on a hell of a ride across the length of the film.  

Cole Sprouse, who plays "the creature", will be known to Riverdale fans as Jughead Jones - and those fans may actually be pretty primed for what this movie is serving up. He has to do a *lot* of physical work and mime, and no complaints there.

What it doesn't do, really - and I'm pretty sure this is part of why this movie got dinged critically - is worry about anyone's feelings other than Lisa and the creature.  Taking another page from the 1980's, our characters are focused on themselves and if a pesky classmate needs rubbing out, well...  this is the kind of movie where we might see to that and not feel too bad about it.  These are protagonists, not heroes.  And it's a horror-comedy, not something where we should actually give a shit if someone gets bumped off.  

One of the things I also saw some complaints about were basically "it's tonally confused".  And... no.  I can see confusion by critics trying to peg the movie in the first few minutes so they could settle in.  But the movie is pretty consistent with where it's going.  But where it's going takes a bit to sort out - but maybe should be obvious by how Lisa's backstory is conjured, told and taken in?  If you project your expectations onto that sequence, yeah - I imagine it's going to feel off.  But it's pretty clear what it's doing, and it is not being cute and comforting.  It's just some dark shit we're going to make fun of, which is a pretty good place to start.  What I suspect is that we want rules on this movie, and there kind of aren't for how these movies tend to play out and how things that we think *must* be dealt with as trauma - just aren't. 

But in the 1980's we had genre mashing, tropes that were being played with, etc...  Like a teen romcom, Lisa is hung up on the wrong dude, and the creature is kind of her Ducky.  He's the one she comes to when she needs to talk.  But unlike Pretty in Pink, we're not getting a reshoot with fucking Blaine in a wig.  

If the movie also feels bang-on for the 1980's:  musical selection is on-point.  Look for Echo and the Bunnymen, Galaxie 500 and REO Speedwagon.  But, also, weird little things that would be missed in most other movies.  The *exact* shower radio we had in middle school was used as a prop in this movie.  As was the Bauhaus poster my brother had in his room probably starting circa 1989.  And, yeah, my mom collected Precious Moments.  (The house is insane, but it's 1980's movie insane.  Which is why you have people thinking this is what houses looked like in 1989 instead of living with beige carpet and the wood paneling they put in back in 1977.)

Here's the thing:  I don't care that the critics didn't like it/ didn't get it/ it wasn't for them.  This kind of thing was never a favorite for critics when it was the tweedy Woody Allen-nerds in the 1980s.  It was never seen as legitimate movie making even when it came from a real studio and not New World or the like.  Or someone's fever dream and their parents' friends' money.  If Owen Gleiberman doesn't like it (and he doesn't) they're probably doing something right.  

I don't think the movie was made to piss people off, per se.  But I do think it was made with a "fuck it, let's have fun with this thing" that freed up director Zelda Williams (yes, daughter of Robin Williams) and Cody to chase a path that's unusual for a studio film.  As Stuart said to me about this movie (and I'm paraphrasing) "it's kind of great to see a movie that was not made to satisfy everyone".  

And that's the thing.  We're so used to specific ways ideas are *ok* to present, ways our protagonists must be in order to be our leads, we forget that movies can kind of be whatever we like or want.  And hilariously bumping someone off is not an endorsement of bumping someone off.  Or that movies can have lots of influences - whether it's 1980's horror comedies or the pieces that were frankensteined together to make 1980s horror comedies.  

Anyway, glad it's out there.  Would watch again.

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