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Movie Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ lurches from idiocy to whimsy and ends up unwatchable

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It will come as no surprise that the new movie “Lisa Frankenstein” is a real monster — stitched together from previous movies, painfully incoherent and deeply, deeply dumb.

This is a baffling display of filmmaking, what appears to be a sort of feminist take on the reanimated creature trope that has been shoehorned into a late-1980s setting, complete with New Wave songs, teased hair and brightly colored spandex. Why? Presumably to giggle at shoulder pads, hairspray and Echo and the Bunnymen.

Kathryn Newton stars as the goth-like high school misfit teen Lisa Swallows, who befriends a reanimated zombie bachelor who died in 1837. Cole Sprouse plays the corpse, who is missing body parts, uses grunts to communicate and resembles Johnny Depp from “Edward Scissorhands.” Whoever suggested he’d shine deserves to be made mute.

Lisa’s mother has met a grisly death and she has found herself in a new town with a new family after her dad remarries. Her stepmother (gloriously over-the-top Carla Gugino) hates her and her stepsister (Liza Soberano, hopefully not making a career-ending mistake) is a friendly cheerleader.

The arrival of a Victorian-era zombie into 1989 offers many possibilities but all the interesting ones are avoided as the filmmakers embark on a “Weird Science”-like, “My Fair Lady” reversal — cleaning him up and hiding him in her bedroom. “OK, Sparky, we’ve got to get you some new duds,” Lisa says helpfully. Those duds include a blazer and a Violent Femmes T-shirt.

The other thing the zombie really needs is replacement body parts. “You’re a dead man, not a Chrysler LeBaron,” Lisa tells him in a line that’s sure to kill with Gen Z. So parts are naturally harvested from people who are deemed to have crossed the pair. They use an axe to procure an ear, some fingers and a penis. (Yes, this is a quality movie: Chrysler AND weenie jokes.)

This image released by Focus Features shows Kathryn Newton, left, and Cole Sprouse in a scene from "Lisa Frankenstein." (Michele K. Short/Focus Features via AP)
Kathryn Newton, left, and Cole Sprouse in a scene from "Lisa Frankenstein." (Michele K. Short/Focus Features via AP)
Cole Sprouse, left, a cast member in "Lisa Frankenstein," poses with his twin brother, Dylan, at the premiere of the film. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Cole Sprouse, left, from "Lisa Frankenstein," poses with his twin brother, Dylan, at the premiere of the film. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Director Zelda Williams is simply overmatched here, unable to conjure tension, interest, connection or coherence. “Lisa Frankenstein” lurches from idiocy to whimsy to grossness to ultra-violence, obsessed along the way with grade-school toilet humor, like putting worms in fruit salads.

But the blame needs to be spread around. I mean, how many jokes can you legally try to make about vibrators and menstrual cycles in one movie? “I got to go change my pad” is one of the lines expected to trigger howls of laughter.

Written by Diablo Cody — unhappily a million miles now from “Juno” — who has tried, if we use the best possible motive, to write a satire of ‘80s teen movies, but has made something unwatchable — unfunny, unclever and dull. “Weekend at Bernie’s,” which also dealt with a corpse, looks like a Christopher Nolan film in comparison.

Maybe, like this will become a cult hit one day. But that at least had some fun parts. This is pure lazy storytelling, like thinking that just showing us a clip of Bob Ross painting is somehow uproariously funny.

This image released by Focus Features shows Carla Gugino in a scene from "Lisa Frankenstein." (Focus Features via AP)

Carla Gugino in a scene from “Lisa Frankenstein.” (Focus Features via AP)

Lisa, who by the end of the movie is dressing as Madonna circa “Desperately Seeking Susan,” has embarked on a murderous rampage and is rushing to lose her virginity before it all ends. Will she find love? Will she recognize true love before it’s too late? Will we have to endure more jokes at the expense of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling?” Who cares?

Filmgoers will note with alarm that by the time the credits roll, the sweet, goth-inclined outcast Lisa has evolved into an unhinged, violent, self-involved, murderous monster while the zombie has gone the other way, becoming more human and compassionate. Talk about losing your way.

“Lisa Frankenstein,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for “violent content, bloody images, sexual material, language, sexual assault, teen drinking and drug content.” Running time: 101 minutes. Zero stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Mark Kennedy is at

Entertainment writer, editor and critic