Ever since Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” at age 19, it has functioned as a remarkably versatile Rorschach test, prescient in ways its author could hardly have anticipated. Usually it’s interpreted as a story about hubris, about man playing God and reaping the consequences. But you can just as easily read it as a lucid explication of Rousseau’s ideas about human nature, or as a slippery narrative told by a not-quite-reliable narrator who’s trying to get away with murder.
On the other hand, Guillermo del Toro, one of our greatest contemporary horror directors, has described “Frankenstein” as “the quintessential teenage book,” full of angst and curiosity about becoming an adult. And though he wasn’t talking about “Lisa Frankenstein” specifically, he might as well have been. Shelley’s novel lends itself well to teen horror-comedy, and the screenwriter Diablo Cody — who wrote “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body,” as well as the book for the youth-focused “Jagged Little Pill” Broadway show — seized on that angle. The result is a very, very loose adaptation of “Frankenstein” that doesn’t draw on much from the original. Directed by Zelda Williams in her feature debut, this is instead the familiar story of a loner finding love in an unlikely place.
Perhaps you spent the late 1980s and early ’90s doing something other than being a school-age girl. So it’s worth noting that the title of the film is a nod to a company, named for its founder, that produced brightly colored stickers with characters like unicorns and kittens and bears that eventually made their way to the broader school supply set. (In grade school circa 1992, my friends and I yearned for Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, the true marker of cool.)
I was a little bummed out to discover that, despite the title, the nostalgic brand never really shows up in the movie — in fact, the vibe isn’t Lisa Frank-esque at all. But it’s OK, because “Lisa Frankenstein” is girly-gothy, in a way that’s a lot of fun once you get used to it. In fact, the best thing about the film is its production design, which takes familiar trappings from movies of the era (I thought of everything from “Poltergeist” to “Edward Scissorhands” to “Pretty in Pink” to “Weird Science,” itself a loose “Frankenstein” adaptation) and just dials up the color temperature a few degrees. It’s a pastiche crossed with a tribute, complete with references to slasher films, Cinderella, loner high school flicks and a makeover montage. Plus, of course, “Frankenstein.”
The movie itself leaves a little more to be desired. The plot is fairly predictable, albeit in a way that feels distinctly of its era — a bit of a disappointment from a writer who has in the past played more boldly with expectations around teen girls. Lisa (Kathryn Newton) lives with her father (Joe Chrest), her stepmother (Carla Gugino) and her cheerleader stepsister (Liza Soberano) in the suburbs. She misses her dead mother desperately, but is trying to get on with life at her new school, where she’s even spotted a cute guy to crush on. Yet her true love, a 19th-century dead guy, is in the graveyard, where she hangs out to make grave rubbings and daydream.
You can kind of see where this is going: The 19th-century dead guy is not going to stay that way. One night, he rises (played, in suitably ghastly makeup, by Cole Sprouse), and they fall in love. Lisa has never met such a gentlemanly boy — the fact that he doesn’t really talk doesn’t hurt — and she starts, at last, to feel understood.
Cody gets a little subversive with it all — Lisa’s stepsister, Taffy, for instance, is not at all what this kind of movie usually serves up, and that feels refreshing. But the rest is pretty predictable from the start, and so it starts to wear a little thin after a while, a title in search of a story. Even with all of the John Hughes DNA here, the characters are more one-dimensional. Williams’s directorial timing lags, undercutting the wit that Newton and Soberano bring to their characters. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to feel sympathy for Lisa and her love interest, but the mishmash of references starts to get in the way.
Yet it’s not that “Lisa Frankenstein” has nothing to recommend it. Brief, pleasant and fun to look at, the movie is not interested in anything more than love and being understood, and in that way it’s a great callback to teen romances from an earlier era. If we could drag Mary Shelley out of her own graveyard, she just might be amused by this.
Rated PG-13 for typical teen shenanigans and dead people. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.