Review: ‘Lisa Frankenstein,’ starring Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse, Liza Soberano, Henry Eikenberry, Joe Chrest and Carla Gugino

February 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse in “Lisa Frankenstein” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Focus Features)

“Lisa Frankenstein”

Directed by Zelda Williams

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1989, in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Lisa Frankenstein” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 18-year-old social outcast resurrects an 1800s man from his grave, and they become a serial-killing duo. 

Culture Audience: “Lisa Frankenstein” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and quirky comedies that blend the mediocre with the macabre.

Liza Soberano and Kathryn Newton in “Lisa Frankenstein” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Focus Features)

“Lisa Frankenstein” makes futile attempts to be an edgy comedy about the antics of a teenage loner and a resurrected corpse, but this often-dull misfire has gruesome and ill-conceived jokes that are as inert as a corpse. The movie’s concept isn’t terrible, but it is badly mishandled in the writing, directing, and uneven performances from the cast members.

Directed by Zelda Williams and written by Diablo Cody, “Lisa Frankenstein” takes place in 1989, in an unnamed U.S. city. Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin Williams) makes her feature-film directorial debut with “Lisa Frankenstein.” Cody won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the 2007 comedy “Juno” (which is still Cody’s best movie), and she is a producer of “Lisa Frankenstein,” which will get inevitable comparisons to Cody’s 2009 horror comedy “Jennifer’s Body,” another movie about a social-misfit teenager whose closest friend has been supernaturally transformed into being a serial killer.

In “Lisa Frankenstein,” Lisa Swallows (played by Kathryn Newton) is an 18-year-old student in high school. She’s a mopey loner who likes to spend her time listening to angsty rock bands such as The Cure and Bauhaus and visiting Bachelors Cemetery Grove. She has become fixated on the grave of a pianist who died in his 20s in the 19th century. The man, who is only given the name The Creature (played by Cole Sprouse) in the movie’s end credits, committed suicide after he was rejected by a woman he was courting.

Lisa’s fantasies are preoccupied with thinking about what it would be like to be in a romance with this tragic person. She also has a crush on someone who is alive: Michael Trent (played by Henry Eikenberry), the good-looking editor-in-chief of their high school newspaper. Michael has already noticed Lisa because he has published some of her gloomy poems in the newspaper and has complimented her about her writing talent. Lisa gets nervous and shy whenever Trent talks to her.

Lisa feels like an outsider in her own home. As explained in an exposition dump in the movie, Lisa’s mother (played by Jennifer Pierce Mathus) was murdered by a home-invading axe murderer (played by Luke Sexton), which is shown in a brief flashback. (“Lisa Frankenstein” is so poorly written, it never bothers to mention if the murderer was ever caught.)

Just a few months after the murder, Lisa’s father Dale (played by Joe Chrest) married a psychiatric-facility nurse named Janet (played by Carla Gugino), who is a stereotypical mean-spirited stepmother to Lisa. Lisa and Dale have moved to Janet’s home because of Dale and Janet’s marriage, and Lisa has enrolled in a new school for her last year in high school. There are some not-funny-at-all and tedious scenes of Janet accusing Lisa of breaking things in the house. Dale is oblivious to things that are going on in the household.

From a previous marriage, Janet has a teenage daughter named Taffy (played by Liza Soberano), a perky, not-very-smart cheerleader, who is about the same age as Lisa and who goes to the same school, which is called Brookfield High School. Taffy is also a nosy gossip who has a posse of three close friends—Lori (played by Jenna Davis), Tricia (played by Trina LaFargue) and Misty (played by Paola Andino)—who are nothing but sounding boards for Taffy’s babblings. Taffy repeatedly tries to make Lisa more sociable, even though it’s obvious that Lisa doesn’t care about being popular or making friends at the school.

Another student who interacts with Lisa is her nerdy lab partner Doug (played by Bryce Romero), who is not the “nice guy” he might appear to be, as Lisa finds out at a party where Doug initiates some sexual touching on Lisa without her consent. When Lisa tells Doug to stop because she’s not interested, Doug confirms that he’s a sleaze when he responds by saying that Lisa should finish what she started and adds, “It’s not nice to lead people on.” There seems to be no point for the movie to unrealistically make every teenage guy who’s in contact with Lisa to be either (a) unacceptable or (b) unattainable, other to make Lisa look like she has no boyfriend prospects except for the dead guy she resurrected.

Lisa works part-time as a seamstress for a local tailor: a rude creep named Wayne (played by Charlie Talbert), who makes sexist remarks to Lisa about the way she looks and her lack of a social life. It’s an example of a subplot that is thrown into the movie and goes nowhere. Curiously, after Lisa undergoes a makeover, she spends about half the movie trying to look like Madonna in the 1985 comedy film “Desperately Seeking Susan,” which would make Lisa’s fashion choices about four years too late for this story.

One day, Lisa is having fantasies about the dead pianist when she says out loud: “I wish I was with you.” It isn’t long before he is inexplicably resurrected and shows up at her house as a filthy walking cadaver, who is mute for nearly the entire movie. Lisa spends most of the story trying to hide The Creature so she can keep him a secret all to her herself. The expected “corpse makeover” happens, some of it in a tanning bed—as if a rotting zombie in a tanning bed is supposed to automatically be funny. The rest of the movie shows Lisa and The Creature engaging in various shenanigans (including mutilation of body parts and murder) while falling in love with each other.

What could have been hilarious fodder for very dark comedy is instead an erratically paced movie filled with stale jokes. Newton and Sprouse do not have convincing chemistry together as a would-be couple in a morbid romance. The movie’s direction is mishandled because the cast members performances range from over-acting to being very listless and unimpressive. Simply put, although “Lisa Frankenstein” might manage to get a few chuckles out of some viewers, this is a disappointing dud that should have stayed dead and buried.

Focus Features released “Lisa Frankenstein” in U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024.

Review: ‘Sno Babies,’ starring Katie Kelly, Paola Andino, Michael Lombardi and Shannan Wilson

October 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Katie Kelly and Paola Andino in “Sno Babies” (Photo courtesy of Better Noise Films)

“Sno Babies” 

Directed by Bridget Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in Philadelphia, the drama “Sno Babies” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two teenage girls in high school get addicted to heroin and hide their addictions from their families.

Culture Audience: “Sno Babies” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing melodramatic, emotionally manipulative stories about drug addiction.

Katie Kelly and Paola Andino in “Sno Babies” (Photo courtesy of Better Noise Films)

The opioid crisis is a plague that affects millions of people, but there’s been a lot of media attention over how the crisis is affecting middle-class and upper-middle-class families in America. It doesn’t mean that one class of people will be more likely to become addicts, because addiction doesn’t discriminate. The media attention on “privileged people” who become addicts is because society is more likely to pay attention to a problem if it’s not considered a “ghetto problem.”

Unfortunately, the dramatic film “Sno Babies” barely explores the socioeconomic disparities in how access to treatment for drug addiction, particularly among teenagers, can largely depend on someone’s socioeconomic status. Instead, the movie skips right to cringeworthy melodrama about “good girls gone bad” (which has been done before in countless other films) and throws in an unnecessary and distracting subplot about a couple having trouble conceiving a child.

This infertility subplot and some extremely manipulative screenplay red herrings end up ruining what could have been a well-made cautionary tale. The movie takes a very serious subject (drug addiction) and turns it into an appallingly bad soap opera involving a wild coyote on the loose (yes, you read that right) in a storyline that really goes off the rails in the last third of the movie. Directed by Bridget Smith (in her feature-film debut) and written by Mike Walsh, “Sno Babies” even has an irritatingly cutesy title, since it refers to the nickname that someone gives the teenage girls who get hooked on heroin.

In “Sno Babies,” which takes place in Philadelphia, students Kristen McCusker (played by Katie Kelly) and Hannah Breem (played by Paola Andino) are best friends who attend a Catholic high school which has the type of tuition and academic reputation that make it an elite prep school. In the movie’s opening scene, Kristen is given an OxyContin pill by a fellow student whom she has a crush on named Brandon (played by Matthew Courson), who describes OxyContin this way: “It makes all of your worries and your problems disappear.” When Kristen takes the pill, Brandon says, “Okay, you’re not so boring after all.”

Fifteen months later, Kristen and Hannah are on a school bus, talking and laughing with some other friends. They all seem to be typical junior-class and senior-class students who are planning their futures. Kristen wants to go to Princeton University, while Hannah has her sights set on Penn State University because Hannah’s boyfriend Jeff (played by Niko Terho) plans to go there. Kristen is fairly confident that she’ll get into Princeton. Hannah, who isn’t the brightest person in this group, thinks that Princeton is in Pennsylvania, until she’s told in this conversation that Princeton is actually in New Jersey.

One night, Kristen and Hannah go to a big house party, and only teenagers seem to be there. Jeff greets them by showing them a packet of heroin and says, “Forecast is snow for the snow babies.” Before they go in another room to do the heroin, Hannah and Kristen see another student named Brianna (played by Gianna Gagliardi) nodding off in another room. Brianna is so high that she can barely stand.

In a disgusted tone of voice, Hannah comments to Kristen that Brianna comes from a trashy family because Brianna’s sister got pregnant at age 15 and dropped out of school. It’s also clear that Hannah thinks Brianna is a pathetic junkie. And yet, just minutes later, Hannah is showing Kristen how to shoot heroin in her tongue.

Kristen has been shooting heroin between her toes for a while, and the skin has started to become abscessed. Hannah tells Kristen that injecting heroin in the tongue will give her a better high. The movie never shows Kristen’s downward spiral in that 15-month period from when she took an OxyContin pill for the first time to becoming a full-blown heroin addict. Kristen and Hannah are still “functioning” drug addicts who outwardly look healthy, but they’re about to sink even further into drug addiction and desperate situations.

The first time that Kristen gets heroin injected in her tongue results in Kristen going into a state of being that’s almost catatonic, as she lies down on a bed to ride out the high. Hannah leaves Kristen to go somewhere with Jeff in another part of the house. And then Kristen gets some uninvited company in the bedroom: Brandon sneaks into the room, and he sees that Kristen is lying on the bed and is too intoxicated to move in a normal way. And then, Brandon rapes her. Kristen protests and tries to fight him off, but she’s too incapacitated to have much physical strength to get Brandon to stop.

Kristen doesn’t tell anyone that she’s been raped. She tries to act normal around her family, but her addiction has taken over her life, and she hides her addiction from everyone except for her druggie friends. Kristen’s parents Clare (played by Shannan Wilson) and Bill (played by Ken Arnold) are loving and supportive, but their jobs keep them very busy and out of the house a lot. Bill is a corporate businessman, while Clare is a real-estate agent who’s being considered for a big promotion.

Kristen’s only sibling is her younger sister Maddie (played by Abbey Hafer), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Maddie, who calls Kristen the nickname Kiki, sometimes has nightmares, and she comes into Kristen’s bedroom so Kristen can comfort her and help her go back to sleep. This nighttime ritual between Maddie and Kristen is shown several times in the movie, as a way to demonstrate their sisterly bond. But as Kristen’s addiction gets worse, Kristen becomes less emotionally available to Maddie, until Kristen literally won’t let Maddie into her room anymore.

Aside from Hannah, the person whom Kristen confides in the most is Kristen’s former babysitter Valerie (played by Meryl Jones Williams), who is in her 30s and pregnant when this story begins. Valerie is Kristen’s tutor, and Kristen ends up telling Valerie a lot of her secrets and asking for Valerie’s advice. Clare seems to be a caring parent, but she’s just too busy for Kristen. And later, when Clare makes mother-daughter time with Kristen because she senses that something is wrong, she tells Kristen that she will help her with anything that’s bothering her. However, Kristen denies that anything is wrong and says she just hasn’t been getting enough sleep because she’s stressed-out over school.

Hannah’s home life isn’t shown that much, but Hannah tells Kristen that she’s very unhappy that her stepmother Stacey (played by Kaylan Wetzel) is pregnant. Years ago, Hannah’s biological mother left Hannah and Hannah’s father Patrick (played by Rich Henkels), and it’s implied that Hannah’s mother has no contact with Patrick and Hannah. It’s an abandonment that Hannah doesn’t like to talk about, but it’s an obvious reason why she’s in a lot of emotional pain. It’s never mentioned what Hannah’s father does for a living, but he seems to be a very preoccupied businessman.

“Sno Babies” isn’t just about these two teenage drug addicts. There’s a parallel subplot about a married couple in their 30s named Matt (played by Michael Lombardi, who’s one of the producers of “Sno Babies”) and Anna (played by Jane Stiles), who want to start a family, but they’re having a hard time conceiving a child. Matt and his sister Mary (played by Molly Logan Chase) own a place called the Shiloh Nature Preserve, which they inherited from their father. Anna is a waitress at a local diner.

The Shiloh Nature Preserve is in deep financial trouble. According to Mary, it’s been “hemorrhaging money,” and she thinks they should sell the property, especially since they’ve gotten a very good offer to sell it. However, Matt is reluctant to sell the property because it was their father’s dying wish that they keep the property in the family.

These financial pressures weigh heavily on Matt, because Anna’s waitress salary is barely enough to help pay their bills. And yet, Anna tells Matt that she wants to try in vitro fertilization and suggests that they take out a loan of about $14,000 to pay for IVF treatments, even though there’s no guarantee that the treatments will work.

Matt wants Anna to be happy, but she doesn’t seem to understand that they can’t afford all the things that she wants. In addition to the IVF treatments, Anna wants them to buy a home and consider adoption if they can’t have a biological child together. And guess who’s the real-estate agent who shows this financially irresponsible couple the home they want to buy? Kristen’s mother Clare, of course.

All of these plans are way beyond the couple’s finances, but Matt isn’t completely honest with Anna about how much money he’s been losing on the nature preserve. Anna says she’ll work double shifts to help pay for the IVF treatments, which is a very naïve suggestion, because if she got pregnant and took maternity leave from her low-paying job, the loan for the IVF treatments would still need to be paid back. Most waitress jobs are part-time and therefore don’t cover maternity leave.

What does Matt and Anna’s marital drama have to do with the teenage drug addicts who are supposed to be the focus of the story? Kristen finds out that she’s pregnant from the rape, and the only person she tells is Valerie. Kristen wants an abortion, but because she’s under the age of 18, she can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without permission from one of her parents. And so, Kristen asks Valerie to pretend to be her mother to sign off on the abortion. Valerie wisely refuses.

The rest of the story shows Kristen and Hannah getting worse in their drug addiction. There are the predictable consequences (arrests, overdoses), but the movie keeps shoving the annoying storyline about Matt and Anna in viewers’ faces. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Anna finds out that Kristen is pregnant. And so, Anna starts to believe that she can somehow get Kristen’s baby, in case Anna can’t get pregnant with her own child.

Anna gets very creepy with her obsession to have a baby, as she starts lurking around and being nosy about what’s going on in the McCusker household and what Kristen’s decision might be about the baby. Anna isn’t even sure if Kristen’s parents know that Kristen is pregnant, but that doesn’t stop Anna from assuming that Kristen will give up the baby for adoption to Anna and Matt. This is the kind of storyline that’s in tacky made-for-TV movies.

And it doesn’t help when this movie has a lot of corny dialogue. For example, when Matt finds out that Hannah is a heroin addict, he makes this comment later to Anna: “If you don’t believe in hell, then look into the eyes of a 16-year-old drug addict.”

There’s a scene toward the end of the film that shows the McCusker family in a very heavy emotional crisis, but for some reason Anna (who’s basically just a real-estate client to Clare) is in the room too during this intimate family moment. Anna being in this scene is very odd, and it makes no sense, because she’s not even a family friend. It’s such a poorly written scene that it makes you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking in letting this horrible script be made into a movie. And the parts of the movie involving the coyote are jaw-droppingly dumb and unnecessary.

“Sno Babies” is the first feature film from Better Noise Films, a company founded by longtime music manager Allen Kovac, who’s one of the producers of the movie. He manages Sixx:A.M., the hard rock band co-founded by Mötley Crüe bass player Nikki Sixx, who has been very open about sharing his story about his heroin addiction and recovery. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Sixx:A.M. has several songs on the “Sno Babies” soundtrack.

But “Sno Babies” has some of the worst sound mixing possible for this type of movie, because the soundtrack’s songs blare too loudly during important emotional scenes, thereby making these scenes look like they were meant for a music video instead of a serious dramatic film. This blatant shilling of the soundtrack, by making the movie’s soundtrack songs too overbearing in the film, ends up cheapening the movie’s overall message. It’s unclear how much pressure the “Sno Babies” director felt to make these awful choices in sound mixing because the person who owns the movie’s production company is also the manager of several artists on the soundtrack. But it’s an unfortunate creative decision that makes “Sno Babies” look amateurish.

However, the acting in the movie is average-to-commendable. Kelly is a particular standout as the very troubled Kristen, who goes through every range of emotions that someone can have in a movie like this. Andino has some effective moments too, but her Hannah character is secondary to Kristen.

There are many horrendous choices that Kristen makes that are meant to make “Sno Babies” viewers uncomfortable. Kelly’s impressive performance grounds the movie in a certain realism that unfortunately is overshadowed by the ridiculous plot twists in the last third of the film. You know it’s bad when a movie that’s supposed to be about the horrors of drug addiction makes a coyote the focus of the biggest dramatic turn in the story.

Better Noise Films released “Sno Babies” on digital and VOD on September 29, 2020.

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