Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein


This past Saturday, I had the time of my life attending a reunion with co-workers from the first, and best, job I ever had: ushering at the Showplace Theater multiplex in Crystal Lake, Illinois. (Back in the shutdown-spring of 2020, I wrote about my wonderful hooligan pals – some of whom I've now known for almost 40 years – in my nostalgia reviews “Take Me to Bed or Lose Me Forever” and “I Was Building a House.”) Ironically enough, earlier that day, I caught a screening of Lisa Frankenstein, which takes place in 1989 and is exactly the prototypical high-concept teen flick my friends and I would lazily watch after a work shift. So I wondered how we might've collectively reacted to director Zelda Williams' and screenwriter Diablo Cody's new horror comedy had it actually been released in the year of its setting. My guess is we would've thought that it was pretty lame but had some decent laughs; that Heathers and Beetlejuice did the same sort of thing much better; and that the movie was only worth our time because we got to see it for free.

Our angsty heroine is Kathryn Newton's teenage misfit Lisa Swallows, whose surname would seem to guarantee four years of high-school Hell. (Oddly, though, “Lisa Swallows” is never employed as a bullying punchline – one example, among many, as to how scrupulously this PG-13 outing avoids an R.) An apparent outsider since witnessing her mother's gruesome murder several years prior, Lisa now lives in a bracingly pink Edward Scissorhands house with her father (Joe Chrest), wicked stepmother (Carla Gugino), and vacuous yet surprisingly not-wicked stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). The girl spends her frequent alone-time at the local “bachelor's cemetery” reading grim poetry and making gravestone rubbings, and becoming increasingly obsessed with the tombstone belonging to a young Victorian pianist. One thunderstorm and errant lightning bolt later, this undead musician (played by Cole Sprouse and credited as “The Creature”) shows up at Lisa's home, and after initially scaring the bejeezus out of her, proves to possess a kind and gentle soul. It's just a few physical appendages he's lacking.

When movies are described as “roller coasters,” it's typically meant as a compliment suggesting an exhilarating thrill ride. But Lisa Frankenstein is a roller coaster in the sense of the attraction's general design: a long, slow rise to an apex, and then a speedy fall, and then a continued series of peaks and valleys. Between Cody's studiously affected dialogue and the copious era signifiers – it takes the film less than three minutes to show Lisa crimping her hair – I was exhausted by the pushy, relentless 1980s of it all long before The Creature lumbered into the Swallows' living room. (Her wardrobe a blend of Like a Virgin-era Madonna frocks and Winona Ryder's morbid outfits from Beetlejuice, Lisa's look inspires a cop to sigh, “I really hope this goth phase ends soon.”)

Kathryn Newton in Lisa Frankenstein

Yet in its early scenes, the movie's tone also feels wrong. From the highs of John Hughes to the lows of the Porky's wannabes, one thing all '80s teen comedies shared was earnestness – even those nutty outliers Heathers and Better Off Dead had it. Making her feature debut, Williams (Robin's daughter) doesn't give us any reason to root for Lisa; her weirdly unexamined tragic backstory is treated as a mere expository quirk, and the fellow students and family members in her orbit feel like one-note ciphers. The comedy, however, isn't biting enough to play as satire, either, and you sense the movie spinning its wheels until Williams and Cody can finally get their zombified hunk out of the ground.

Happily, after they do, Lisa Frankenstein manages to be quite enjoyable for quite a while. This is mostly thanks to Sprouse, who appears to have picked up his reanimated physicality and routinely inventive, dialogue-free vocals from repeated viewings of Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein. (Cribbing from the finest, Sprouse also appropriates Boyle's incredulous reaction shots when experiencing frustration or stupidity he can't verbalize.) The getting-to-know-you sequences between Lisa and her mildewed, worm-spewing acolyte are frisky and funny – in a spot-on nod to '80s comedies, we're even given a fashion-parade montage as Lisa determines which hideous period outfit is best for her hidden live-in. Sprouse proves to be a great match for Newton, who makes Lisa a joyously babbling life force once she realizes she's in a relationship in which she can, and must, do all the talking. And there's serious promise in the narrative device that finds Lisa and The Creature using Taffy's tanning bed the way Victor Frankenstein used his lab: as a potential electrical fire that causes reattached body parts to miraculously function.

Still, despite a number of clever conceits and the unexpectedly escalating richness of Soberano's comic turn, Williams' movie never truly takes off. Going for an R rating might've helped, as you sense Cody wanting to go darker and crazier in Lisa's macabre journey that she's ever permitted. (One particularly grisly dismemberment presented via shadow-play is so vaguely rendered that you barely know which of the victim's body parts is being affected.) But Williams can't seem to find a satisfying middle ground between the Grand Guignol flourishes and the two-eccentrics-in-love sentiment, and the overall energy is rather listless; the more human Sprouse's Creature becomes, the more the film's pacing tends to lag. Murders notwithstanding, Lisa Frankenstein itself is perfectly harmless, and at times really ticklish. But like its romantic monster, its feels too obviously stitched together from awkwardly mismatched pieces, and not in a way that forges something unique the way, say, Yorgos Lanthimos' similarly themed Poor Things does. It's merely pastiche – a work of genre awareness made with little evident genre affection.

Kit Young, Safia Oakley-Green, Chuku Modu, and Iola Evans in Out of Darkness


I suppose you could call director Andrew Cummings' survival thriller Out of Darkness pastiche, as well, given that its cinematic DNA is essentially Quest for Fire meets The Witch meets any number of high-tension exercises with minimal casts ranging from Alien to The Blair Witch Project to last month's I.S.S. Yet this newly released British indie that made its homeland debut in October of 2022 does feel like its own thing – a deeply unsettling psychodrama with both historical and supernatural leanings, and one that may wind up boasting the collective performance feat of the year. After all, how many physically grueling, emotionally fierce entertainments can you recall in which the entire cast not only spoke 85 minutes of a foreign language, but an invented language?

Set 45,000 years ago (!), screenwriter Ruth Greenberg's saga concerns a sextet of prehistoric humans as they make their way from inhospitable, potentially deadly surroundings to the promised land of safety and available sources of food. There's the group's savage leader Adem (Chuku Modu) and his pregnant mate Ave (Iola Evans). There's Adem's weak-spirited younger brother Geirr (Kit Young) and Adem's 11-year-old son Heron (Luna Mwezi). There's the tribal elder Odal (Arno Luening). And there's the travelers' tagged “stray” Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a young woman who's apparently on-hand to do everything the others won't. When this crew lands, via boat, to their theoretical paradise, they find – as the family in Robert Eggers' The Witch did – that the land is too infertile for anything to grow. But they may at least have some solid options for meat … if, that is, they can capture and kill the unseen, assuredly heard beasts who seem to be stalking and circling the group whenever the sun goes down.

Because I entered Cummings' debut feature with almost no advance knowledge of what I was in for, I'll leave the synopsis at that; surprise is one of the movie's key pleasures. But despite the minor register it's working in, Out of Darkness is actually teeming with pleasures. The sound design, as with the current The Zone of Interest, is especially exquisite, leaving us as disoriented and tense as the wary travelers who, you glean, have only recently discovered fire, and discovered that its illumination only goes so far in warding off the pitch-black unknown. We're treated to unexpected yet understandable reversals in motivation and alliance, as well as a few truly gruesome practical effects. (Viewers relieved that Netflix's Oscar-cited Society of the Snow mostly left the cannibalism to our imaginations may want to avert their eyes here.) In the final 15 minutes, an unanticipated narrative spin allows Cummings and Greenberg to land on trenchant thematic dynamite that makes this 45,000-year-old tale feel nearly as relevant as today's headlines. And through the whole of this beautifully sustained freakout, its uniformly superb six-person ensemble argues and jokes and makes vociferous threats in a fluent make-believe tongue, the degree of difficulty for which must have been off the charts. But maybe the challenge was simply liberating. If the actors screwed up their lines, how would we ever know?

Leonie Benesch in The Teachers' Lounge


Remember when inspirational-teacher movies were all the rage? We still get them, of course, though heroic instructors these days are more likely to be coaches or secondary figures to younger leads. (Entertainment-wise, your best bet for teachers getting the showcase they deserve is TV's Abbott Elementary.) But between the late-'80s and mid-'90s, these things were everywhere: Dead Poets Society; Lean on Me; Stand & Deliver; Dangerous Minds. A nominee for this year's Best International Feature Film Academy Award, writer/director Ilker Çatak's sensational German drama The Teachers' Lounge – currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene on the Ped Mall and Marcus Sycamore Cinema – would initially seem to fit in nicely with that group, telling of an idealistic middle-school educator who instinctively knows that perseverance and empathy will ultimately win over students and faculty alike. This, however, is an inspirational-teacher movie set nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century. So instead of the formerly generic surliness and apathy, our protagonist must also deal with widespread ethnic and class distrust, the ever-present threat of legal repercussions, incessant self-righteousness from the Extremely Online, and students and faculty who, to be frank, don't give a damn about our heroine's idealism.

A Polish émigré in her first year in Germany, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, looking uncannily like a young Tilda Swinton) would appear beloved by her sixth-grade class, and kindly, if somewhat condescendingly, accepted by fellow teachers. But a series of recent thefts have rattled the middle-school staff, and Carla is off-put by the rather drastic measures taken to identify the guilty party, with one of her Middle Eastern students perhaps unfairly presumed to be the perpetrator. Sweet, well-meaning, misguided Carla decides to take matters into her own hands, placing a wad of cash in her jacket, leaving her jacket in the empty teachers' lounge, and letting her laptop record whomever might try to steal the dough. The money is stolen, but Carla can only make out the thief's arm and the distinctive blouse covering it, and consequently accuses school administrator Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau) of the crime, given that the woman is wearing the precise same blouse. After that, all manner of viciously arresting, frightening, upsettingly entertaining Hell breaks loose.

Leonie Benesch in The Teachers' Lounge

Citing no direct proof, Friederike denies the accusation. Believing the laptop footage, the school principal (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) sides with Carla and suspends Friederike – who happens to be the mother of Carla's brightest student (Leo Stettnisch's Oscar). Wholeheartedly trusting his mom, Oscar turns his fellow students, and their parents, against their instructor. Aghast at the teachers' lounge surveillance, Carla's co-workers also turn against her – as does the principal once she realizes how quickly this situation can escalate to lawsuits. On and on it goes, and while I was on the edge of my seat through nearly the entirety of Çatak's film – egged on as I was by composer Marvin Miller's nerve-jangling score – it was difficult to withhold my giggles as things for poor Carla went from bad to immeasurably worse. I won't give away all of her travails, but they include a barely veiled threat that no sixth-grader should make to an adult, and continue through an inarguably ill-timed interview for the student newspaper that Carla, in her naïveté, doesn't realize is the worst idea in the world.

As co-written by Johannes Duncker, a few of the narrative's more contrived events strain credibility, and Çatak goes overboard in demonstrating, through a distracting fantasy sequence, the gradual deterioration of Carla's mental state. (In her emotionally expansive portrayal, the excellent Benesch drives the point home without any need of visual augmentation.) Otherwise, even when I was cringing, The Teachers' Lounge is about as thrilling and enjoyable as any movie I've seen this year, reminding me of nothing so much as Anatomy of a Fall, another fiendishly crafted and edited meditation on the inherent slipperiness of abject truth. On two occasions, I audibly gasped – once at an unexpected act of violence, once at a plot-upending throwaway gesture – and the rest of the time I dovetailed between an open-mouthed expression of disbelief at the tragic inevitability of it all and a massive grin at the nasty thrill the film was delivering. The Zone of Interest may have 2024's International Feature Oscar all sewn up, but don't let this release's impending loss in that category prevent you from seeing it … unless, like a few former teachers I know, your time spent in that field left you forever scarred by the experience. I promise you: The Teachers' Lounge is gonna be triggering.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher