“You’re seeing through the curtain,” the younger Williams recalled this month.
But knowing the truth didn’t dissuade Williams from watching those scary movies. If anything, it sparked a fascination. At 34, after years of booking sporadic acting gigs and more recently directing music videos, she is releasing her own monster film: “Lisa Frankenstein,” about a late 1980s high-schooler who falls for a reanimated corpse. Based on a screenplay by Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”), the just-released campy horror flick marks Williams’s feature directorial debut.
As the title suggests, “Lisa Frankenstein” is far more interested in the monster’s creator. The Creature (portrayed by a wordless Cole Sprouse) acts as a foil to Lisa (Kathryn Newton), an exuberant yet misunderstood teenager prone to mishap. Still mourning her mother’s murder, Lisa struggles to fit in with her prickly new stepmother (Carla Gugino) and popular stepsister (Liza Soberano). She helps the Creature replace his missing body parts by killing and stealing replacements from people who have wronged her, a low-stakes crime in this kooky universe that gives her a renewed sense of purpose.
For Williams, who is also the daughter of film producer and philanthropist Marsha Garces Williams, Cody’s unconventional love story offered a sweet escape.
“They’re in a world where death is not permanent,” she said. “And I’m not condoning people murdering people as a personality trait. … but in this fantasy version of the world, [Lisa] becomes the biggest version of herself in a very fearless, unabashed way. I’m very fond of that for young women.”
Lisa and Creature bond over their violent escapades, such as when they seek revenge on a lecherous classmate by chopping his hand off and attaching it to the Creature. But they also hang out like regular teens, listening to the Cure and trying on goofy outfits in Lisa’s closet.
“I’ve never done a camp movie like this,” Newton said. “It was absurd.”
Williams was struck by the playfulness of Cody’s screenplay, which influenced her directorial choices. She drew visual inspiration from the bright reds of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1990 dark comedy, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” and took tonal cues from 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London,” in which writer-director John Landis touches on the absurdity of the creature navigating mundane situations.
“When a monster isn’t being monstrous, it almost immediately becomes funny,” Williams said. “No matter how gory a film is being, or how silly, there’s something about [those scenes] where the monster is not jumping out and scaring you, but just having a casual conversation or, like, drinking coffee.”
“Lisa Frankenstein” recalls the absurdity of Beetlejuice’s waiting-room chitchat at the end of the 1988 film and the slapstick violence of “Death Becomes Her.” Newton also looked to that 1992 cult comedy while preparing to play Lisa, a role much stranger than most of her previous ones, but focused primarily on Gene Wilder’s over-the-top performance in the 1974 classic horror parody “Young Frankenstein.”
“The more shocking I was, the more I freaked people out — the more I felt like Lisa,” Newton said.
Williams added, “I gave her no limitations and was like, ‘How big do you want this character to be?’ In a comedy, you can push those limits. This isn’t realism. … Let’s try that unpredictable energy.”
The filmmaker didn’t restrain her own imagination, either. She leaned into outlandish gore because the violence wasn’t the point. “That’s just a means to an end for more body parts,” she explained. The comedy ultimately serves to ease viewers into the story of a young woman overcoming tragedy.
The Creature is real to Lisa, who accidentally summons him from the grave in a moment of desperation. But his devotion is also a reflection of Lisa learning to love her zanier personality traits. The weirder she gets — the bolder her makeup, the wilder her behavior — the closer she gets to finding herself again. The Creature is a healthy dose of self-love masquerading in a dead man’s mangled body.
“There’s something quite lovely about a gentle monster,” Williams said. “I liked making him the straight man to Lisa’s nuttiness. It was like pairing a really nice wine with a crazy hamburger order.”