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DIY dreamboy

Cole Sprouse and Kathryn Newton in “Lisa Frankenstein” (2024). UNIVERSAL PICTURES

In Lisa Frankenstein, an American schoolgirl accidentally reanimates a Victorian corpse during a lightning storm, and “starts to rebuild him into the man of her dreams”. You can see for yourself in the trailer: the corpse, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, starts off looking like something your cat dug up and dragged in, but he brushes up nicely, with an additional severed body part or two, helping to transform him into a young Johnny Depp lookalike with a romantic poet vibe. Catnip to goth-lite teenagers weaned on Twilight-style paranormal partner ideals!

Truly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the gift that keeps on giving. Since 1816, when Mary Shelley had a nightmare at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva and expanded it into her first novel, man (and it usually is a man) has been excited by the idea of playing god, though sometimes you suspect it’s more the idea of being able to procreate without first having to subject oneself to the physically and emotionally messy business of – ugh! – sexual intercourse. It’s just so much easier to hack up corpses and stitch the body parts together to form… what, exactly?

Lisa Frankenstein is an outlier, of sorts, in that the history of Frankensteinian cinema is peppered with male scientists cobbling together dream women in their laboratories, either as a compliant helpmeet for themselves, or as a partner for a male creature they made earlier, but these DIY babes are really just variants on inflatable sex dolls, without much agency. When the Bride of Frankenstein (1935) hisses at Boris Karloff’s monster, he declares “we belong dead” and blows up the lab with both of them in it, just like an entitled modern incel rejected by a “Stacy” and deciding that if he can’t have her, nobody can. But what if she doesn’t “belong dead”? And what would we have given to see Elsa Lanchester lurching through, say, The Return of the Bride and other sequels? It’s one of cinema’s small tragedies that such a fabulous entity, with her streaked electric shock of hair, is on screen for a mere three minutes.

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Fifty years later, The Bride (1985) seized on the idea of a female creature (Jennifer Beals) rejecting her designated fate as the boy toy of the man who sewed her together (and who can blame her when Baron Frankenstein is played by Sting? I mean, would you want to be Sting’s boy toy?) and ran with it. Alas, the world wasn’t ready for such heresy, and though Frank Roddam’s film is more fun than its reputation suggests, it was greeted with brickbats and raspberries on release. Female creatures, know your place!

Nearly 40 years after The Bride, the world has moved on, at least in terms of sexual politics. In Poor Things, described in some quarters as “a feminist Frankenstein”, the lab-formed creature (Emma Stone) leaves the safety of her creator’s house and embarks on a voyage of self-discovery. This involves having lots of sex with a caddish roué played by Mark Ruffalo channelling Terry-Thomas: a winning combo that is both sexier and funnier than Sting. But the idea of a DIY dreamgirl – built by men for men – has persisted through the years, with such gynaecologically correct variants as androids (Blade Runner, Ex Machina), artificial intelligence (S1m0ne), idealised fictional heroines come to life (Ruby Sparks), and a fantasy Barbie clone with superpowers conjured up by nerds wearing bras on their heads (Weird Science).

I’d like to order a German-speaking Dan Stevens robot, programmed to please me

Sean Young in “Blade Runner” (1982)

Mad lady scientists constructing their perfect mates in the lab are rare birds, though they do exist. Though the antihero of the splatter-comedy Frankenhooker (1990) is a young man trying to resurrect his fiancée (decapitated in an unfortunate lawnmower accident) with body parts harvested from Times Square sex workers, the resulting hybrid ultimately turns the tables on her creator by sewing his severed head on to a female body. The lonely protagonist of May (2002) makes a friend, literally, by assembling a patchwork of body parts she likes the look of – including hair made from the fur of her deceased cat, which is going too far, in my opinion. In Lady Frankenstein (1971), the mad scientist (Joseph Cotten slumming it on the Euro horror circuit) takes an early bath at the hands of his creature, leaving the road clear for his daughter (the fabulous Rosalba Neri) to apply her newly acquired surgical qualifications to transplanting the brain of her ageing lover into the body of a slow-witted but hunky stable boy.

Obviously, there ought to be a menu for this sort of mix ‘n’ match. I’d like to order a German-speaking Dan Stevens robot, programmed to please me in all respects, as seen in the unexpectedly poignant rom-com-cum-drama I’m Your Man (2021). But Mary Shelley was ahead of the game in more ways than one; not only did she write one of the world’s seminal literary works, she also, after the death of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, kept his heart in her desk. It’s not such a stretch to imagine she would have approved of Lisa Frankenstein’s predilection for dead romantic poets.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, March 2024

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