The tropes of horror comedy go back a long way; the genre probably dates to “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” released in 1948, with a few electro-roots in “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Yet the good ones all share something: a combo of flavors — scary and funny, violent and knockabout — that’s bold and tart and bracingly blended. A good horror comedy is a genre smoothie that wakes you right up.
But then there’s “Lisa Frankenstein,” a horror-com smoothie made mostly of ancient, moldy fruit. At this point, what a movie like this one tends to have going against it is the sheer past-the-sell-by-date creakiness of a genre that has now spent too many decades placing monsters and zombies in a so-normal-it’s-wicked high-camp setting. The original ghoulie sitcoms, “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” are 60 years old. “Young Frankenstein” is 50 years old. Even monster cereals like Count Chocula and Franken Berry are over 50. “Shaun of the Dead” came out 20 year ago. The contempo “Addams Family” franchise kicked off in 1991, and the first “Hotel Transylvania” cartoon was released in 2012. Horror comedies long ago became children’s entertainment, because horror comedy long ago lost its threat.
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Yet “Lisa Frankenstein,” an undead teenage slasher romance that bills itself as a “coming of RAGE story,” strikes a fearless pose of look-how-bad-I-am bravado, as if it were up to something terribly rad. The film is set in 1989, which lends it a neo-’80s ersatz innocence, something that extends both to the filmmaking and the visual effects. It’s low-tech and patched together, like an indie comedy of the time.
This is the seventh movie written by Diablo Cody, the hipster screenwriter who followed her smash debut, “Juno” (2007), with “Jennifer’s Body,” which starred Megan Fox as a high-school cheerleader-turned-succubus, and you can see why the tropes of horror comedy would be near and dear to Cody’s heart. I personally think she’s already transcended this kind of material (her two best films after “Juno” are the ultra-realistic “Young Adult” and the empathetic nanny fantasy “Tully”), but her brand is edge, and “Lisa Frankenstein,” while neither scary nor funny (the way Zelda Williams has directed it, it sits in some corkscrew zone that feels more like “overly complicated SNL sketch”), skims off the top of a dozen once-cool sources.
Take the heroine, Lisa Swallows (played by Kathryn Newton, the talented costar of “Blockers”), a name that in any other high-school movie would be a nerd’s unfortunate nickname. Lisa is a brainy outsider, though her victim status extends beyond that; she’s one of those characters whose circumstances have made her the very vector of an Unfortunate Life. Her backstory is a gothic absurdist flourish: A psycho out of a slasher movie walked into her home, and Lisa watched her mom being slaughtered in the living room. But according to the trés ’80s there’s-no-hell-like-the-suburbs logic of “Lisa Frankenstein,” the real horror came afterwards, when Lisa’s dork of a dad (Joe Chrest) married the woman who would become Lisa’s evil stepmother (Carla Gugino), bequeathing her a terrible stepsister as well, the fatally popular and superficial (and two-faced) cheerleader Taffy (Liza Soberano).
Gazing at poor Lisa, who Newton endows with a sparkling array of moods given what a thin character she is on paper, we register the vestiges of that old punk paragon, the Underground Girl Who’s Too Cool To Think She’s Middle Class. She’s the heroine of “Desperately Speaking Susan,” she’s Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles,” she’s Winona Ryder in “Beetlejuice,” and she’s any one of the murderous proto mean girls of “Heathers.” Newton keeps Lisa likable, yet you can like her without liking (or enjoying) much of anything she does.
Following a high-school rager in which she’s subjected to every level of humiliation, Lisa heads over to the Bachelor’s Grove cemetery, a leafy Tim Burton sort of place in which she takes sanctuary. That’s because it contains the grave of her fantasy dude — a young 19th-century dandy who haunts her dreams. Tonight, he will come back to life, a pale zombie who still looks more than a little…Byronic.
Cole Sprouse makes him a mute hunk monster-saint, like Edward Scissorhands without the hands, or a goth version of the pin-up creature from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He’s passive and harmless-looking, yet he’s willing to do Lisa’s bidding. Since he’s missing one hand, they replace it by chopping off the school geek’s. More blood-spattering follows. By the time Lisa confronts the literary-magazine editor (Henry Eikenberry) she has a crush on, who is now in bed with her stepsister, Sprouse and his blade go right for the offender’s most precious part, which goes flying into the air in silhouette, to the two-ton ironic schlock tune of “On the Wings of Love.” If you’re not laughing yet, at no point ahead will you be.
The film’s title rather overstates the Frankenstein of it all. It’s mostly a matter of a “lab” in the garage that consists of a pink tanning bed with a short circuit. Empowered by her undead boyfriend/creature, Lisa grows more confident, and we can tell because she starts dressing less like a Kewpie doll and more like a Madonna-at-the-prom wannabe. She just wants to belong, something we suspected the moment we saw her lilt around the house singing REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and we realized it was her self-mockery that’s the real put-on. She actually sings it with utter sincerity. As a famous monster of filmland once said: The horror!
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