I was really hoping to avoid this terrible cliché, but there’s no getting around it: Victor Frankenstein is a mishmash of many disparate pieces, some of them actually rather good, but where the whole ends up being distinctly less the sum of its parts and something of a lumpen, stumbling disappointment.
Writer Max Landis’ main creative idea behind Victor Frankenstein is to reimagine Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale from the point of view of the hunchback Igor, who in this version is neither a true hunchback nor a mere assistant to Frankenstein’s work. Here he is in many ways the brains behind the operation, and is his name is not actually Igor. That character never actually appeared in the original novel, being instead a compilation of different roles from the classic Universal horror series of the 1930s and 1940s which have become fused in the popular imagination into one stock caricature over the years. It’s that shadow the film is trying to kick against, but in large part it never really succeeds in escaping. By the end, the idea is almost entirely dropped and forgotten for something far more disappointingly conventional.
In Victor Frankenstein, Daniel Radcliffe plays the deformed and abused circus clown who also happens to be a genius savant of human anatomy. A trapeze accident results in a chance encounter with a medical student – James McAvoy’s Frankenstein – who recognises Igor’s surgical talents and frees him from his bondage to set him up as his assistant in a derelict 19th century London warehouse. The pair collaborate on experiments to reanimate the dead, but as Igor finds love and romance which cause him to have doubts about their work, his mentor becomes ever more obsessed and unhinged. They are hunted down by police detective Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarty) who is driven by religious zealotry, while the pair are aided by the wealthy but untrustworthy young Finnegan (Freddie Fox) who bankrolls their operation until the inevitable climax in a remote castle during a violent electrical storm.
As always Radcliffe gives his all in terms of his physical performance, but his vocal delivery is too flat and modern-day which is especially unfortunate given the number of voiceover expositions the character is required to deliver. Once Igor’s lifelong physical deformity is cured by Frankenstein with indecent miraculous haste in the first 15 minutes, the character loses its intrinsic interest and becomes merely a portal through which to view McAvoy’s mercurial portrayal of Frankenstein swinging from suave and charming to brutish and cruel, thoughtful and considerate to obsessed and pathological, as likely to fire off a knowingly camp one-liner as he is to maim and kill. Not everyone will like the performance – which is surely intentionally uneven to match Frankenstein’s own waxing and waning fortunes – but it does succeed in making the character come across as mad, bad and dangerous to know as you never know what the next words out of his mouth are likely to be. You may well roll your eyes at some of the psychological backstory hogwash behind Victor’s demons, however.
Igor gets swept up by Frankenstein’s surface charm and initially acquiesces because of everything he owes to the man who rescued him and gave him a chance at a normal life. Soon, however, his romance with the miraculously cured and socially-uplifted trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) makes him start questioning the ethics of what he’s being asked to do. Unfortunately this whole side romance plot feels very superficial and grafted on, seemingly invented to fend off any suggestions of a gay attraction between Igor and Frankenstein and keep that relationship squarely in the realm of acceptable bromance instead. Findlay is the only actress in the male-heavy main cast and she is required to do nothing other than be one of the better angels of our nature, a sainted presence present only to bolster Igor’s conscience.
Andrew Scott doesn’t really get all that much more material as Turpin, but at least he is able to bring a deepening intensity to the part that ensures he liberally steals whole moments of the film, especially as his descent into unreasoned obsession parallels that of Frankenstein in a clear if not wholly successful attempt at a religion/science analogy. Meanwhile Freddie Fox is given an utterly one-note sneering upper-class villain role to play and then gets perfunctorily written out in the final act action scene without so much as a parting line. Worryingly for the film, the most memorable screen presence in the whole affair is Charles Dance as Victor’s father who is in but a single scene, but who brings a gravitas to his intervention that shows just how lightweight the majority of the rest of the movie really is.
With the title of the film unequivocally centred on the character of Victor, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that the monster is very much sidelined in the film. Spencer Wilding makes a very late appearance as Prometheus and both the make-up and the portrayal rank as little more than basic; it’s almost a relief when the creature is quickly shuffled off the screen. It makes you realise just how profoundly wonderful Boris Karloff was in 1931, or how much Christopher Lee was able to bring to the role in the 1950s Hammer reimagining. Here the monster is a characterless damp squib, although to be fair giving the science versus God argument a safe, pat ending is almost certainly exactly what was intended.
The main problem with Victor Frankenstein is a lack of consistency in both style and pacing. Almost every scene seems to have come from a different film, as if director Paul McGuigan can’t quite decide how the script needs to be played. The early scenes in the circus have a deliciously surreal flavour to them, then it all goes a bit Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure during the slow-motion chase sequences. Frankenstein’s laboratory is a gloriously detailed steampunk clutter to compare with the stately homes and gentlemen’s clubs that Igor manages to get himself invited to; early scenes make heavy use of too-obvious CGI and matte paintings to create a romantic version of height-of-empire London only to clash with later location filming giving a much more gritty and grime-laden view of the streets. There’s a heavily stylised scene in which a character is nearly drowned in the Thames to allow for some abstract monochromatic underwater filming, and the next minute we have stunning red ball gowns floating incongruously through the dull green forests of the Scottish highlands just because it looks artful. If nothing else, McGuigan has created for himself an impressive portfolio of all the different things he can do with the camera – it’s just a shame that it doesn’t gel here into one coherent vision.
The same can be said for the overall tone and writing. Landis seems to have no interest in period authenticity and mixes things up almost as freely as Baz Luhrmann did in Moulin Rouge by introducing modern day slang and terms such as ‘harvesting’ organs into the undefined generic 19th century setting. The film can’t resist going for some cheap laughs through geek in-jokes, such as the “It’s alive, it’s alive!” riff from the 1931 James Whale version of Frankenstein or the mispronunciation of Frankenstein’s name that’s straight out of Mel Brook’s 1974 pastiche Young Frankenstein. Alongside such moments of Carry On humour are some truly black elements of horror – Frankenstein and Igor’s first creation, Gordon, is very much a bit of disturbing body horror straight out of David Cronenberg’s back catalogue – but then at the start of the film and then again at the very end we plunge into the most standard of big screen action sequences.
All the criticisms aside, there are certainly aspects to this film that I enjoyed – such as McAvoy giving his all as Frankenstein, Scott’s efforts to bring to life Turpin’s own disintegration, and Charles Dance stealing the show with his walk-on appearance. It was also pleasing that by and large the film held fairly true to Shelley’s novel with its discussions on the morality and ethics of creating life through science and what it means for God, a degree of fidelity to the original which while far from perfect you still won’t find in the likes of the appalling I, Frankenstein or endless Dracula retreads of recent years. Overall it feels like a film that started off with its heart in the right place and with an understanding of what it is trying to do, but then got mixed up and turned around whereupon it panicked and tried unsuccessfully to overcompensate resulting in an unfortunate mess that proved an emphatic box office disappointment.
Worth watching for some of the performances, then, and visually handsome if uneven for the main part. Not as offensive as most recent multiplex fare in the genre or as many reviews might have you believe, but ultimately a disappointment nonetheless for all its redeeming features.
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
Pictures: 20th Century Fox
Victor Frankenstein was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on April 11, 2016.