Dark, moody ancestral estates; London submerged in a foggy blanket of melodrama; a mad scientist, a reformed hunchback, and a reanimated corpse? I should say right now that I’m a sucker for these kind of movies.
Victor Frankenstein is the latest exhumation of the Mary Shelley legend, and like its subject matter, it has been stitched together by any manner of unknown influences. There is everything I mentioned above and more. Lightning, proclamations about the power of God, and even a flattop make an appearance. However, unlike the vast majority of the Frankenstein movies that have come before, Victor keeps the focus on Shelley’s actual titled star. They even included his Christian name to be sure.
And it is on Victor Frankenstein’s shoulders where much of what goes right about this experiment rests. Despite ostensibly being told (and marketed) from Igor’s perspective, this is James McAvoy’s movie. And he owns that fact with every mad shout of egomaniacal self-congratulation. Playing the kind of man who will fix a potential friend’s hunchback on their first encounter, he still also must do this by tackling him like a rugby player and then drilling into his hump without so much as offering to buy him dinner first. It’s a dementedly campy character, and McAvoy embraces him with one part Charles Xavier and two parts Bruce Robertson from Filth.
If only the rest of the movie had as much fun as this good doctor. But for better or worse, it plays out fairly straightforward with its pitiable ugly duckling yarn about the guy usually standing well behind the madness.
Indeed, originating as a throwaway role for Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein (1939), Igor is now a romantic hero of sorts as this teenage, luckless hunchback who is implausibly both a circus’ whipping boy and a self-educated physician. Just a lad with a hump on his back and a head in the clouds, Igor pines for Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the big tent’s star trapeze artist.
When her trapeze then fortuitously snaps on a fateful night, there turns out to be two doctors in the house to resuscitate her: Radcliffe’s benign Quasimodo and the passing by Victor Frankenstein. Impressed with the kid’s medical know-how, Victor frees/kidnaps him out of the circus and is performing unrequested surgery on him later that night. Faster than you can say, “It’s alive,” they’re down in the lab toiling with brains, eyes, and other belated trick ‘r treats.
In truth, Victor Frankenstein is barely about the iconic Monster himself. The Creature in his most pure form doesn’t even show up until the third act. Rather than being a traditional horror about the big lug, this film is neither quite a thriller or monster movie. To be sure, it enjoys those elements too, but it is equal parts adventure, wish fulfillment, and ultimately the most macabre buddy flick you’re likely to watch. It’s frantic indecisiveness of tone does make for a hardly fully formed experiment. But for the first two acts, it mostly succeeds as a wildly bizarre case of genre ADD.
When McAvoy is onscreen, there are sparks of the maniacal energy director Paul McGuigan so clearly wanted to harness. But the contrast with Radcliffe is jarring since he delivers little more than what Igor is written to be: a matinee idol. With all the blandness that implies.
Also on this count, there is a requisite love story between Igor and Lorelei, which is courtly, sweet, and almost wholly unnecessary, right down to how she is unceremoniously written out of the third act. Findlay is fine in the role, but she ultimately is what Victor suggests: a distraction from the movie’s more fun aspects. In fact, it is easy to imagine that the broadly homoerotic undertones between the two scientists—which are as intentional as the script’s winking nudge to Young Frankenstein—will be where romantics’ hearts truly lie.
In one of the film’s other subplots, Andrew Scott fares better as the devoutly Catholic Scotland Yard inspector who takes Victor Frankenstein’s experiments as a personal affront to the Almighty. His religious counterpoint to Frankenstein might be too on the nose for some, but in such an unsubtle movie, Scott’s wide-eyed and intensely dedicated fanaticism is genuinely menacing and occasionally sympathetic.
Unfortunately, when all of these elements converge in a third act, they can’t quite keep the loose stitches from showing.
Leaving London behind for a rural climax full of scurrying extras, nameless subordinate scientists, and the most grandiose and overproduced lightning sequence ever placed in a Frankenstein picture, the film’s attempt to end with the biggest bang misses the cadaver for the rotting limbs. It is so excessively budgeted that it overwhelms the varying subplots—as well as the original intimacy of a man playing God—drowning everything out with raucous noise and thunder. You might even fail to notice major characters being killed off in jump cuts, not that you would have cared otherwise.
This sequence, much like an early chase scene at the circus, feels primarily tacked on to add to the spectacle, and possibly the product of reshoots (several scenes certainly appear truncated). The result is an ending that loses sight of what made the first third so enjoyable: Victor, Igor, and the monster within.
Nevertheless, for a certain type of fan there is something to enjoy here. Unlike last year’s abysmal attempt to redo Dracula in the vein of 300 or whatever the hell I, Frankenstein was supposed to be, Victor Frankenstein is both very modern and celebratory of its origins. While there is little of Shelley’s actual inspiration here, the narrative has plenty of winks to its impact, the aforementioned Young Frankenstein, and of course the Universal classics from where Igor derives. However, the biggest influence is easily the legacy left by Hammer Films, which turned undead abominations into a cottage industry.
Like that studio’s classic Frankenstein franchise that starred Peter Cushing, Victor Frankenstein makes the mad scientist the star in a bit of camp—it just goes down as smoothly as formaldehyde.