The cautionary tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein has served as a warning for mankind for two centuries now. Humanity’s tireless pursuit of scientific discovery has the potential to cross lines that ought not be crossed, and when peering into the heart of nature and natural phenomenon the temptation to play god may become too strong. Mary Shelley’s book has frightened and confounded us since its publication in 1818 and, since the dawn of the cinematic age, has provided us with fodder for movies. At least once a generation, Hollywood revisits Frankenstein and adds new twists and new perspectives on the story of the “Modern Prometheus” injecting new life and resurrecting the tale from the dead like so many lightning bolts. It’s been about two decades since the good doctor was last visited by Hollywood, meaning his time on the screen was just about overdue. Enter Victor Frankenstein.
Victor Frankenstein is certainly an imaginative reworking of Shelley’s horror story. Written by Max Landis—who is one of the more creative screenwriters currently working within the Hollywood system—the movie very nearly works as a deconstruction of the original tale (as well as the classic Universal movie). There are interesting moments and exciting twists on the characters we all know and love. Unfortunately, a muddled act three threatens to send the endeavor crashing back to the ground and lessens the entire experience.
James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) stars as the doctor doomed by hubris, only this time his story is told from the perspective of his hunchbacked sidekick Igor, played by Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliff. Igor is a nameless hunchback working at a traveling circus who, despite an incredible natural talent at the medical arts, is abused and disregarded by the rest of his carnie compatriots. After witnessing his skills first hand, Victor Frankenstein breaks the hunchback out from his cage, and escapes with him back to his lab. There, the doctor cures his hunch in about a half a minute, and gives him the name of his opiate addict roommate Igor, who hasn’t been seen in months, and tells his new pal that he’s to be his assistant. The pair then embark on the study of life after death in an attempt to reanimate corpses and…well, you went to high school. You know the rest.
Despite not appearing in Shelley’s original work, Igor has always been a fascinating character whose presence adds to the overall ambience of the story whenever he appears. The idea of telling Frankenstein from his perspective, then, is pretty inspired. For the first time ever, we actually learn a few things about the man, and Radcliff handles Igor with respect, despite the fact that for most of the movie his famous hunchback isn’t even there. In this way, it almost serves as a sort of myth dispelling, with Igor’s intention being to set the record straight. This allows the audience to see a more humanized Victor as well as being witness to the doctor’s descent into lunacy as he obsesses over his creation.
McAvoy is clearly up to this challenge, injecting just the right amount of rising madness to the Frankenstein character. The two play well off each other and their chemistry is undeniable. I hope we get the chance to see the actors work together again some time, as they balance each other out perfectly. As far as a retelling of Frankenstein is concerned, Victor Frankenstein works on a lot of levels, mostly owing to the performances from these two as well as some creative input from Landis, whose wit, it seems, knows no end. (Lit majors and movie nerds won’t be able to stop themselves from giggling at some of the injokes hidden in the script: “If you do this, people won’t remember the man, they’ll remember the monster.”)
Unfortunately, a few clunky subplots get in the way of the narrative and very nearly derail it completely. Andrew Scott (best known as Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock) plays Inspector Turpin, who’s obsessed with capturing Victor and Igor for reasons that aren’t quite explained. They’re wanted for murder, sure, but the inspector makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t believe the charges. No, he just wants to catch Frankenstein. Then there’s Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findley), a former trapeze artist at Igor’s circus whose injuries force her to quit and become a performer in a cabaret. She falls in love with Igor, owing mostly to the fact that he saves her life, and not at all because he’s no longer a hideous hunchback (supposedly). While their performances are both solid enough, their presence in the movie is little more than a distraction and feels like a way to pad the run time more than anything else.
I can’t tell if this is due to the vision of Landis or the vision of director Paul McGuigan. Taken on their own, both the script and direction are fine enough but, when you consider them together, they don’t really add up. This seems to be a recurring problem for the screenwriter, whose imagination has yet to be brought to life in compelling ways by other directors. It’s beginning to look like others might be incapable of bringing his vision to the screen, and one wonders if it’s not time for the writer to grab himself a director’s chair and do it himself. This shouldn’t be taken as a knock against McGuigan, however, who brings the script to life with a stunning visual acuity and neo-gothic flair.
It’s not enough, however, to make this a great movie. There are too many dangling threads and too many meandering subplots to make this a particularly worthy addition to Frankenstein lore. It’s pure style with no substance, which isn’t enough to make it interesting. It’s not a terrible movie, not be any means. It’s just not a good one, either.
Victor Frankenstein is now playing in theaters everywhere.