Victor Frankenstein, the new take on the story of the good doctor and his famous monster, has a bit in common with both fictional creator and creation. Like the doctor, it’s ambitious and highly unconventional in terms to its approach to the source material that inspired it. Like the monster, it’s a deeply flawed hodge-podge of bits and pieces of that same source material, resulting in a wildly uneven and superficial film, full of striking production design and ghastly sights and sounds, but wholly underwhelming character drama and depth of thought or emotion.
London, 1860, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Having lived almost his entire life as the lowliest of clowns in a traveling circus, a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) makes his day-to-day existence bearable with intense study of human and animal anatomy and his one, real friendship with a fellow performer, a beautiful acrobat named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay, “Downton Abbey“). A accident one night during a performance forces the hunchback to put his knowledge and skills to work to save a life in front of dozens of witnesses, including a Royal College of Medicine student named Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy). Immediately recognizing the hunchback’s intellect, breadth of knowledge and skilled hands during the successful emergency treatment, Frankenstein spontaneously offers to help the hunchback escape from the circus, an offer the circus owners do not take kindly to at all.
Despite their cruel efforts to keep their clown in his cage, Frankenstein does succeed, albeit messily, in getting him out. Within hours of the escape, the hunchback discovers that his new benefactor is every bit as maniac as he is brilliant and driven, as Frankenstein reveals his true motives for lending a helping hand. He’s in need of an assistant in his work, but not just any assistant — one with gifted surgical hands as well as a knowledge and understanding of physiology that rivals his own. The work in question? Nothing less than finding a way for humans to cheat death using parts of dead animals the good doctor has “obtained”, of course! Grateful for his newly uplifted life and fascinated by the potential he sees in Frankenstein’s theories, the hunchback, now dubbed “Igor Straussman”, agrees to lend his aid.
Complications develop when Scotland Yard detective inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott, SPECTRE) begins an investigation into Frankenstein’s connection to the events at the circus and the nature of his secretive work, while Igor ventures out into the world away from Frankenstein’s home and laboratory to re-connect with Lorelei, now the consort of a wealthy London aristocrat. Despite Igor’s growing concern over Frankenstein’s obsessive and reckless behavior in regards to his goals, the two men push their efforts forward at a fevered pace, until at last it seems that the doctor is truly on the verge of creating life. But the danger mounts as the doctor prepares to take that final step, and it falls to Igor to pull his friend back from the madness that threatens to overcome him, even as others position themselves to either exploit the fruits of his genius or put an end to the work and the man forever.
What’s immediately striking and different about the approach to the Frankenstein story taken by screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle) and director Paul McGuigan (BBC’s “Sherlock“) is the choice to make Igor, not Frankenstein, the viewpoint character and heart of Victor Frankenstein. It’s a move that certainly justifies the casting of Radcliffe, who projects the right blend of intelligence, compassion, and boyish charm to pull of this interpretation of the character, which is more fully developed here than in any previous incarnation. But the fact that Igor really is the main character here should tell anyone who knows the source material just how much of a departure this film is from what’s come before, as the character didn’t even exist in Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel, and has only appeared in a handful of Frankenstein films, most famously in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Young Frankenstein. This is all-new territory for cinematic depictions of this story, and to the film’s credit, they stay committed to it from start to finish.
But for all that ambition and willingness to chart new territory, the fact that Victor Frankenstein falls back on cobbling together a weird pastiche of other familiar Frankenstein tropes in order to make up the balance of the film outside of Igor’s story makes you question why did they bother with anything original at all. Yes, James McAvoy’s energetic performance here as the mad scientist is at times fun to watch — mainly he does a lot of running around, yelling, and grinning like, well, like a mad scientist — and he and Radcliffe play off of each other well in perhaps the year’s most unusual cinematic “bromance.” But the motivation they eventually reveal for Frankenstein’s fevered dedication to his work is poorly-developed and paper thin, as is the romantic connection between Igor and Lorelei and the religious fanaticism that drives Turpin to pursue Frankenstein beyond the boundaries of his office. Those subplots and attempts at character depth just end up feeling like filler to prolong the wait for the scene everyone goes to a Frankenstein movie to see: the lightning-powered birth of the monster. And make no mistake: when the film finally does get around to that, not only is it disappointing, but it turns out to be a cheat. To elaborate on that further would be to give away spoilers, but suffice to say that it’s not what audiences are led to believe it is at the outset.
As to all those nods in Victor Frankenstein to Frankenstein films and stories that have come before, and there are lots of them, from the look of Frankenstein’s laboratory and the castle that serves as the setting for the film’s climax (admittedly, very impressive) to the clever nod to Young Frankenstein that’s been featured prominently in the film’s marketing, just how much fans of these movies enjoy and appreciate them will be determined entirely by how receptive they are to the plot and thematic changes in the rest of the film, which, if you haven’t picked up on by this point in the review, is undeniably a mess. Is it the worst Frankenstein film ever made? Hardly — that honor arguably may still belong to last year’s I, Frankenstein. But if you’re a fan of monster movies, and in particular bad monster movies, or you’re just looking for something a bit over-the-top and silly to enjoy at the movies this holiday weekend, then this might be the movie for you. Otherwise … well, just stick to the original Shelley.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, and Charles Dance. Directed by Paul McGuigan.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction.