Don’t get me wrong – I actually don’t mind Max Landis as a screenwriter. Say what you will about the guy, but he’s determined to re-examine pop culture myths (the superhero in Chronicle, the superspy in American Ultra) from an off-kilter perspective. Going from this thesis, however, it’s hard to say what Victor Frankenstein is supposed to add to this mission statement. It’s Mary Shelley’s classic tale but…with Victorian bros?
Victor Frankenstein is ostensibly meant to be an overcharged retelling of the classic Frankenstein story, through the lens of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe, his hunchback quickly corrected by Frankenstein minutes after meeting), as he forges a friendship with the kooky mad scientist and joins him in his endeavors to create life from death. Retooling Igor’s backstory to make him a tortured, orphaned circus clown who’s also an expert in human anatomy, Vicky Franks repaints the hapless assistant as Frankenstein’s colleague and partner, giving them a manic, fraternal camaraderie that permeates their scenes together.
Radcliffe’s impeccable physical work and charming comic timing offers a truly grotesque figure in Igor…for the first 10 minutes. After that, he gives himself a haircut, straightens his back with a brace, and he’s suddenly just another guy. James McAvoy’s Dr. Frankenstein is equally frustrating to watch; the actor brings a sense of unhinged comic hamminess that becomes more grating and performative as the film progresses. There’s a sense that Frankenstein’s boyish excitement hides tremendous fear and pain, but for most of the film we’re just along for the ride.
All of this is the result of the film’s uncertain tone. There’s a self-evident campiness it so desperately wants to embrace (“It’s Frankenstein!” a drunken McAvoy croaks in a smug nod to Young Frankenstein), but it also wants to dabble in the same serious themes of life, death, and faith found in its more contemplative cinematic brethren. Frankenstein drunkenly laughs off the superstition of religion, while dour Inspector Turpin (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott) clings to his rosary with radical zeal, offering the potential for the kind of faith vs. science discussion in which Shelley’s classic story excels.
Director Paul McGuigan was obviously picked for his experience directing episodes of BBC’s Sherlock. The film shares that show’s hyper-stylized presentation, replacing Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘mind palace’ with overwrought anatomy diagrams overlaid on patients and monsters alike. There’s also a touch of Guy Ritchie’s speed-ramped Sherlock Holmes in here, right down to the unconvincing CG cityscapes and out-of-place martial arts prowess of our pasty British aristocratic leads. Frankenstein and Igor even have the same cheeky dynamics as Sherlock and Watson in Ritchie’s pictures, with Frankenstein as the brilliant-yet-caustic risk-taker and Igor as the pragmatic, quiet counterpart.
Perhaps Victor Frankenstein’s biggest weakness is its presumption that the Frankenstein/Igor dynamic is what we came to see, not the monster they end up creating. Rather than have the monster become a true factor in the film, the creation of the creature is saved for a schlocky, overlong monster-movie climax that turns the tragically misunderstood golem into a rubbery, mute Goro from Mortal Kombat, whose only job it is to tear shit up and offer Igor and Victor a chance to show off their inexplicable gladiatorial fighting skills. It’s almost as if we never learned our lesson from Van Helsing.
Ironically, Victor Frankenstein is such a Frankenstein’s monster of different tones and plots inelegantly stitched together that it never finds a life of its own. Between all the winking in-jokes, the Cronenbergian body horror, and Guy Ritchie Victorian slicknessthe film never settles on a consistent identity. In the end, it’s just impossible to figure out who this movie was for. Who knows? Maybe it’s best to let this story rest in peace.