Film Review – Victor Frankenstein
Victor Frankenstein (2015) starts by telling us that we already know this story, which is a weird way to kick things off. If we know what this is about, what’s the point of telling it all over again? The “Frankenstein” story is not prohibited from being told, there have been several good iterations of Mary Shelley’s novel, the most famous – of course – being James Whale’s film from 1931, with Boris Karloff’s classic performance as Frankenstein’s monster. But that’s where this outing falls short. It doesn’t do a good enough job of setting it’s own identity, and makes the crucial error of reminding us that this has been done before, and better.
The only big difference is what perspective we’re seeing things through. Paul McGuigan directs Max Landis’ script not from the viewpoint of the mad doctor (James McAvoy) but of his loyal assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). We’ve known Igor as the grotesque hunchback, shuffling his feet as he carries out Dr. Frankenstein’s commands. Now Igor starts as a circus act, playing a clown to the entertainment of the masses. Igor is not as absentminded as we remember him to be. While he’s not performing, Igor spends his time studying medicine. That’s right, Igor taught himself the ways of science and human anatomy, because we all need a hobby right? His competency with medicine is so great that he can diagnose and treat people like a real doctor. In several scenes, we see Igor look at a patient and (with the help of special effects) pinpoint their problem as though he has x-ray vision. Nifty.
It’s this knowledge that attracts Dr. Victor Frankenstein to Igor. Taking Igor under his wing, Dr. Frankenstein literally cures him of his hunchback (in one the ickiest scenes you’ll see all year) and immediately puts Igor to task of helping with his experiments. The plot from here on out is basically the one you’re familiar with. The dark and spooky laboratories, the equipment that whirls and buzzes with electricity, and the regular sights and sounds of a mad scientist are all on display. As Igor slowly comes to realize what the good doctor’s plans are, Victor’s obsession with reanimating dead species (namely, human) ratchets up. The moral contrast between the two acts as the main source of tension.
James McAvoy is the singular highlight, and he’s at his best when he goes full on fanatical. McAvoy chews scenery like bubblegum, and goes over the top possibly a few too many times. But I was fully engaged in those instances. McGuigan puts in the most directorial energy when Dr. Frankenstein is in the midst of his experiments. Running around, throwing levers on and off, watching electricity flow through the air with big crazy eyes, McGuigan allows McAvoy to swing for the fences. Maybe because McGuigan and Landis are working from a well established template, but when the doctor ignores the moral implications and dives head first into his work was when the enjoyment factor was at its highest.
Sadly, everything else fails to keep up. Igor, despite what updates are given to his look, is not that interesting of a character. Daniel Radcliffe does his best to give Igor dimension, but the challenge may have been impossible to overcome. To put it frankly: Igor is a stiff, especially when juxtaposed with the doctor. He often goes with the flow, and doesn’t add much to the proceedings. He’s one of those characters designed to represent the audience – witnessing the story instead of being an active participant. His romantic relationship with Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) – an acrobat from the same circus – is weakly drawn and quickly forgotten about.
In fact, other than Victor, all of the characters here are weak. Rafferty (Bronson Webb) is the son of one of the wealthiest families in England, and once he discovers Victor’s experiments, offers to provide as much funding as needed to get the job done. Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) is a near religious freak whose fixation with stopping Victor from playing God puts him in a precarious situation with his superiors. Both Rafferty and Inspector Turpin play significant roles, but they have such a lack of character development that their impact to the story is hardly felt.
What about the monster? Well, in this case, the rendition of Frankenstein’s monster is not bad. He’s a massive, hulking creature, with the make up design referencing Jack Pierce’s work with Boris Karloff. He looks otherworldly, like a zombie injected with steroids. There are two major problems with the monster though: 1) We don’t get enough of him, and 2) Any humanity that made him a memorable character is completely missing. The monster is portrayed exactly as what he is: a monster and nothing more.
Victor Frankenstein falls right between terrible and mediocre. It thinks that the dynamic between Igor and Dr. Frankenstein is the most compelling element, when what we want to see is the monster running amok, a crazed science project let loose and out of control. The narrative pushes this point so far back it seems as though it was put in begrudgingly. But hey, let’s not take things too seriously – the film literally tells us we’ve seen all this before anyway.