Seriously. Did you ever have a ridiculously good-looking friend who was also brilliant and talented, but they made some really bad choices and threw it all away? Victor Frankenstein is like that. This movie has so much going for it, and just fritters it away, like a goddamn frittering machine.
Victor Frankenstein is loosely based on one of the greatest works of Western literature, and directed by Paul McGuigan (Push), one of the better directors out there. Its superb cast includes Daniel Radcliffe as Igor and James McAvoy as Frankenstein, and its central concept of focusing on the relationship between these two men is totally solid. And yet, it goes so terribly wrong that it’s pretty much a sin.
Here’s your spoiler warning, because we’re going in...
Actually, the first half of Victor Frankenstein is pretty good—it’s cheesy and silly, but that’s what you want from a movie like this, right? As the movie begins, Igor is a hunchback living in the circus, except that he’s not named Igor yet, because nobody has ever bothered to give him a name. He’s the circus’ resident clown, who gets beaten and mistreated for the amusement of callous audiences while wearing greasy makeup. But he’s also the circus’ physician, because he’s studied anatomy and is a super-genius when it comes to human physiology. We see early on that both Igor and Victor Frankenstein can look at any living creature—human or animal—and see its skeletal structure and internal organs at a glance, because they have anatomist X-ray vision, basically.
That’s what kind of movie this is: Igor is a hunchback-clown-doctor who sees elaborate anatomical drawings whenever he looks at anybody or any creature.
Soon enough, Frankenstein is rescuing the hunchback from the circus, giving him a name, curing him of being a hunchback and helping him to have a fancy makeover that makes him suddenly look like Daniel Radcliffe, looking super-cute in velvet jackets and giant cravats. Within a few minutes, the hunchback who was living like an animal in a circus tent is passing, more or less, as a gentleman.
All of the stuff where Frankenstein and Igor are bonding over their shared love of anatomy is great. The montage where Igor first helps Victor reanimate random dead body parts is terrific, and it only needs “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” by Deniece Williams to be perfect. Honestly, the first half of this movie is a pretty watchable “B” movie, easily as good as The Last Witch Hunter or any number of later Nic Cage movies. The first half of Victor Frankenstein sits comfortably—nay, lounges—in “so bad it’s good” territory.
And meanwhile, McGuigan brings a sort of grotesque, grand guignol aesthetic to the whole thing, with lots of weird anatomical drawings, Victorian soap signs, dark shadows, leering men and silly dancing. This is the Victorian London you’ve visited in countless “B” movies and basic cable TV shows, but it has a certain cool ugliness to it. McGuigan is at his best as an action director, and there’s not a lot of that here, but what there is he handles with aplomb.
It’s only in the second half that the film really goes off the rails, with a bunch of story decisions that are sort of baffling. When this film is about James McAvoy having a manic gleam in his eye and a slash-tastic romance with Daniel Radcliffe, it can basically do no wrong in my eyes. It’s only once the movie starts going all-in on a crazy religious zealot police officer (played by Sherlock’s Moriarty, Andrew Scott, who’s doing his best Philip Madoc) and a rich maniac who wants to create lots of Frankenstein monsters (Freddie Fox) that it starts going horribly, boringly wrong. Plus Igor has a romance with a circus acrobat (Jessica Brown Findlay) which has potential but is basically undercooked.
When the actual Frankenstein monster finally shows up at the end—this movie is sort of a prequel or origin story or something—it’s a huge disappointment.
Add in the fact that the movie veers off into being about Victor Frankenstein’s childhood trauma (something they invented just for this film, which supposedly motivates his experiments) and you end up with something that not even a mad scientist could reanimate.
Seriously, we don’t need to know about the childhood trauma that motivated Victor Frankenstein to be a mad scientist. We just don’t. The thing that’s interesting about Victor Frankenstein is that he’s a mad scientist, not why he’s a mad scientist.
All I wanted from this film was two hours of homoeroticism and meddling with the forces of nature with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy. Is that really too much to ask, in this day and age? Instead, this movie lurches out of control, and winds up being kind of annoying and tiresome by the end.
I am just losing patience with these movies. The ones that start out with a voice-over that says, “You already know the story of the Princess and the Pea. There was a Princess and she was on a mattress and there was a pea under the mattress, but the Princess knew the pea was there because she was a Princess. But what you don’t know is that before the Princess was born, her parents used to have really kinky sex on that same mattress. This is their story.” No. Just no. Really, not. Take it away, I don’t want it. NO.
I mean it—if you’re in Hollywood and you’re working on a screenplay for a cool retelling/reimagining/origin story/prequel of a classic tale and it begins with a voiceover saying “Everybody knows the story of ______, but what you don’t know...,” just walk away now. Go back to your restaurant job. You were bringing food to people, there was honor in that. You were doing good in the world, working at that restaurant.
On the heels of Pan, Dracula Untold, and countless other movies of this ilk, Victor Frankenstein feels not just misguided but actually wearying. There have been just too many cynically “reimagined” classics lately, and the weight of all their failures makes Victor Frankenstein feel like the final insult. If only it actually could be the last of its kind.