Almost 200 years ago, in the summer of 1816, a group of friends —Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, among others— gathered at Villa Diodato in Lake Geneva, Switzerland where, one night, after amusing each other by reading ghost stories, Byron challenged them to write their own. As her friends were making progress, Mary was coming up dry until one night when a conversation with Byron and his friend, the physician John William Polidori about galvanic electricity, life and death triggered something in her imagination. She ended up writing the first draft of what would eventually become her first novel: “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.” The story of a man of science who defies reason, nature, and even God, and of the monster he created has been adapted dozens of times for film, television and theater, and has produced a sizeable amount of sequels and reinterpretations. Some have been memorable (James White’s “Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff (1931); the London National Theater production directed by Danny Boyle and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and his creation); some have not (Kenneth Branagh’s incredibly faithful and dull 1994 adaptation of the novel featuring Robert De Niro as the monster). Others, like Max Landis’ and Paul McGuigan’s Guy Ritchie-like “Victor Frankenstein,” are completely unnecessary and inconsequential.
To say that “Victor Frankenstein” is a mess would be an insult to messes and messy people around the world. This so-called reinvention throws everything at the wall including the kitchen sink but nothing sticks: it’s a buddy movie, a Gothic tale, a Victorian action flick, a Cronenbergian body horror film, a love story. It features Harry Potter, Professor X and even Moriarty from Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’ far smarter reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes mythos. It’s completely ludicrous and loud. What’s worse: it’s not even entertaining (even though lead actors James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe seem to be having a grand old time chewing up the scenery).
The film may be titled “Victor Frankenstein” but is mostly told from the point of view of Igor (Radcliffe), that hunchbacked creation of the movies first played by Bela Lugosi in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein” (name originally spelled with a “Y”) and later memorably spoofed by Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974). In fact, Igor is not even this character’s real name: as the movie opens, the character is just a much abused circus employee who, in his spare time, studies biology. This self-taught urchin saves the life of his love interest Lorelei (an underused Jessica Brown Findlay in a thankless role) from certain death after she falls from her trapeze. Impressed by the hunchback’s knowledge, Frankenstein (McAvoy), who was attending the circus that night for the express purpose of stealing animal parts for his experiments, rescues the young hunchback from his tortured life in the first of several action sequences that mimic Ritchie’s ADD action stylings.
Frankenstein cures the hunchback’s malaise by extracting the liquid that caused the hump in the first place and by strapping him to a back brace that allows him to walk erect and names him after his missing roommate Igor. He is now, in essence, Victor’s first creation…and in case you didn’t get it, the script goes out of its way to remind you of this over and over again. Victor enlists Igor as a partner in his continued experiments to revive the dead. Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard detective (Andrew Scott, a.k.a. Moriarty in the BBC series, here playing a devoutly Christian version of Holmes) is on their trail as he suspects Frankenstein of being involved in the theft of body parts.
Frankenstein’s presentation of his second creation, a homunculus he successfully brings to life, doesn’t quite go as planned as the animal breaks loose and turns the Royal College of Medicine upside down. Impressed by the results, Finnegan (Freddie Fox), the effete scion of a powerful family, promises Frankenstein to finance his experiments. Finnegan, of course, has an agenda. And so Frankenstein and Igor set forth on their next grand scheme: to create man in Frankenstein’s own image (quite literally given a family tragedy the script clumsily deals with). Yes, Igor has second thoughts and yes, the film’s climax involves a Scottish castle and lighting and lots of explosions and walls coming down and screams of “IT’S ALIVE!!!!” But since the story is told from Igor’s perspective, and since he has a falling out with Victor, we never see the actual creation of the monster the way we did in so many movies and TV serials. No grave robbing, no stitching of body parts, just the final, indistinguishable end result which turns out to be not that terrifying.
“Victor Frankenstein” is not only a mess; it’s an ugly mess. The Victorian London backdrop, with its multiple construction cranes, is so clearly a digital construct that it quite literally throws you off the film. The photography is so murky, so dark, that you feel it’s trying to compensate in terms of style for the sloppy digital work. It does nothing more than call attention to the film’s many defects.
The film ends with the foolish promise of a sequel when, in fact, “Victor Frankenstein” comes across as the type of film that the studios frequently dump in that cinematic graveyard known as February. That 20th Century Fox decided to release it during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend against the likes of “Creed,” “The Good Dinosaur” and the final installment of “The Hunger Games” is as cruel as the punishment suffered by the hunchback at the hands of his circus masters.