IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Felix the Clown performs and works as a physician for a travelling circus where he is constantly mistreated. When Lorelei, with whom he’s in love, injures herself during a trapeze act, a young medical student named Victor Frankenstein leaps out of the crowd and, with the help of Igor, performs surgery that saves the poor girl’s life. Victor breaks Felix out of his cage and gives him a makeover and a new name – Igor – in return for his help in Victor’s plans to create life. Meanwhile, the God-fearing Inspector Turpin is on his trail….
You’d think that, from its tanking at the box office, Victor Frankenstein is pretty bad, though its flopping could be possibly put down to the facts that the trailers seemed to make the film look cheap, both I, Frankenstein and Dracula Untold were poor, putting off audiences from films of a similar subject matter for some time, and also that, sadly, the’classic’ monsters, even though I personally find them more interesting than any of the Marvel lot, just don’t appeal to many modern viewers, to the point that Universal are probably better off not bothering any more with this Universal Monster Cinematic Universe stuff, especially when it seems that they want to get away from horror with these characters, despite them having been icons of this genre since the 1930’s. I didn’t actually expect much from it myself, while I almost wanted to dislike it after director Paul McGuigan’s comments about the Mary Shelley novel:
“We give a lot of back story to it. And it’s our back story, it’s what we’ve chosen to make up. There’s not a reverence to the book. I think sometimes people are over-reverent about the book. It’s got a fantastic premise, I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but it’s dull as dishwater, in my opinion.”
I feel like clenching my teeth even as I type that. Yet, I have to say, though I don’t really want to, that the movie is really quite good, certainly not one which will go down in history as one of the great Frankenstein films, but no disaster either, and I think most fans of the story will find things to enjoy. It retells the story – or should I say the first part of the story- as a sort of bromance between Frankenstein and his assistant Igor. Now of course Frankenstein never had an assistant called Igor in either the book nor the many films except for Young Frankenstein, though he did sometimes have other, occasionally hunchbacked, assistants, and his two sons were aided by a hunchbacked character named Ygor in the Universal series. However, Victor Frankenstein is more a celebration of the pop culture interpretation of Frankenstein, a sort of composite of all the versions we’ve seen over the years, and that’s fine as far as it goes, with many of the lesser known films being referenced [look out, for example, for an amusing variation on the ‘eye animation’ bit from The Revenge Of Frankenstein] alongside the well known ones, but without the borrowings drawing attention to themselves. Instead, they feel like organic parts of the whole piece.
However, the film makes two notable mistakes in my view, though they didn’t stop it from entertaining me. The first is that Victor, in a scene that is both slightly gross and rather funny [he sucks out the pus from the hump, which is actually not really a hump but a large sac!], turns Igor into a ‘normal’ looking person really early on, so we lose some of the dynamic that we should get from the two characters. The other is that, while there are a couple of good story developments in the final quarter, the emphasis on the Victor/Igor relationship, plus the relegation of the Monster to the end, means that there isn’t really enough story to fill a Frankenstein movie that approaches two hours, especially when you consider that Hammer would have got through this plot in 90 minutes and Universal in 80 or under. Meanwhile the central relationship is of a kind where you almost expect one or both of the characters to declare their love for each other, which is probably why a romance between Igor and Lorelei is added even though it doesn’t seem at all necessary. A much better plot element is Inspector Turpin, the very religious cop on Victor’s trail who acts criminally on behalf of the lord just as Victor does in the name of scientific advance, leading to a couple of interesting discussions though, as is fashionable these days, it’s concluded that science is better than religion despite the many problems which the film depicts could arise from it.
Turpin is played with some of that off-kilter Moriarty menace by Andrew Scott in what a almost a Sherlock reunion, what with Mark Gatiss and Louise Brealey also appearing and the director [who made a fine movie debut with Gangster No. 1 but slipped into mediocrity after] having directed four episodes of that series, though Victor Frankenstein feels more like the Guy Ritchie-directed Holmes films, and seems to be attempting a similar thing to what they attempted. It snappily introduces Igor….or rather Felix the Clown in its first few scenes as a poor soul constantly mocked and beaten [slight echoes of The Elephant Man echoes] before Victor helps him to escape his cage. We now have a lengthy chase scene [which suggests that the rest of the film will be action packed], shot with the usual hectic camerawork you get these days, plus that occasional blurriness which always strikes me as being frankly bizarre, as Victor and Igor dodge various folk and even find themselves in the circus ring. Most of the rest of the film follows Victor and Igor as the two form an initially uneasy relationship and embark on creating life. There’s a brief sequence where a truly gross-looking thing comprised of a monkey and bits from other animals gets loose in a university, but the Monster isn’t brought to life near the end in a genuinely electrifying [sorry] set piece where the great steam punk design of much of the film really comes to the fore. And the Monster himself looks very impressive, a variation on the classic Jack Pierce Boris Karloff makeup [though actually, come to think of it, it more resembles the ones in The Evil Of Frankenstein and The Horror Of Frankenstein, both of which were inspired by the Pierce look]. A lot of thought is put into Victor’s laboratory too; there are elements from the Universal films, but it also looks more like a believable Victorian lab.
There’s a fair amount of medical gore in the film which surprised me for a ‘12A’ [though some of the older Hammer series entries are also now ‘12’s even though they were considered overly gruesome at the time], and the film thankfully doesn’t seem to be ‘holding back’, aside from cutting away from some violent moments, though I’d personally like to see a version packed with blood and guts some day. The film asks the familiar questions like; at what price is it worth bringing the dead back to life? Is scientific advancement worth the risk of upsetting the status quo, even if it’s deemed blasphemous by some? Outside of gouging the eyes out of an already deceased corpse, Victor’s only real infraction is taking a huge risk. The whole film though is almost unbalanced by James McAvoy’s mannered performance which is so hammy you could slice it, though it helps to make things consistently entertaining. It does also enhance the humorous side of a film which is definitely intended as partly comedic even if a few moments come off as more unintentionally funny than intentionally so. He and Daniel Radcliffe, who is less impressive than he was in Horns which was the first film where he well and truly impressed me as an actor, but is still pretty good, do have a strong chemistry together, which is just as well as probably over two thirds of the film just features them.
The emphasis on practical effects over CGI is very praiseworthy and McGuigan directs with some style and verve, nicely employing slow motion at times. There are some cool visual touches, such as medical diagrams sometimes appearing superimposed over the operation that someone is performing, while Victorian London looks appropriately grimy without making the film becoming unappealing to look at. It’s really the script, which tends to use characters to move the plot along rather than having them seem like a proper part of the story, which really lets Victor Frankenstein down, but despite its flaws, many of which are conceptual, it does just about justify its existence as yet another version of a much told tale – or rather an ‘origin story’ of said tale – and does deserve to do better than it seems to be doing.