I don’t know about you, but everytime Hollywood desides to partake in a new, re-envisioned take on a classic horror tale, I can’t help but feel a large dose of dread gather in the pit of my guy. After all, the harrowing events of both League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing are still fresh and traumatise me from their rent free space in my subconscious to this day and all recent attempts are usually over stuffed with CGI, have a 12 rating slapped on them and turns out to be as disapointingly toothless as a vampire fighting gum disease.
However, despite sporting many of these frustrating drawbacks, 2015’s Victor Frankenstein manages to overcome some of these hurdles to be a fairly entertaining, if flawed, experiment thanks to some nifty concepts, slick presentation and a performance from James McAvoy that’s so large it could swallow a whale…
A nameless, pitiful hunchback the world would go on to know as Igor languishes in a circus until he’s saved from his hourly clown beatings by the maniac medical student Victor Frankenstein who sees a keen talent for medical science in the misshapen wretch. Diagnosing his hunch as nearly an abscess that hasn’t been treated in 18 years and draining it like someone stealing gasoline from a Chevrolet Camaro, Victor gives Igor a whole new lease on life by making him his assistant and getting him to aid him in his experiments that strive to defy death.
Working under the passive aggressive mood swings of his benefactor, the two men manage to create life in the form of Gordon, a jigsaw puzzle of a chimpanzee whose rotten carcass makes him a literally funky monkey and whose violent tendencies allow Victor and Igor to see where they went wrong.
However, drawing the now upright Igor’s attention away from his destiny is Lorelei, a trapeze artist he loved from afar during his circus days and as their relationship strengthens it puts a noticable strain on this godless bromance. Also putting a strain on things is investigation into both men’s shady pasts by the god-fearing Inspector Turpin who finds Frankenstein’s beliefs an affront to everything he holds dear – but after many setbacks Victor’s twisted dream finally gets a major toe hold thanks to the entrances of a suspicious benefactor, but despite Igor’s protests and Turpin’s threats, the titular doctor forges on, utterly unwilling to listen to reason.
As Igor and Lorelai race to Scotland to stop Victor giving life to his hulking Promethian dream, all the players converge amidst the rain, lighting and some awesome steampunk lab equipment to witness the “true” legend of Frankenstein come to life…
Script writer Max Landis (of Chronicle fame) has reworked the timeless cautionary tale into something more akin to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, which results in a quick, spirted romp of a buddy movie that channels Mary Shelley through the unlikely prism of Shane Black. Now, if the idea of Victor and Igor as Riggs and Murtagh turns you off quicker than a dimmer switch, you may as well stop reading now. However, one person who DOES get it is James McAvoy who, placed in (genuinely impressive) real sets and decent acting company, decides to take the interesting route of becoming a collapsing white dwarf of over-acting that relentlessly consumes everyone and everything in his orbit. His wildly entertaining performance is by far the best thing here and (ironically, considering his character) enfuses life into proceedings by spraying every line with spit, glaring the bug-eye at everyone and generally being an utter, utter bastard. In comparison Daniel Radcliffe has zero chance as the wide eyed, innocent Igor, although he certainly looks the part – but then he goes and opens his mouth… Listen, I like Radcliffe, I really do – the guy works hard and he does manage to successfully ground the bromance, but his performance is ultimately a single rain drop to McAvoy’s barely controlled hurricane that gets consumed whole. However, the more I think about it, it actually fits the character’s arc so maybe that’s not actually a bad thing after all (Ok Radcliffe, you get another pass…THIS TIME).
Curiously, McAvoy’s glorious spaz attack of a role seemed to have inspired other actors to try to match him, presumably in the vain attempt to stand out against a man who can on-screen a howler monkey. One time Moriarty, Andrew Scott plays his unstable policeman as an dead voiced empty vessel while smaller roles milk the “cock-a-nee” accent for all it’s worth and it’s frankly a relief when Charles Dance turns up for about five minutes as a typically stern papa Frankenstein to add some desperately needed gravatas.
It’s fairly obvious whole endeavor seems tailor made for lovers of TV’s Sherlock or Doctor Who which is initially a smart move and the presence of director Paul McGuigan, not to mention the fleeting appearance of Mark Gatiss, all but confirms this, but the centering of Victor and Igor’s friendship to the story means that other, more iconic aspects to the story are largely glossed over. The monster, maybe THE most famous of movie monsters that ever existed, is largely and bizarrely relegated to an after thought and while he’s certainly a hulking, impressive sight (two hearts! four lungs! flat head! neck bolts!), he is sadly reduced to a last act, end of game boss fight, losing all the tragedy and nuance that other versions have had in the past. Still… At least there’s no extended scene in the style of De Niro/Branagh naked wrestling I suppose and that’s got to count for something.
So, while there has been better examples of this kind of thing in the wildly varied world of Frankenstein adaptations, there’s also been way worse and McAvoy’s epic brayings allow things from rarely becoming dull or being far from unwatchable.
Victor Frankenstein, though hardly essential, is mostly decent and it looks gorgeous, but perhaps most fitting for a film about a man constructing life from the pieces of other bodies, is that it’s parts ultimately are greater than the finished product.