“You know this story. A crack of lightning. A mad genius. An unholy creation.” Those are the words that start off Victor Frankenstein. They’re repeated at the very end, at which point you might be muttering to yourself, “If only we’d seen that story instead.” A catastrophic miscalculation of a movie, Victor Frankenstein is a perfect example of a Hollywood revision that, in trying to outsmart an original, reveals what worked about said original in the first place.
This new film is told from the point of view of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), who when we meet him is a nameless hunchback working at the circus both as a clown and as an informal doctor (don’t ask). When his beloved trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) plummets to the ground one evening, he and a medical student in the audience both rush to her aid. The latter, a certain Victor Frankenstein (played with spittle-flying abandon by James McAvoy) is immediately impressed by what this lowly hunchback can do with his hands. Anyhoo, one bizarre slo-mo circus chase scene later, Victor is draining the fluid from his new assistant’s hump, teaching him to stand straight, and advising him to eat with cutlery. He also christens him “Igor,” after his absent flatmate, an addict who supposedly hasn’t been seen in months.
There is an idea here: that Igor – who doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s original novel, and was called Fritz in the classic 1931 James Whale movie – was Frankenstein’s first, most successful creation. My Fair Igor, if you will. But the notion is not really explored in any real detail, other than to have Victor yell, “I made you!” a few times. Once Igor becomes an average dude, there’s little to fuel their relationship: No master-servant dynamic, or even a Holmes-Watson-style hierarchy. Director Paul McGuigan, who has made some excellent films in the past, actually helmed some of the best episodes of the British series Sherlock, but he’s flailing here with flat, uninteresting characters.
Instead, we get a lot of chases, and fights, and escapes, and more chases. Not long after Victor reveals to Igor his dream of re-animating the dead (“Life is temporary, why should death be any different?” as he puts it), police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott) also gets onto their scent. Investigating Igor’s disappearance, he has discovered that Victor’s been stealing animal parts, and becomes convinced that “evil sinful mischief” is afoot. After that, the film dissolves into a series of near-misses as Victor makes various attempts to create his infamous monster, and keeps getting foiled. In other words, Victor Frankenstein is a movie mostly about Frankenstein failing to create his monster.
It still might have worked, had the action itself been exciting, or the atmosphere absorbing. But the movie is mired in shrill impatience. The production design and costumes are handsome and imaginative, but we can’t enjoy any of it, because everything feels like it was cut with a blender. The film mistakes speed for suspense, choppiness for pacing, and shouting for drama. And it can’t even answer this one simple question: How is any of this more interesting than a story about Frankenstein actually creating his monster, and what happens afterward? As we learned with Pan — a bad film, which at least demonstrated real ambition and verve — not everything needs a goddamn prequel, or an origin tale.