Credit where credit is due: Victor Frankenstein has the stones to open not only with voiceover, but with Daniel Radcliffe intoning this line: “You know this story.” Indeed, variations on Mary Shelley’s legendary Gothic tome Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus have been spun since it was first published in 1818. On film, the adaptations have ranged from Boris Karloff’s iconic turn as the Monster in 1931 to whatever was going on with Aaron Eckhart in I, Frankenstein. Heck, Victor Frankenstein isn’t even the only Frankenstein-related piece of culture this year: A more faithful telling of Shelley’s story starring Danny Huston and Carrie-Ann Moss went straight-to-video, and Fox’s forthcoming Frankenstein-inspired cop show Second Chance was supposed to be called The Frankenstein Code.
That’s all to say that the guts of this story—crazed doctor builds a man out of spare parts, with terrifying results all around—are deeply familiar. To its credit, Victor Frankenstein looks at the tale from a slightly askew view, wondering aloud, “What’s up with the Igor character?” In this version of early 19th-century London, we find him as a nameless and oft-abused hunchbacked circus performer who also acts as the troupe’s physician. When fellow performer and object of affection Lorelei (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) takes a tumble from a trapeze, it’s the hunchback who saves her life.
This impressive act does not go unnoticed by spectator Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), a wild-eyed medical student with bombastic goals and a taste for liquor. Victor daringly sets him free of the tyranny of the circus, names him Igor, cures him of his hunch, and puts him to work helping to rebuild various animal parts into various homunculi—first a bloodthirsty chimp, then the unfortunate Monster.
With its background tale about a tertiary character from an oft-adapted piece of culture, Victor Frankenstein feels a lot like Pan with its lush imagery, on-the-nose script, and almost punishing sequences of inertness. As scripted by Max Landis, the maybe-not-a-wunderkind who also delivered this year’s sluggish American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein pays attention to all the wrong things. An absurd amount of screen time is given over to Igor’s courtship of Lorelei, and Igor wrings his hands over Frankenstein’s methods without ever really wavering in his strange devotion to him. (“He gave me a life,” Igor tells Lorelei in a painfully on-the-nose exchange late in the film.) When the Monster finally does show up far too late in the run time, he’s wasted on a series of loud action set pieces that don’t provide much of a climax.
Director Paul McGuigan dresses Victor Frankenstein’s world in the same sooty art direction that infuses the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes flicks, and there’s a running bit of animation regarding human anatomy that feels confusingly tacked on. Findlay is wasted on damsel-in-distressisms, and McAvoy’s seems to be experimenting with his inner Nicolas Cage for the bulk of the runtime. Only Radcliffe escapes unscathed, lending Igor a convincing psychology despite the ham-fistedness of the material. But he’s not enough of a reason to resurrect this story again. C+