The most important thing one should probably be keeping in mind while watching Victor Frankenstein is that the film is called Victor Frankenstein. Not The Frankenstein Monster Lurch Hour, nor Frankenstein’s Monster: Master of CGI, but Victor Frankenstein. The film’s title immediately informs us that this is a story not about ghoulish, undead monsters but thoroughly human ones, albeit ones that aren’t particularly well-characterized. And that’s a fairly important distinction that many critics and audience members will likely miss.
Regardless, this action-horror-buddy-adventure-dramedy from director Paul McGuigan and wunderkid screenwriter Max Landis is an odd film, and one that defies easy and immediate categorization. It manages to combine gothic visuals with a Lethal Weapon or Point Break buddy duo dynamic, light comedy, occasional jump scares and an incredibly tacked-on romantic subplot to form a final product that is cursory, but oddly entertaining. It’s popcorn cinema that is happy to fuse the tropes of multiple genres, much in the same way that the creature itself is stitched together.
The one thing holding those stitches together are the two great leads—James McAvoy as Victor Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe as the viewpoint character, “hunchbacked” Igor. I use the air quotes because it’s immediately revealed that the “hump” is actually nothing more than a disgustingly gigantic abscess, which makes for a gross and darkly humorous treatment. Radcliffe plays the part in a wide-eyed daze, a former circus freak thrust into a life of new opportunities and chances to apply the intelligence that had previously been his secret shame. He’s conned into the service of Frankenstein via the gothic version of a Horatio Alger promise—work for me, and we’ll change the world.
Which brings us to title character McAvoy, who is the best thing about the film. His performance is truly deranged; an erratic, scenery-chewing throwback to every great mad scientist of classic cinema. His caddishness and total lack of social grace remind one of Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, but his role as the film’s antihero/potential villain also draw obvious parallels to the ’50s-’60s Hammer series of Frankenstein films, which first thrust Peter Cushing’s version of The Doctor, rather than The Monster, into the most prominent role. His relationship with Igor is the only one that truly matters in the film; and unsurprisingly it’s crammed with so much homoerotic subtext that it seems deliberately manufactured as a massive pile of kindling for fan fiction authors. The absolutely radiant Jessica Brown Findlay is also present as Igor’s love interest, but simply calling her role “present” is being generous. She could easily be eliminated entirely with no bearing on the story, which makes one wonder if Landis only included a love interest under duress in the first place. Her total contribution to the narrative is to notice how cute Igor is once he’s been adequately “fixed” and cleaned up enough to meet all the necessary standards of conventional attractiveness.
Frankenstein is opposed by an Inspector of Scotland Yard played by Andrew Scott—Moriarty of Sherlock fame, as McGuigan has directed a number of that show’s episodes—in an interesting role that references the wooden-armed Inspector Krogh in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein, in addition to having what appears to be a portrait of Mary Shelley in his office. The ideological rift between them is the script’s most interesting feature: The “man of science” is all temper and passion and bluster, where the “man of faith” is dour, cold, sullen and reserved.
There are a few more references to the original Mary Shelley story and the Universal film series, such as calling Victor’s brother “Henry,” the name of the mad doctor in the iconic 1931 original film by James Whale. All in all, though, the closest comparison is still the Hammer series, which focused squarely on Dr. Frankenstein and transformed him into a magnetic, misguided personality who is more of an attraction than the actual creature. Being from the U.K., one can imagine McAvoy being quite aware of those films, and he’s ready to step up into Cushing’s position, trading some of that actor’s stateliness for a more manic, physical presence—the guy is much younger than Cushing was at the time, after all.
Eventually, though, we must discuss the aspect of Victor Frankenstein likely to see much of the criticism—the monster itself. Suffice to say, this film is not about the monster, and an audience member simply needs to accept that reality, that this is not a new version of 1931’s Frankenstein or simply another new telling of the Mary Shelley novel. There may be criticisms that compare the creature’s role to the incredibly late entry and underwhelming presence of Dr. Doom in Josh Trank’s terrible Fantastic Four, but the case is hardly the same because this creature isn’t intended to be the film’s “villain” or antagonist. Hell, this creature isn’t even really a character in the film. Rather, he … it … is more of a karmic payoff and catharsis, the embodiment of Victor’s hubris, which of course he recognizes too late. Unlike the beautiful nature of Boris Karloff’s monster, this creature isn’t one you have any particular pity for. In the end, he’s just a brick of meat, albeit with a nice monster design, the galvanizing force of nature’s wrath that is (very briefly) entombed in flesh.
The conclusion, which leads itself wide open for sequels that likely won’t happen, simply reinforces the fact that the creature really doesn’t matter. McAvoy himself, as the credits prepare to roll, seems to suggest a character who is ready to roll straight into the modern equivalent of Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Women and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, but those types of “follow the character to new locales” sequels simply aren’t how Hollywood makes movies in 2015, unless we’re talking about Fast and Furious.
Much more likely is that Victor Frankenstein simply struggles to make back its budget during a strangely conceived Thanksgiving release before limping off to VOD. It’s a nice-looking mishmash of genres that can boast some fun, scenery chewing performances but lacks any sort of ambition toward real pathos or atmosphere. Enjoy it for what it is: Sanitized, family friendly popcorn entertainment with a few laughs and a modicum of excitement.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s seen the majority of films with “Frankenstein” in the title at one point or another. You can follow him on Twitter.