Movie Curiosities: Victor Frankenstein
I’m going to pose you a funny question here: When did the character Igor the Hunchbacked Assistant first appear in the Frankenstein Mythos?
He certainly wasn’t in Mary Shelley’s revolutionary, but extremely dry novel. That novel was about a college dropout on a boat in the arctic being hunted by a monster that he’d made in some unspecified way. And the monster was SMARTER than him, get that.
Nor was Igor in the iconic Universal Karloff movies. Those were at first about an insane Doctor obsessed with defying God and creating life for himself, and then, after the doctor died, became about the wanderings of his creation, a barely-intelligent simpleton neanderthal.
And in that one, Frankenstein had a hunchbacked assistant, a real creepy bastard…named Fritz. And then in the sequels, Bela Lugosi showed up as “Ygor, a broke-necked asshole blacksmith who’d manipulate the Monster into doing shit.
I realized we were missing Igor, the Igor everyone seemed to know, and I was like, “Wait, what?” So I started watching ALL of the Frankenstein movies, from Mel Brooks to Peter Cushing to Robert Deniro, and realized that the only time Igor’s actually been (Doctor?) Victor (Henry?) Frankenstein’s assistant was in the fucking Monster Mash.
I was like, “Wait, what?”
That’s when the idea came to me: instead of trying to do some high minded “revisionist” Frankenstein, why not try to stay true to a version that only lives in the zeitgeist, and has NEVER REALLY EXISTED.
And why not do it in an intelligent, hopefully, thoughtful way, about friendship and science, genius and madness, love and ambition, life and death?
Why not use that imaginary, fairy dust framework of “guy with hunchbacked assistant makes monster” and make it fun, sad, scary and hopefully, I really hope this, moving.
Let’s just hope it comes together, you know? I think it’s really cool.
That quotation comes from Max Landis, the screenwriter of Victor Frankenstein. More specifically, it comes from a message he wrote that was published on Ain’t it Cool News back in March of 2013, when the movie was still in pre-production. I read that when it was first published, and I was intrigued. It sounded like a potentially fascinating deconstruction of Frankenstein, especially coming from such a savvy young writer as Landis.
But in hindsight, after seeing the movie, it becomes obvious that there is a problem with staying “true to a version that only lives in the zeitgeist.” Specifically, the problem is that by definition, a zeitgeist is a loosely defined concept made of several disparate parts. Which means that without a strong guiding vision or a lot of luck, such a project would crumble into a soggy incoherent mess.
Alas, this is indeed a movie that doesn’t have enough scares to qualify as a horror film, nor does it have enough action to qualify as an adventure movie. As for the science fiction angle, there are so many reasons why it doesn’t work here.
To start with, the characters are all entirely void of nuance. We’ve got an entire circus full of one-dimensionally evil bullies. We’ve got Andrew Scott playing a religious nutcase. We’ve got Jessica Brown Findlay playing a love interest as bland and useless as a squashed banana. We’ve got Freddie Fox playing a rich douchebag who finances Frankenstein’s research for immortality and world domination. Charles Dance appears for all of one scene, and I’m seriously beginning to doubt that he can play a character who’s remotely sympathetic.
(Side note: The film was directed by Paul McGuigan, perhaps best known for helping to direct BBC’s ongoing adaptation of “Sherlock”. And Andrew “Moriarty” Scott wasn’t the only “Sherlock” alum that McGuigan brought along. Fans of the show can look for a cameo appearance by Louise “Molly” Brealey. Mark Gatiss, the “Sherlock” showrunner who also plays Mycroft, pokes his head in there somewhere as well.)
The only character who’s given the least bit of dimension is Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), here a hunchback who was rescued from the circus by Frankenstein. Who then goes on to straighten Igor’s back, which would have been nice if he hadn’t skipped over the whole “informed consent” formality. The problem with Igor is that he’s supposed to act as Frankenstein’s conscience, but that falls apart when Igor’s interest in the experiment waxes and wanes according to the needs of the plot. Daniel Radcliffe is trying so hard to make the character work, and he deserves a lot of credit for making Igor the only sympathetic character in the whole damn film, but it’s hard to root for a protagonist who’s this ineffectual.
As for Frankenstein himself, played by James McAvoy, this guy is nothing but pure energy. I absolutely believed that he was a genius with an intelligence far above everyone else, but McAvoy went way, WAY too far with the “mad scientist” schtick. This version of Frankenstein is so far removed from humanity that there’s no way to believe he was ever doing this out of a sincere interest to help those who were dead or dying. He is so completely void of compassion that it’s impossible to sympathize with him, and he’s constantly moving so quickly that we’re never even given the chance to try and follow his logic. I can understand the appeal of a mad scientist who’s fun to hate, but that’s a significant problem in an adaptation of “Frankenstein”.
This brings me to the central problem with the movie: Dr. Frankenstein doesn’t come to regret his experiments until the climax. When the movie is almost over.
That’s a huge dealbreaker because at its heart and core, the story is about a scientist who learns too late that he’s crossed a line by creating a living thing in his own image, and he has to deal with the consequences of his own hubris. That’s pretty much the only thing that’s stayed constant in the 200 fucking years since Mary Shelley first published the source text. And this movie doesn’t get around to that until the climax, when there’s no time left to do anything but defeat the monster in a huge action sequence. Also, because we know full goddamn well that Frankenstein eventually has to wise up, we’re stuck waiting through pretty much the entire movie for the title character to catch up with the audience.
So much of “Frankenstein” is tied with themes of paranoia, insanity, sin, redemption, mortality, loneliness, and other such concepts. Those are all a huge factor in what made the book such a classic to begin with. Yet they’re all either wholly absent or glossed over in the film. And the monster himself never has to deal with his unique status as something new and alone in the universe. The monster is the only living thing in all the cosmos who knows exactly how and why he was created, with the unique ability to threaten and even destroy his own creator.
Absolutely none of that is ever dealt with in this film. Precisely because the monster never comes to life until the last fifteen minutes. Until that point, the best we’ve got is a chimpanzee that’s been heavily modified with different dead animal parts, brought to life and then killed as part of a test run. That’s nowhere near good enough, especially because for whatever stupid reason, it does nothing to dissuade Frankenstein.
To sum up: Until the climax, we’re stuck watching one-dimensional characters we don’t care about as they go about their plot-motivated actions, occasionally stopping for discussions about science, morality, and religion in heavy-handed terms that are void of any intelligence or novelty. There is one brief moment in which Frankenstein asserts that life is merely applied biochemistry instead of some holy gift, but that’s about it.
And it’s not like the film was unsalvageable. I know I’ve been harping on about how awful the characters are, but there’s no denying that the cast is giving it their all. The production design looks amazing from start to finish, and the monster designs are particularly cool. We also get some neat anatomical overlays to show what Frankenstein and Igor are seeing (which, again, will look familiar to anyone who’s seen “Sherlock”).
I just don’t get Victor Frankenstein. It’s clear that a lot of people behind the scenes put a ton of effort into this film, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. The scares and action scenes feel perfunctory, so it doesn’t work as a horror film or as an action film. It’s not smart enough or creative enough to work as intelligent science fiction. It’s obvious that no one was the least bit interested in adapting the source material, but the characters and story are too thin to stand on their own as original creations.
This film is the epitome of mediocrity. It’s a half-baked mess that isn’t good enough or even bad enough to take any note of.
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