I’m in the minority on Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein — the movies’ latest addition to the cinematic legacy that dates back 105 years. That’s to say that I think it’s really pretty good, and that is not something I expected to find myself saying. Oh, it had nothing to do with the negative reviews (I never trust reviews of horror pictures) and even less to do with the fact that it had been tagged as a box-office failure before Thursday’s turkey was carved. No, it’s just that — Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) aside, which isn’t a Frankenstein picture as such — I haven’t seen a Frankenstein movie I much liked since Hammer’s Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and even it’s on shaky ground with me. As a result, history wasn’t in its favor, nor, for that matter, was its Igor-point-of-view approach — especially since Igor (or Ygor actually) never had a damn thing to do with the creation of the Monster (no matter what Mel Brooks thought).
Imagine my delighted surprise when I actually enjoyed this latest attempt to jolt the old story back to life. I’m not claiming this is a great movie. So far as I’m concerned, the only great movies Mary Shelley’s novel has (loosely) spawned were the two that James Whale made, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Everything other than those — in that specific series, in its embryonic ancestors, and in all that followed — were either solidly crafted horror pictures, phony literary imitations, oddities, tantalizing junk or just plain junk. Victor Frankenstein strikes me as both a solidly crafted horror picture and something of an oddity — and I say that as a compliment. Even more, it’s a film that feels like it was made by and for adults — not the comic book crowd its PG-13 rating might suggest was the target.
The idea that the story is told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) viewpoint isn’t terribly important (nor is it very played up). It’s more the fact that Igor isn’t the usual henchman character, but a fully functioning human being. Rescued by Frankenstein (James McAvoy) from the circus that held him prisoner, Igor quickly becomes — after all the filth is washed off and the giant abcess that gives him the appearance of a hunchback is drained — more partner and friend to Frankenstein than servant. For that matter, Igor is a better surgeon (self-taught) with a more pronounced knowledge (also self-taught) of anatomy than his amusingly loopy mentor. Their relationship — a kind of balancing act of intellect and conscience, of enthusiasm and caution — is the most interesting aspect of the film, and one that trades heavily on the natural chemistry of Radcliffe and McAvoy. The only downside to this is that they’re so good together that Igor’s relationship with the romantic interest (Jessica Findlay Brown) falls flat. (It doesn’t help that she’s something of a wet-blanket moralizer.)
Oh, yes, monsters will be built — two in fact, and neither will work out well, naturally. There will be tut-tutting about “things that man must leave alone,” and all the expected elements of the Frankenstein saga. There are also frequent (often witty) nods to the film’s cinematic ancestry — ranging from a terrific non-answer to why the Monster’s head is flat (originating in Whale’s first film) to a variation on the policeman with the prosthetic arm from 1939’s Son of Frankenstein (and, yes, Mel Brooks’ 1974 Young Frankenstein, which gets a reference all its own). We get intimations of the Hammer Frankensteins, and even a dash of Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1974).
At the same time, there are intriguing elements that are unique to Victor Frankenstein — even beyond the Igor-Frankenstein relationship. Making their arch-nemesis Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) an over-the-top religious zealot — who is prone to railing about Satan, affronts to God and abominations — is a new twist, and it’s one that dovetails neatly with the film’s not very coded homo-eroticism. Then there’s the presence of the fabulously wealthy — and very Aryan — Finnegan (Freddie Fox) who opts to fund Frankenstein’s experiments, with an eye toward creating a kind of master-race army. That’s another new wrinkle — even if does recall John Carradine creating zombies for Hitler in Revenge of the Zombies (1943), and owes something Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) in the bargain. There’s enough here that is both fresh and keyed in to the heritage of Frankenstein legacy to make Victor Frankenstein very worthwhile. That it also has something on its mind is even better. Yes, it’s been largely reviled and written off as a flop, but it’s not the first time that’s happened to a good film. Rated PG-13 for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction.