Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein is so desperate to avoid comparisons with other, better, retellings of Mary Shelley’s tale that it jettisons almost everything that’s interesting about the mythos, setting out to answer a series of questions nobody has ever asked about the protagonist’s butler. The result is a lumbering comedy-horror that’s every bit as dead-eyed as the monster it portrays.
Hunchbacked Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) is thrust centre stage, first appearing as a clown in a brutal Victorian circus who is also, serendipitously, one of the country’s foremost physicians, albeit one without any training whatsoever. You can tell how much he knows about the workings of the human body because whenever he looks at someone, anatomical drawings are superimposed over them, which is how the best doctors see even to this day. Frankenstein (James McAvoy) instantly recognises his talent and decides he’d be brilliant at sewing together cadavers in his macabre, steampunk laboratory.
The film itself feels stitched together from various, disparate elements: the circus escape is straight-up action, with McAvoy’s character leaping around in slow-motion and demonstrating fighting skills that go unexplained and unmentioned for the rest of the movie; there’s an odd-couple bromance between Victor and Igor – the least repellant part of the film – and then there’s something approaching traditional horror as they realise their ambition of creating life from death.
The monster doesn’t appear until the final reel and feels unforgivably tacked on, with no attempt to imbue it with any kind of emotional complexity: as soon as it wakes up it simply serves as something that needs to be killed again as soon as possible.
Even amid this cacophony of mediocrity, Daniel Radcliffe is hopelessly out of his depth, his one-note, nice-boy spiel entirely unsuited to the character. It’s particularly noticeable when he’s acting opposite the far superior James McAvoy, who at least shows an inkling that he’s aware of the ridiculousness of the project, camping it up enough to make his character at least watchable, if not very likeable.
But Victor Frankenstein is neither intelligent enough to be interesting nor dumb enough to be fun, keeping its inherent silliness on a leash even though it has nothing else to offer. The true horror is that it was allowed to happen at all.
First published in City A.M.