“You know this story.” That’s the first line of dialogue in Victor Frankenstein, spoken in voice-over narration by Daniel Radcliffe in somber tones. Yes, you know this story. In fact, the film knows you know this story. And it wants you to know that it knows that you know this story. The story in question is that of eccentric — you could even call him “mad” — scientist Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) as told by his assistant, Igor (the afore-mentioned Radcliffe).
Yes, we know this story. Sort of. Here Igor is a circus freak, spending his days being abused by the other performers. His hobbies include studying anatomy and pining over the beautiful acrobat Lorelei (a winsome but under-utilized Jessica Brown Findlay). When Victor rescues Igor from the circus (and subsequently fixes his hunched back, because this is pretty, pretty Daniel Radcliffe after all) Igor repays the debt my assisting Victor in his experiments to bring the dead back to life. It isn’t long before their forays into mad science get them in trouble with the authorities, in particular with one Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott).
What looks like an attempt to jump-start a franchise modeled after Guy Ritchie’s pulpy steampunk take on Sherlock Holmes is…well, exactly that. And the film knows you know that. Victor Frankenstein is a modern, incredibly self-aware b-movie through and through, and it never tries to hide that fact. Director Paul McGuigan gives it just enough sheen and style to stop it from feeling cheap, while writer Max Landis infuses it with plenty of genre savvy, just as he did with the found-footage superhero film Chronicle.
McGuigan has a tendency to focus on a cast of characters that live on the fringe of societal norms, centered on a more balanced but somewhat purposefully opaque narrator. Igor is an outcast in a community of outcasts, belittled for daring to reach beyond his station. It’s no surprise that he finds a kindred spirit in Victor, whose experiments break the boundaries of accepted science. But while Victor slowly descends into a very theatrical, chaotic-neutral kind of madness, Igor remains tethered to the real world through his budding attraction to Lorelei. The focus of the film isn’t the monster Victor’s creating, but it’s the complex, tense, and unashamedly homoerotic connection between Victor and Igor. In fact, once the monster does show up, the film seems to screech to a sudden, surprisingly discordant halt.
Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t a whole lot of fun most of the time up until then. While Radcliffe is ostensibly the main character, and does an outstanding job with the role as is his norm, it’s McAvoy that gleefully eats up the scenery. It’s an unpretentious, intentionally over-the-top performance, but McAvoy sells it well. He looks like he’s genuinely having the time of his life, and he’s rarely felt more animated. Andrew Scott, on the other hand, takes his role in the polar opposite direction, playing Turpin with a strangely hypnotic deadpan monotone that slowly unravels as Turpin gets more and more drawn into the case.
Everything goes just fine until the third act, when McGuigan and Landis suddenly lose their sure pacing and narrative balance. For a few moments, the film forgets itself and suddenly begins to think it’s a serious, dramatic retelling of the Frankenstein story and not the giddy, guilty pleasure that it is. Oddly enough, those scenes are when the film feels truly cheap and disposable. Victor Frankenstein, both the character and his movie, draw strength from their own crescendos of incredulity, and taking that away is (for lack of a better phrase) a shock to the system.
When the film is alive with super-charged pulp, however, it’s very nearly a joy to watch. It isn’t a totally successful film, a fact the film itself seems to acknowledge with its blatant sequel hook. It’s as if the film knows that you know that the film knows it can do better. Or something like that. Probably best not to think too hard about that.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B (but by the barest of margins)