Anybody who has read Mary Shelley’s landmark horror novel “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus,” published in 1818, knows Hollywood has taken liberties with it. Basically, Shelley’s saga has spawned more than 70 movies. Most of them would make the Gothic author spin in her grave. Among the movies, “Hamlet” director Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994), with Robert De Niro, qualifies as the best, displaying greater fidelity to the novel than any other adaptation. The latest rendering of Shelley’s work, “Push” director Paul McGuigan’s “Victor Frankenstein” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) follows dutifully in the footsteps of the Universal Pictures’ classic with Boris Karloff as the monster. Nevertheless, “American Ultra” scenarist Max Landis provides some provocative changes. McGuigan and Landis pay tribute not only to the influential 1931 James Whale film with Karloff, but also Mel Brooks’ farcical “Young Frankenstein” (1974), co-starring Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle. A triumph of production design in its recreation of Victorian Era London, “Victor Frankenstein” emerges as a energetic effort to launch a new franchise. Mind you, this isn’t one of those horror movies where everything ends in fire and ashes. Instead, the mad scientist learns from his blunders, while everybody else–aside from the vile monster– gets away. No, the PG-13 rated “Victor Frankenstein” won’t afflict you with nightmares. Certainly it contains its share of gripping, white-knuckled moments, but it concerns itself more with thrilling rather than frightening audiences. Mind you, none of this will matter because “Victor Frankenstein” won’t generate adequate box office to justify a sequel. British secret agents, old-school boxing champs, dames with arrows, animated dinosaurs, and heroes from a distant galaxy will divert virtually everybody from watching this rambunctious melodrama that deserves a far better fate.
The first thing McGuigan and Landis change in the “Frankenstein” formula is the character of Igor. This revisionist tale unfolds from the viewpoint of the hero’s faithful laboratory assistant. “Harry Potter” superstar Daniel Radcliffe plays an anonymous, subjugated, hunchbacked, circus clown. Everybody in Lord Barnaby’s Circus mistreats this harmless innocent. Despite the circumstances of his miserable existence, the clown serves as the circus medic. Improbably enough, he indulges himself in the study of anatomy, and his anatomical illustrations are incredibly detailed. Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay, Lady Sybil on “Downton Abbey”), a picturesque trapeze performer far above Igor’s social status, is the only person who doesn’t treat him like excrement. During a performance, she plunges to the ground, and the deformed clown saves her life. When this accident occurs, a medical student, Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy of “X-Men First Class”), rushes to Lorelei’s side, too. Victor is impressed with the clown’s resourcefulness and capacity to improvise on the spot. Indeed, Frankenstein is so impressed that he helps the clown escape from the circus after his cruel employer, Barnaby (Daniel Mays of “Byzantium”), has confined him in an animal cage. McGuigan stages this audacious getaway, as Victor and the clown narrowly elude Barnaby’s fire-breathing and knife-slinging henchmen, like a daring Indiana Jones’ cliffhanger. The surprise is the clown isn’t a hunchback! Frankenstein perforates the clown’s hump, actually a cyst, drains it, and them straps him into a back brace that straightens out his posture. Frankenstein then names him after his former roommate—Igor Strausman—who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Clearly, Radcliffe’s Igor shares little in common with previous Igors. Frankenstein makes Igor his partner, and they experiment with reanimating a pilfered pile of chimpanzee body parts. “If life is temporary,” observes Frankenstein, “why can’t death?” During a demonstration at the Royal College of Medicine, Frankenstein and Igor bring a ghastly looking chimp to life. Sadly, this maniacal monkey business goes haywire, and Frankenstein has to kill the chimp after it goes on a rampage. Later, Frankenstein’s intimidating father (Charles Dance of “Underworld 5”) reprimands his ungrateful son for wasting time on such unspeakable experiments. Meantime, one of Victor’s fellow medical students, Finnegan (Freddie Fox of “Pride”) displays a deviant interest in Victor’s use of electricity to reanimate dead tissue.
“Victor Frankenstein” reminded me of those invigorating “Sherlock Holmes” epics pairing Robert Downey, Jr., with Jude Law. Director Paul McGuigan, who helmed four Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman “Sherlock” episodes for BBC-TV, keeps our protagonist dodging adversaries, including an obnoxious Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott of “Spectre”), who has been investigating the murder of a circus employee that died when Frankenstein rescued Igor. During their escape, one circus henchmen accidently killed a cohort, and Turpin has been snooping into Frankenstein’s sinister shenanigans. Meantime, Igor takes time out to romance Lorelei who left the circus after she fell. Naturally, she frets about Igor’s antics with Frankenstein. At the same time, Frankenstein immerses himself in his experiments. Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy are splendidly cast as fast friends, with Radcliffe as more sympathetic and McAvoy as more insane. The questionable activities that they engage in to obtain body parts aren’t depicted. Never do we see them either plundering graveyards for human remains or raiding zoos for animal body parts. Nevertheless, McAvoy’s Victor Frankenstein is every bit as fanatical as Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein in the 1960s’ Hammer Studios Frankenstein movies. The complaint that some Frankenstein fanatics may raise is the belated introduction of the monster. Not until the big finale are we shown the monster. Indeed, this monster is humongous, boasting two sets of lungs and two hearts. Comparatively, he resembles the albino giants in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012). Alas, the monster spends less than fifteen minutes on screen, and he lacks the ability to speak like Robert De Niro’s literate monster in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Moreover, he is not the intellectual giant that Aaron Eckhart was in “I, Frankenstein” (2014). Like the escapade where our protagonists took flight from the circus, McGuigan orchestrates several other sequences with similar gusto. The final scene in an eerie Scottish castle where the monster draws its first breath beneath stormy skies stitched by jagged lightning bolts is sensational stuff. “Victor Frankenstein” ranks as an electrifying “Frankenstein” adaptation.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts