Cinephilia: Victor Frankenstein fails to breathe life into a classic tale

Do you prefer your Franken-shteene or -shtine? I’m more a “shteener” than a “shtiner,” but Paul McGuigan’s confused Victor Frankenstein is neither Mel Brooks parody nor classic gothic horror. The film shifts between tones without satisfying either connotation of these genres.

Victor Frankenstein is an origin story to Mary Shelley’s classic novel and the Universal monster flicks that it inspired. A hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) is enslaved in a circus but freed by a local medical doctor, Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), in order to become an assistant in an ominous experiment.

Victor, a mad scientist with a nefarious laugh and all, names him Igor (not I-gor) after draining fluid from his hunchback and straightening his posture. Later, despite some mild tentativeness on Igor’s part, he helps his new master create life, and eventually, a violent, undead monster. Meanwhile, a local detective and religious fanatic tries to arrest Frankenstein, a proto-scientist, for playing God and trying to create life.

At the lifeless heart of the film is a clash between science and religion, dogma and observable research. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist with a god complex, a man trying to create life “in his own image” who is surrounded by modernist technologies with clocks, spindles, and gizmos. Frankenstein is a contemporary deity — at one point he even asks Igor to “believe in him.” The detective, on the other hand, is a devout Christian who thinks Frankenstein’s secular worldview must be squashed in his rosary-clenching palm.

But, in a foray of campy dialogue, half-rendered CGI, and bonkers performances, the themes from Max Landis’ screenplay bog down what could be a potentially fun B-movie, and point to a deep-rooted tension between Shelley’s original text and Landis’ revisionist tendencies. Where the original story cautioned against playing God, the message in Victor Frankenstein condescends the Christian detective, viewing them as an illogical fanatic in order to pander towards a more current and scientifically-inclined audience.

It’s not a thoughtful or scary Frankenstein, but it’s hardly a fun “Frankenshteen” flick, either. Paul McGuigan begins the film with steam-punk bravado, evoking a never-made Guy Ritchie Frankenstein, but he almost never finds an interesting style or perspective for this story. The monsters suck! The action is too sanitized while the film unabashedly boring. For a story rooted in gothic lore, modernist invention, and expressionist imagery, McGuigan’s direction of the visuals is barely functional.

McAvoy and Radcliffe do their best in poorly-written roles to defibrillate this corpse of a film, which is long dead, but the rough editing that covers the violence like a parent’s overprotective hand certainly doesn’t help find any pulse either.

Victor Frankenstein isn’t imaginative enough, scary enough, or crazy enough. When one character calls the mad scientist “Frankensteen,” calling back to the running gag in Mel Brooks’ The Young Frankenstein, it’s already clear this film isn’t witty parody, entertaining camp, or thoughtful horror. Neither a “shteener” nor a “shtiner,” this film is a “shtinker.”

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