Monday, October 31, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'Victor Frankenstein' (2015)

Although a sniveling, hunchbacked assistant named Igor never appears in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein or in James Whale's iconic 1931 film, he's somehow become an integral part of Frankenstein mythology. It comes from a combination of Dwight Frye's performance as the hunchbacked assistant (named Fritz) in Whale's Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi's sinister Ygor in the later Universal movies and Marty Feldman's character in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, which has probably done more to cement the pop-culture image of Frankenstein than all but the most popular of the serious adaptations. Whatever the reason, Victor Frankenstein's assistant Igor is one of the main characters people associate with the Frankenstein mythology, and his perspective is one of the few that hasn't already been exhaustively explored.

Despite its title, Victor Frankenstein is actually mainly about Igor, although screenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan fail to find any reason why his perspective is unique or worth depicting. In the tedious manner of modern blockbusters, they concoct an origin story for a familiar character, giving Igor a history as a circus freak, a hunchbacked clown who is treated like a slave by everyone else in the traveling circus except for beatific acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). But since Igor is played by movie star Daniel Radcliffe, he can't remain a deformed freak, so when he's rescued by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), he soon discovers that his hunchback is the result of an easily curable condition, and his freakish appearance can be changed via a convenient shower and haircut. Although Landis and McGuigan make a lot of noise over Igor's circus overlords wanting to hunt him down, the circus angle becomes entirely irrelevant after the opening sequence.

Instead, the main villain is a dour investigator (Andrew Scott) who becomes fixated on stopping Frankenstein's experiments because he believes they are an affront to God. The filmmakers turn Victor into a sputtering, raving antihero with daddy issues, and McAvoy plays him with over-the-top gusto, like he's constantly on speed. That contrasts with Radcliffe's somewhat glum straight-man performance, as Igor is forced to be the constant voice of reason to counter Victor's latest half-mad ideas. It takes until nearly the end of the movie for Victor to actually animate his most famous creation, and the monster appears only very briefly before being dispatched.

The drawn-out setup to the familiar story ends up making it feel anticlimactic, and it closes with the possibility of a sequel that will never come (since the movie was a massive box-office bomb). Landis, who's known for being a sort of geek-culture gadfly (I saw him on a panel at MorrisonCon, and he was the single most grating presence at any comic-con panel I've ever been to), throws in a bunch of references to other versions of the Frankenstein story (including Victor correcting the pronunciation of his name, in a nod to Young Frankenstein), but he doesn't seem to have anything to contribute to the evolution of the story. The little jokes aren't consistent enough to make the movie into a campy romp, but it's far too ridiculous to take seriously. Like the early animal hybrid that Victor creates in his lab, it's a lumbering, stitched-together failure.

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