The first thing you should know about Victor Frankenstein, a wrongheaded attempt to breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s 1818 monster classic, is that it is not a horror movie. Yes, it is horrible, but not in the ways it intends to be. The filmmakers do attempt to turn their frightless feature into a horror flick in its final 15 minutes, when Frankenstein finally jolts his stitched-together creature to life, but by then it’s too late: Rigor mortis has set in and nothing can bring this deadly enterprise back to life.
Screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle) and director Paul McGuigan (Sherlock, Wicker Park) desperately try to turn their mad-scientist origin tale into a buddy-action yarn in the vein of Guy Ritchie’s hyped-up Sherlock Holmes movies. Unfortunately, they don’t have witty screenwriters or a charismatic actor like Robert Downey Jr. at their service. Instead, we’re stuck with the usually reliable James McAvoy (who thinks that literally spitting out his frenzied lines is a good idea) as a mad medical student intent on bringing the dead back to life, and a restrained Daniel Radcliffe as Igor, a hunchback circus clown who becomes Frankenstein’s unwitting Monsters, Inc. partner. The bottom-drawer script never attempts to be scary, but it does try to scare up some laughs — it even commits the cardinal cinematic sin of stealing from Mel Brooks’ brilliant Young Frankenstein, with one character pronouncing the demented doctor’s name as “Frankensteen.” Landis, son of director John Landis of Animal House fame, apparently learned nothing from his dad’s An American Werewolf in London, a classic example of a movie that’s simultaneously frightening and funny.
The only original idea at work in this misguided undertaking is that the story is told from the perspective of Igor, who begins the film as a nameless circus clown with a hunchback. When a beautiful acrobat named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) is injured from a near-fatal fall, the sad clown — unbelievably — saves her life with a nifty medical adjustment. Frankenstein witnesses this act and decides to rescue Igor, recognizing that beneath the matted mop of hair and smeared makeup lies a brilliant physician with gifted hands; the doctor soon brings him to an enormous London apartment that doubles as a laboratory. There, without so much as an examination, Frankenstein instantly knows that his new roommate’s hunchback is actually just a pile of pus that needs to be drained, so he slams him up against a wall and jabs a giant needle into his back to draw out the putrid stuff. After a shower and a shave, the now upright and newly christened Igor dons some new threads and — voila! — the handsome Radcliffe appears.
A man is killed during the pair’s daring escape from the circus, which sets Scotland Yard inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) on their trail. The cat-and-mouse interplay between Frankenstein and Turpin is the most interesting aspect of the story, but regrettably, it ends up being underdeveloped. The screen time spent cultivating a blossoming romance between Igor and Lorelei would have been better spent shining the spotlight on Scott’s dogged detective, who eventually figures out what Frankenstein is really up to.
When Frankenstein and Igor make plans to bring a dead man back to life late in the movie, they realize they need to stitch together a creature gigantic enough to withstand a powerful electrical discharge; to that end, they give their creation two sets of lungs, two hearts, and one enlarged brain. And it works. Pity, the filmmakers only used half a brain in creating this monstrous mess.