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Movie Review: Victor Frankenstein

By Douglas Davidson

November 24, 2015

The story of Frankenstein’s monster has been told and retold many times since Mary Shelley’s original manuscript was printed. It’s a story of a mad scientist bent on resurrecting life from pieces of the dead and then, once successful, immediately regretting and rejecting it. The original story, simultaneously horrifying and an allegorical morality tale, focused on Victor Frankenstein, the naïve scientist and the consequences of his actions. Directed by Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Push) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle), the newest iteration of the story, Victor Frankenstein, chooses to focus on the lesser known Igor, a wise decision when trying to infuse new life into an old tale.

When the story begins, we learn that the man we know as Victor Frankenstein’s assistant Igor, is a nameless hunchback living as a member of Lord Barnaby’s circus, serving as both a clown and doctor. When an aerialist falls, the man who becomes Igor gains the attention of Victor Frankenstein, as the two must work together to save the hurt performer’s life. Victor quickly realizes that Igor is smarter than his carnival associates believe and helps free Igor from his carnival servitude. Once back at Frankenstein’s workshop, Igor quickly becomes both fascinated by and instrumental to Victor’s work. From circus performer to scientist, these are but the beginning in a larger deviation from Shelley’s original piece that keeps the energy up and the story from faltering into too familiar ground.

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Bringing this story to life are Daniel Radcliffe as Igor, James McAvoy as Frankenstein, and Max Landis, the writer. Here, Radcliffe’s Igor is inquisitive, challenging, and often the voice of reason against the veracity of McAvoy’s Victor makes him the ideal surrogate for the audience. By playing Igor not as a sycophant, but as someone looking for a partner, it creates a nice balance in the relationship with Victor, though it does put the bulk of the work on Radcliffe’s shoulders; a task he seems to easily take on. McAvoy, too, has a difficult task as Victor. His character is a man of medical science who thinks of himself as above the rules of man but requiring man to achieve his ends. As such, McAvoy must oscillate between calm reason and overzealous narcissism in an instant without coming across as a bad man. If he pushes away Igor, he pushes away the audience. Instead, McAvoy must play Victor as a man whose passions tip the scale in favor of madness while keeping a slight toehold in reason. The audience already knows that Victor will create the monster and that Igor is destined to help him, but the performances by Radcliffe and McAvoy bring a humanity to both characters that makes this version of the story unique.

Victor Frankenstein wouldn’t succeed half as well without Landis’ writing leading the way. Recognizing that the story of Victor Frankenstein has a long history, the entire piece is sprinkled with references to the more notable interpretations. This was a wise move by Landis, as it enables him to play with expectations. For example, as the story begins, Radcliffe tells us that we all know the story of the man who created the monster while the white screen slowly focuses on the form of a man. This is a reference to the end of the novel where Victor finds his creation, Adam, in the North Pole. Later, a young woman mistakenly pronounces Victor’s last name, causing him to correct her – a clear reference to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. In another moment, Victor and Igor discuss the design for their creation and decide upon a flat top for the skull. Why? “Because we can.” By referencing the 1931 classic Boris Karloff classic, along with other iterations, Landis is able to wink at the audience, breaking tension with a quip, and then move with his version of the story.

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The story is still, at its core, as Shelley intended – a morality tale that seeks to examine the struggle that takes place between God and man and asks if the presumed natural order should be left alone or challenged. In this, Victor Frankenstein offers nothing new. However, in the execution something new and different is offered. Victor Frankenstein presents the intertwining leads with backstories that make them both at once sympathetic and disconnected. In this film, Igor is shown to be so intelligent and capable as Victor’s right-hand that it wonders whether Victor could have succeeded in bringing life to the dead if he had never met Igor. At the close, no answers are provided to any of the questions presented by the film and it’s likely for the best as ambiguity has a way of creating greater intrigue.

While Victor Frankenstein won’t likely be anyone’s first thought for a family outing this Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t discount this morality tale wrapped in an action-adventure story if for no other reason than Radcliffe and McAvoy are delightful to watch as they bounce off of each other in their quest to reanimate the dead.

In theaters nationwide Wednesday, November 25th.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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