Fidelity to Mary Shelley’s famous story is certainly not an important element in this sort-of prequel to it from writer Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan. But while “Victor Frankenstein” certainly won’t become the classic that the Boris Karloff version is, it’s a good deal better than misguided attempts to revivify the old Universal monster movies like “Van Helsing,” “The Wolfman” or “Dracula Untold.” (You can add the “Mummy” franchise to that list too, though it was more financially successful.) It might be described as an attempt to do with “Frankenstein” what Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey, Jr., did for Sherlock Holmes—though on a much more modest budget. And if you’re in the right frame of mind, it can afford some silly amusement—at least until the last reel when, like so many pictures nowadays, it goes off the rails trying for a slam-bang ending.
Landis’ script is situated at the very beginning of the efforts by young Frankenstein, played with the same sort of over-the-top relish that Downey brought to Holmes by James McAvoy, to reanimate dead tissue with electricity—experimentation that he’s undertaking as an arrogant student in London. During his perambulations about the city he comes upon a circus where a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) is brutally treated as the company clown. But the poor creature, who also narrates the story, has spent his free time studying medicine, and when lovely trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), whom he admires from afar, is seriously injured in a fall, he uses his anatomical knowledge to save her. Frankenstein, quickly assessing that such a person would be of great assistance to his work, frees the hunchback from captivity, though in the ensuing melee a carnival worker is killed. That brings in Scotland Yard Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), who realizes that the hunchback is not the murderer but surmises, in distinctly Holmesian fashion, that the man who saved him is up to some unnatural business with animal body parts and aims to track down the author of such an unholy practice by putting out what amounts to an APB on the escaped man.
After curing the hunchback of his deformity by an especially absurd method, Frankenstein endows him with the name of his absent roommate, Igor, dresses him up for well-mannered society and makes him an eager assistant in his work. Before long Igor has started a romance with the recovered Lorelei, and he and Victor have together managed to reanimate a gruesome-looking chimp. The exhibition of their feat at the College of Medicine, however, goes awry, resulting in them having to chase down and kill the beast. Nonetheless their partial success attracts the interest of Frankenstein’s wealthy classmate Finnegan (Freddie Fox), who’s previously sneered at Victor but now offers to bankroll his continued experiments at his remote Scottish castle, where he’ll be secure from pursuit by the determined Turpin; the cop has become so obsessed with capturing Frankenstein that he’s gotten himself thrown off the force.
By this time, however, Igor has developed misgivings about what they’re up to, and is, moreover, more interested in Lorelei than Victor. Still, his concern over the dastardly Finnegan’s ultimate intentions takes him to the castle, where Frankenstein is about to channel the power of lightning into an enormous cadaver he’s cobbled together from spare parts (the thing, to tell the truth, looks more like the Colossus of New York or the vegetable creature from the original “Thing” than Karloff’s monster). It’s there that everyone—including Turpin—congregates for an explosive climax that suggests that Victor’s blueprint requires some serious modifications, which he’s already contemplating in a postscript.
The central element of the movie is the relationship between Victor and Igor, which is actually played out rather nicely. Once again in the fashion of Downey and Jude Law, his Watson, it’s a mutually supportive camaraderie that dominates, and Radcliffe uses quiet and reticence to good effect against McAvoy’s flamboyance. The ex-Harry Potter is especially impressive in the opening sequences as a hunchback, where his crooked gait and pleading eyes earn some genuine pathos. Quite frankly, the subplots are thinly-drawn and unfinished—Igor’s romance with Lorelei is perfunctory, and Turpin’s religion-driven mania seems just a desperate scripter’s attempt to generate tension—and both Findlay and Scott suffer as a result. But there’s some compensation in Fox’s preening hauteur, and in the snide condescension provided by Charles Dance as Victor’s dismissive father.
One also has to remark on the look of the film, which is quite impressive for a modestly-budgeted effort. Eve Stewart’s production design and the art direction by Grant Armstrong, Oliver Carroll and Tom Weaving give everything a lush look, and Michael Standish’s set decoration—particularly in terms of the carnival opening, Frankenstein’s laboratory and the castle courtyard at the close—is pretty spectacular, as are Jany Temime’s costumes, especially in the high-society ball sequences. Fabian Wagner’s widescreen cinematography presents it all in images that are sometimes eye-popping. The CGI in the concluding fracas, unfortunately, doesn’t measure up—the monster is a particular disappointment—but the overall effect is reminiscent of the Hammer monster movies of the fifties and sixties, whose look belied their straitened financial means.
“Victor Frankenstein” isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a good movie. But in the tradition of that screwball genre mash-up “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” it offers a goofy but sporadically amusing take on the familiar tale, even though McGuigan’s direction has little of the panache of Timur Bekmambetov’s. And the fact that it tosses in a few allusions not only to Karloff’s film but to Mel Brooks’s comic refashioning of Shelley is good for a few smiles, too.