Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Movie Review: Victor Frankenstein, the man with a familiar name

(Listen to Episode 13: El Capitan Frankenstein for a segment with Ed and Cheryl reviewing Victor Frankenstein immediately after leaving the theater.)

"You know this story."

No, Igor. No, we don't. No matter how many times you repeat this line in the new movie Victor Frankenstein, it will not make it true!

Okay. So, we do know some stories about a man named Victor Frankenstein. But the character in this movie just happens to have the same name and the same odd obsession with building creatures out of body parts. Beyond that the screenplay by 30-year-old Max Landis (of American Ultra infamy), gleans nothing else from the original source material: the classic science fiction horror novel written by a young English girl almost 200 years ago. Max includes the character of an assistant who was introduced in the Frankenstein film series of the 1930s and 1940s. Although in that series (starring the legendary Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), he is not named Igor. That name emerged in an entirely different horror film franchise: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was remade as House of Wax (1953) -- not to be confused with the terrible 2005 horror film of the same name. The character of Igor appears in many other franchises, including Dracula, and in the 1962 song "Monster Mash," which you can hear on radio stations every Halloween. He doesn't show up as Igor in a Frankenstein production until as late as 1971 when he appears on a Canadian sketch show. You see him again in the 1974 Mel Brooks' parody Young Frankenstein pronouncing his name as "eye-gore". Count Duckula has an Igor; so do The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Van Helsing (2004). He even has the title role in his own animated film, Igor (2008), where he is voiced by John Cusack.

Clearly, Dr. Frankenstein doesn't need Igor AND, perhaps even more clearly, Igor does not need Dr. Frankenstein. However, Victor Frankenstein definitely needs Igor. As the narrator, he strings the whole allegedly well-known story together. Of course, he also has a completely superfluous romance with Lorelei, a circus-performer-turned-high-society-gay-man's-beard. It is through Lorelei's accidental fall that Igor meets Victor. After that, Lorelei's character serves no purpose in the plot. As far as I can tell, she is in the film so that the costume designer Jany Temime (who also designed for the Harry Potter films) could make some gorgeous, brightly colored dresses.

Of course, I excuse Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan (remember Push or are you trying to forget?) for their apparently complete lack of knowledge about Frankenstein. Even the Internet Movie Database, is woefully ignorant: in its trivia section of its Victor Frankenstein entry, it notes that three of the actors in the film also star together in the television series Sherlock, which it says is "similarly based on classic Victorian literature." This could help explain why Landis sets his film in a clearly Victorian time period. Unfortunately, the original Frankenstein was written and published during the Regency period. Victoria did not become queen until two decades later. In fact, she had not even been born yet! By also setting the film in London, rather than the original Switzerland, Germany, and the Arctic, Landis avoids the dramatic landscapes that so intensely inform the drama of the novel. Then, he adds a dogged police detective determined to solve a crime and piecing together evidence while his assistant stands by in awe. All of this makes it feel like novelist Mary Shelley time travelled to have an illicit affair with Sherlock Holmes novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then gave birth to this bastard of a movie.

But, as veteran English actress Dame Joan Plowright says in one of her films, "There are no bastard children, only bastard parents!" Indeed, for all its tortured storytelling, faulty green-screen work, and over-the-top everything else, Victor Frankenstein is a beautiful bastard. This is due entirely to the incredibly engaging performances of James McAvoy in the title role, Daniel Radcliffe as the baffled but brilliant Igor, and an outstanding supporting cast. (Be sure to look for Game of Thrones' Charles Dance reprising his bad-father-of-the-year character -- careful not to get typecast, Charles.) Add in well-designed sets, excellent sound editing, some great cinematography, and fantastic costumes, and you can almost (almost, I said) forget the evil monkey creature and the special guest appearance by the Incredible Hulk (apologies to Mark Ruffalo) at the end of the film.

Despite my great love for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the book, not the 1994 Kenneth Branagh film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which you can hear me rant about on Geek Home World Episode 7: Franken-Geek), I must admit that I did enjoy this movie. I almost pulled a muscle rolling my eyes at times, but I was definitely convinced by the Wonder Twin powers of McAvoy and Radcliffe. These two must appear again on screen as soon as possible, but in a movie that is more suitable to their considerable talents.

-- First Officer Cheryl, Stardate 2015.336

P.S. I just developed a brilliant theory that could explain all of this film's departures from the original source material: this Victor Frankenstein is the English grandson of Mary Shelley's Swiss Victor Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein the Younger's father is so angry because he knows that his own father's "unholy pursuits" led to his demise in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic. I'm not quite sure when Victor Frankenstein the Elder procreated since his wife died on their wedding night, but he did go to college and he could have met a tempting sorority girl or waitress at the local bar. Whew! I love resolving a paradox. I feel much better now...

The Original:

Films Based on the Frankenstein

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