Cinematic Releases: Victor Frankenstein

Andrew scopes the latest re-imagining of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

"Is that a donkey?"
Firstly, I'll just put it out there that Mary Shelley's 1818 horror novel classic Frankenstein remains my favorite book of all time.  Timeless, prescient and morally as well as emotionally complex, Frankenstein was borne out of the Victorian author's fateful nightmare about a dead body being resuscitated back to life in an experimental laboratory.  An enduring fable about playing God, the gift and punishment of life as well as death and much like Korean director Bong Joon-ho's monster movie The Host, it's the tragic horror tale of a hideous man made beast who did not ask to be born as it terrorizes the human populous within it's claws and fanged reach.  The story of an ingenious doctor playing the creator with fire, teetering on the edge of madness as he willfully pursues scientific discovery at the expense of the men and women around him, it's a tale best remembered for Boris Karloff's nuts and bolts immortalizing in 1931.  Let it be said very few adaptations, save for The Bride of Frankenstein or the 1994 Kenneth Branagh adaptation starring Robert De Niro as the creature, actually tell Mary Shelley's story faithfully. 

Right from the get-go, the Frankenstein character and his nameless monster have gone through and continue to undergo countless deviations from the source, including but not limited to Young Frankenstein, Frankenstein Unbound and Flesh for Frankenstein 3D.  Naturally when trailers broke the news that 20th Century Fox was mounting yet another licentious remake of Frankenstein, this time as a swashbuckling crowd pleasing comic thriller with James McAvoy as the titular Victor Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe as his assistant Igor, I was skeptical.  The timing and poor box office reception smelled of that familiar end-of-the-year dumping ground ordinarily reserved for the likes of Seventh Son or Jupiter Ascending.  It just didn't look very good from the trailer and like most Frankenstein films as of recent including the dreadful I, Frankenstein 3D, was ignored and almost immediately forgotten despite being brand new.  Then I learned who wrote it and everything changed.

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Max Landis, the son of legendary film director John Landis and writer behind such modern science fiction thriller comedy hits as Chronicle and American Ultra, might be the freshest pair of eyes that could have ever taken a good hard look at Mary Shelley's story and saw something unique and new that could be done with it.  As with the aforementioned features, Victor Frankenstein doesn't disappoint as a Landis effort, a big budget mixture of grotesque practical effects reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly, ornate production design and a powerhouse of acting by James McAvoy as the titular antihero.  Most are familiar with McAvoy from The Last King of Scotland and X-Men: First Class as Charles Xavier and while he's always been solid, I expected him to play Frankenstein as a bug eyed madman.  What I did not expect is for how much passion and fire McAvoy imbued the character with, playing the role with gusto, confidence and command to such a degree that watching him as the infamous doctor toying with the infinite is really exciting to behold!  What could have merely been on par with Colin Firth's secret agent in Kingsmen: The Secret Service winds up being one of the most surprising Oscar worthy performances for what is technically a horror comedy of 2015!  He's really that alive in the role and brings the mercurial doctor a charisma not seen in prior adaptations content to leave him unhinged and purely thus.  As both Igor (a splendid Radcliffe by the way) and we sense Victor Frankenstein is on a bad path, it's hard for us to shake the magnetism of McAvoy's take on the character however polarizing his intentions may be.  

Also splendid with urbane cool slowly leaning towards obsessive insanity is private eye Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott from Spectre), who like Walter Peck from Ghostbusters represents the film's enemy who might also in fact be the voice of reason. We're by design meant to dislike Turpin but not everything he says or suggests is without merit and when the chief of police calls his theories about Frankenstein's work crackpot, we realize Turpin's absolutely right. 

"Yum! Meat for Frankenstein!"
As a Frankenstein movie, it lets you know immediately it's not going to be 100% true to the source and you would think seeing my favorite book of all time bastardized yet again would render Victor Frankenstein intolerable as a film. And yet what Max Landis has done is demonstrated fan fiction is capable of keenly understanding the nature of Shelley's novel and while some of the rougher edges in her work have been rounded off, Victor Frankenstein manages to bare it's teeth in more ways that one. Take for instance an early scene where Frankenstein and Igor "assemble" a chimpanzee/dog of sorts replete with wires, bolts and metal running through it's body.  While technically a deleted scene, I immediately thought of the excised baboon/cat sequence cut from Cronenberg's The Fly, a truly appalling episode in which Brundlefly fuses together the aforementioned animals and beats it to death out of disgust.  

While this episode bears little resemblance to any of the chronological events set forth in Shelley's novel, it captures the essence of what she was trying to say with Frankenstein effortlessly.  In this one sequence, viewers are given a mutual understanding of the abject horror of Frankenstein's creation and just how far the doctor's disconnect from reality and morality reaches.  It's also among the film's genuinely really scary moments with it's raspy wet breathing reminiscent of the xenomorph terrorizing the crew in Ridley Scott's Alien.  Sadly, Victor Frankenstein for all its wonderful surprises is likely going to withdraw from theaters if ticket sales continue to drop, which is a real shame because this was one of the year's biggest surprises, an inspired and taut little gem of a movie that managed to breathe new life into one of the most celebrated horror stories of all time.


-Andrew Kotwicki