Victor Frankenstein recently released on RedBox and Netflix. I decided to rent it on a whim, but mostly because I had a free rental coupon. I’d seen the trailers back in November and couldn’t decide if I wanted to see the film or not. The American trailer framed Victor Frankenstein as more of a buddy comedy situation, while the UK trailer hit on the darker material, i.e. the whole stitching together corpses and reanimating the dead deal.
I’m all about honesty, guys, and you know how I feel about Victor. I was apprehensive. I was sure it was going to be terrible. I was certain it would leave me feeling angry. However, a good friend promised it was entertaining, so I bit the bullet and determined to watch it.
It wasn’t bad. First off, the film is visually stunning. From the bright circus tents where we find Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) to the decadent lab occupied by Victor (James McAvoy), the designers did a remarkable job of capturing a version of Victorian London. The costuming is a bit off in terms of Victorian design and fabric, though there was no indications of exactly which year the film is set in.
Overall, it was beautifully made. I enjoyed the few scenes where anatomical figures were juxtaposed with the actors, creating a breathtaking visual dynamic I haven’t seen since the Sherlock Holmes films. There’s also some great dialogue and fantastic one-liners and jabs. Victorian sass is my favorite sass.
Shockingly, I found myself pleasantly surprised by McAvoy’s Victor. He’s charismatic, charming, on my preferred level of moral ambiguity, and at times completely manic. He’s living embodiment of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Likewise, Radcliffe’s Igor was equally interesting, although I wish they’d done more with him.
The “twist” in this retelling is that it’s told from Igor’s point of view. Igor didn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s original novel, and the first “assistant” to Frankenstein was a hunchback named Fritz in the 1931 film version. Later sequels did feature an assistant named Ygor, but overall, Igor has basically served as a stock Gothic villain substitute. Creating an original story for him was an interesting premise. This Igor (who is nameless until he takes on the identity of Victor’s flatmate) was a circus clown with a knack for medicine.
(Point of contingency: I’m not sold on the concept of someone touted as a clown—constantly ridiculed, mocked, and beaten—also serving as the circus’s physician. Sorry, but no. If I’m painting your face and loading you into a cannon, chances are I’m not going to let you set my broken shoulder. I’m also uncertain how he managed to learn to read and write. Whatever. Belief suspended.)
The one addition I did find clever was using an untreated abscess (yes, gross, I’m sorry) as the explanation for his hunched back. Igor is, in fact, not a hunchback at all, though his spine is severely weakened by eighteen years spent bent over. As a result, he has to wear a back brace.
I’m not sold on the concept of someone touted as a clown—constantly ridiculed, mocked, and beaten—also serving as the circus’s physician.This is where my praise largely ends. The plot is a mish-mash of murder, stolen animal parts, homunculi, and the desire to atone for sins of the past. The Victor/Igor duo work well together, and then they toss in a hitherto unrequited romance that disrupts a film that I really wanted to be about science bros.
While I’m thrilled they chose a legitimate medical reason for Igor’s condition, I feel apprehensive at the same time. Ableism is the notion that disabled people are inferior due to—in this case—physical disability. Igor is extremely intelligent, but it doesn’t matter because he’s a circus freak. Victor, the handsome, able-bodied physician, notes his potential and resolves to help him escape. The “magic cure” for Igor’s disability (Victor draining the abscess) not only provides an alibi (the police are looking for a hunchback, now you aren’t one), but lends itself to the problematic tropes of the able-bodied “saving” the disabled and the ever-popular “now you’re cured, so the hot chick notices you.” Enter the no longer unrequited romance and the demand to choose between science and love.
The “magic cure” for Igor’s disability… lends itself to the problematic tropes of the able-bodied “saving” the disabled and the ever-popular “now you’re cured, so the hot chick notices you.”Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) was an aerialist in circus Igor lived in. After a fall nearly kills her and Igor saves her life, she’s taken to a hospital, and somehow acquires a benefactor who pays her to be his escort in public while he enjoys the company of gentleman in his “off hours.” Random chance has Igor and Lorelei meeting up again at a ball, she recognizes him, and it’s a sad, sad case of insta-love.
Victor is immediately jealous that this girl is occupying their science time and demands Igor stop seeing her. Igor, of course, does not, and two scenes later, he and Lorelei are consummating their relationship. At no point does anyone mention the whole “former hunchback” deal. It’s just vanishes. Sure, starting a first date with “So, remember what I thought was a hideous spinal deformity?” probably isn’t a slick move, but I have a hard time believing she wouldn’t be the least bit curious.
He’s best bros with a doctor now, so it’s all unfortunately convenient, and it falls into that gray area of being problematic without any real resolution.
Igor serves as Frankenstein’s voice of reason, which is opposite his role in nearly every previous portrayal. In fact, Igor might be even smarter than Victor, better at science, but unwilling to play God in effort to create human life. Nonetheless, Victor feels he must create a life to replace one he took, which I found a profound sentiment for a character who’s often seen as more villainous and unconcerned than compassionate and sympathetic. The film ultimately culminates in that once-iconic scene, where Victor raises his creation (here named Prometheus) and uses the electrical force of lightning to reanimate it. Disaster ensues. Together, Victor and Igor must stop the monster.
Unfortunately, the ending was horribly bland. After all the buildup and intensity, it just . . . stopped. I think they wanted the audience to feel ambiguous about it without adding suspense, but it missed the mark. I’m not persuaded it actually tried to hit the mark, or anything in the vicinity of the mark. Bad endings definitely let me down more than if the entire film had been bad.
Overall, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t regret the $1.50 I would have spent on it, or the two hours I could have spent doing other things. I was indeed mindlessly entertained, and the soundtrack was great. Would I watch it again? Probably not by choice. If I was looking for background noise and it happened to be on television, I wouldn’t click away, but I wouldn’t devote my attention to watching it.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Meghan Harker is a Horror writer for Girls in Capes. She’s currently working on her own Gothic novel and hosts the Courting Casualties podcast. When not writing, she’s either drawing, reading, hunting antiques, or lamenting that she wasn’t born in the 1800s. If you follow her on Twitter (@ExquisitelyOdd), you might get the chance to play Guess Who’s Dead!, her favorite post-mortem photography game (no one else likes to play.)