Not Quite Hammer, Not Quite Wry

Victor Frankenstein (2015)
Dir.: Paul McGuigan

TC4P Rating: 5/9

I could start off by listing everything that does not work in Victor Frankenstein, Paul McGuigan's somewhat revisionist take on Mary Shelley's timeless, Promethean, proto-science fiction tale. I could list them all, but it would take up three thousand words and this entire piece would be composed of nothing but "should have beens" and "could have beens". But here's a few:

How does a self-educated and abused hunchback gain enough medical knowledge while basically being trapped in the squalor of a low-rent circus to rival the highly educated and obviously brilliant but maniacal Victor Frankenstein? Why does Daniel Radcliffe's limp disappear and reappear at will, often within the same scene? Why is The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss, who plays Mycroft Holmes on Sherlock (sometimes directed by McGuigan and sometimes written by Gatiss), not given anything to do but stand around and silently push buttons in the movie's hugely over-the-top finale, when his Sherlock co-star Andrew Scott, who plays über-villain James Moriarty, is given (ironically) the much juicier role of Scotland Yard's top detective?

There is hardly a scene that goes by in Victor Frankenstein where you don't wonder why they did this and didn't do that. When a film pushes the bounds of incredulity from time to time, you either have to suspend your disbelief and just try to enjoy the film, or you have to write the exercise off altogether and pretend you never submitted yourself to it in the first place. But when a movie asks the viewer to make that choice in every single scene, and still somehow remains oddly watchable all the way through, then you've got something special. 

Despite vowing to hit every horror and science fiction feature that reached my local cinema from the moment I became trapped in this new home in an eerily new town, I was somewhat resistant towards making a visit to see Victor Frankenstein. The trailer did not give me much hope -- in fact, nearly quashed my intent entirely -- nor did the dishwater dull movie posters (two big heads or two characters standing side by side with no real artistic vision in sight: both types of popular poster were released for this film). When the release date came, I fought off the urge for a week or so, but as time ticked by and I became aware that the film would likely leave our cinema by last Friday -- much quicker than I expected or Twentieth Century Fox wished -- I rushed up to catch the only afternoon showing left. What sort of Frankenstein fan would I be if I didn't see the latest iteration of the classic story mauled to death on the big screen?

The answer, surprisingly to me, is: a sadder one. No, I was not tricked by the film at all. Victor Frankenstein is not a good film by any stretch of an imagination greater than the people who created this film (which would be legion). It is over-produced, under-written, over-acted wildly (except for a couple of roles where a little more hamminess would have helped), and stuffed to the gills with every artifice and horror cliche known to resurrected man. They have disregarded the source material except for the names of a couple of characters and the basic regeneration concept, mixed in characters that only surfaced in later cinematic versions of the story (such as a hunchback named Igor), all while steampunking everything in a style that many millennials probably now believe was the actual look of the Victorian era. 

My friend Aaron expressed concern that the film would be filled with post-Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes-style "modern quippery and explosions," and that was a concern of mine as well. While McGuigan does resort to current Ritchie-like devices such as the superimposed anatomical cutaways of human and animal bodies, surprisingly there is little in the way of the dreaded quippery. While McAvoy's Victor is a non-stop shouter and rambler (often drunken) of whatever nonsense runs through his mind, Radcliffe's Igor is rather more quiet and introspective, and not up to that style of verbal linguistics, and so we don't really get the pair zinging one-liners off each other like they were in a buddy cop picture instead.

Were the hammy acting scale built into a high-rise building, much of the cast (Including Andrew Scott) would be seen about three to four stories above the ground floor, while James McAvoy, clearly relishing the cheese factor built into his role, would have already settled into the penthouse dozens of floors above and sat around wondering when everyone else in the cast was going to join him for an aperitif. This leaves the thankless job of anchoring the film to Daniel Radcliffe, which is an odd choice since his character (actually a co-lead as Igor) is one of the more bizarrely drawn in the film. But Radcliffe underplays most of the time, and rather disappears as a character in the presence of the far more brazen McAvoy. But apart from the lovely but very wooden Jessica Brown Findlay as the heroine, Lorelei, everyone else in the cast seems to have gotten the note that everyone should step into the ham elevator and push the "up" button.

The true sense I got from Victor Frankenstein was that it was as if someone was told several competing versions of the Frankenstein story while they were growing up, and having only heard each tale once when they were a kid, tried to recall the bits of each story years later through their faulty memory, and then reassemble those bits into one cohesive tale. Thus, like Frankenstein's creature itself, Victor Frankenstein absolutely feels like a patchwork creation.

Shelley's novel is pretty much shrugged aside from the very beginning as McGuigan and his team flat out decide to go their own way. From the second Radcliffe's Igor is introduced in clown makeup, we are in new territory (not that Frankenstein tales haven't taken place partially in circuses before; for example, 1985's The Bride). He is not even named Igor; in fact, doesn't even have a name, but he will acquire the monicker Igor from Victor for reasons I will not go into here. The film has Victor in medical school, and it is clear he has not created his first monster yet, and is in fact, working on raising the deceased chimpanzee first. Here too, we have already perverted the original storyline even more, and switching its main setting to London -- the book two most notable settings are Germany and the North Pole, but also takes time in London, Scotland, and Ireland as well -- also means a general change of atmosphere, and spending less time with the superstitious ways of simple villagers and more time with the manners and personalities to be found in a big city.

The film delights in its gruesomeness. In this age of PG-13 horrors, I have come to be shocked again and again by what can and can't be shown at that rating. While Victor Frankenstein is not loaded with gore per se, it does have enough blood included with its violence to remind you that it is indeed a horror picture. Mostly you get body parts being sewn into new bodies (you don't really see a lot of how they do it, but mostly the end products), and a fairly detailed, reanimated chimpanzee monster that provides some fun at the medical college. Some disembodied eyes that return their function is another sick thrill.

But one of the grosser moments in recent cinematic history is in this film, when Victor siphons the massive abscess that it is the cause of the hunchback's pain. He sucks the pus out through a rubber tube using his mouth, spits out a mouthful of the vile excretion, and then the remainder of the lightly yellowish pus spatters out of the tube onto the floor of the laboratory. (The pus that lands in the bucket which was meant to catch most of it is thrown by Victor off his balcony, and we hear the screams of some people below.) It's nasty and created a pretty good, intentional laugh from me when it happened. (Sadly, I was the only one in the audience, so I didn't get to hear the squirming of others at the scene.) Additionally, I was reminded of Michael Palin's Miles Cowperthwaite segments on the original Saturday Night Live (with the sawing off of a sailor's limbs just because his legs got wet and the spilling of copious amounts of drool from a bucket held about an elderly man's neck) and that is always a good thing for me.

The pus siphoning scene (I love the disgusting sound of that phrase) is still fairly early in the picture, when Victor and Igor (not his actual name, as it turns out, but one purloined for him by Victor) are still establishing their relationship. But it was the moment when I first caught on to what was happening within me in regards to my reaction to the film. While recognizing that the film was all of the negative things I have already mentioned earlier, I realized that I was still having a pretty good time with Victor Frankenstein. As I continued to watch, a small part of my mind was dispatched to do some detective work on its own and begin analyzing exactly why this was. 

My theory is tied up with the late night television adventuring of my twelve-year-old self, who had just discovered there were such thing as Hammer horror films if you stayed up later than your parents suspected. You can read the how and why elsewhere on my blog, so I won't elaborate here, but at that age, my first experience with really bloody films were from the Frankenstein and Dracula titles starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. My favorite of the lot was a Cushing starrer called Frankenstein Created Woman (actually the first Hammer film I ever saw). Frankenstein Created Woman crammed crazy plot element on top of crazy plot element in a way that my twelve-year-old self truly couldn't handle or really appreciate until I was much older (it has a pretty kinky twist to it that went over my head back then), but I loved it immensely even when it didn't make a lick of sense.

While watching Victor Frankenstein, I realized that for the first time in a very long time, I had regained that same feeling that I used to get from watching those Hammer films early in my youth. Hammer rarely held true to the original material themselves except for in a minor way in their introductory films to their Dracula and Frankenstein series, and later films in each series were all marked by some of the most wild divergences possible from what Stoker or Shelley had intended. And as I stated earlier, here too is where I seemed to be catching the vibe (yes, I watch The Flash religiously) that Victor Frankenstein was bringing up some of that residual Hammer Studios feeling in my system, long dormant from misappropriation and unfulfilled horror cinema promise.

As Victor Frankenstein grew increasingly manic but remained purposeful in its relentless path to the ultimate fates of its characters, the more I got caught up in it, with a wide grin plastered on my face in the darkness of the theatre. Luckily, since I despise smiling, no one was there to see me. (There wasn't even a sporadic visit from an usher to check on things, and they usually come through an average of three times a screening.) I wouldn't feel compelled to offer up a meek explanation of why I was enjoying myself at a movie that no one seemed to want to attend. Not that anyone would have questioned me; they would have probably just assumed that I had horrible movie taste, and they would be partially right.

And unless you too were raised on Hammer horror films, and knew the outrageous (and sometimes unsuccessful) lengths they would go to in their monster epics, you might not get why I was so overjoyed as the canvas of Victor Frankenstein got bigger and crazier and built itself toward a ridiculously grandiose finale, in a remote castle in Scotland, in a wild thunderstorm, and with practically every major character in the film in motion somewhere in that finale.

I have said little about the monster in this film, but I will say that when he is finally brought to his feet by Frankenstein's machinery (this gives away nothing, because of course he will; this is a Frankenstein movie after all), he is a remarkable creation. I was a little saddened that he wasn't brought to this world in a much better Frankenstein movie, but then I remembered that I had been smiling like a madman throughout the buildup to his creation. I had to check to see if perhaps the film was a co-production with the revived Hammer Studios, and I was more than a little saddened to find out that it is not. Regardless of that, I still felt like I did when I was a kid watching Peter Cushing build creature after creature in those Frankenstein films of yore. Bad new film or not, for me that is truly mad science at its best.

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