Thursday, December 3, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Victor Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein was written by Max Landis and directed by Paul McGuigan.

Landis is the son of director John Landis, and previously wrote Chronicle and American Ultra. McGuigan directed Wicker Park, Lucky Number Slevin and Push. Those combined credits should tell you everything you need to know about this film.

This is one of those "reimagined" films that are all the rage right now. You know, the kind that starts out, "You know this story, but you don't know the whole story," and then tells us a familiar tale from a minor character's point of view. In this particular instance, that's Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, Igor. If you've ever watched a Frankenstein movie and thought to yourself, "Say, I like the cut of that Igor's jib. I wish I knew more about him and what makes him tick," then this is the film for you. If you're like me and have never wondered anything remotely like that, then you're in for a rough time.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of reimagining a tale, especially one that's hundreds of years old. But so far no one who's tried has brought anything new to the table or done anything innovative with their reimagining. Telling the same story from a different perspective is still telling the same story.

If you're a fan of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, then you'll love Victor Frankenstein. It looks EXACTLY like the two Holmes films. The same detailed period costumes and sets, the same CGI recreation of the Victorian London cityscape, and even the same infusion of Steampunk design. There were times when I'd swear they simply cut out scenes from the Holmes films and spliced them in here.

And just like those films, this one also takes two male characters from classical literature and recasts them as bros and men of action, regardless of whether it's appropriate to the period or the story.

As I watched the film, I kept wondering just who it was for. Horror fans will likely be disappointed, as the movie isn't about a man creating a monster, but instead all about the relationship between Victor and Igor (the Monster only appears for a few brief minutes at the end). Meanwhile, female fans who think Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy are dreamy will likely be turned off by the violence and gore. It's a film without an audience.

The box office would seem to confirm this, as the film has managed to gross just a measly $4 million in its first two weeks. Yikes! 

SPOILERS FOR A 200 YEAR OLD STORY!

The Plot:
In Victorian London, a nameless Hunchback (played by Daniel Radcliffe) works as a clown in a traveling circus. Unknown to the rest of the performers, he's actually quite intelligent, studies anatomy and creates beautifully detailed medical drawings in his spare time (as one does). During a performance, a trapeze artist named Lorelei slips and falls from a great height. The Hunchback rushes to her side and saves her life. Victor Frankenstein (played by James McAvoy), a local medical student and mad scientist, is impressed with the Hunchback's knowledge and skills.

The circus owner is incensed with the Hunchback for some reason, and locks him in a cage and burns all his papers. Victor frees the Hunchback and they make an unnecessarily harrowing escape from the circus. Unfortunately one of the performers is accidentally killed during the ruckus.

Back at Victor's home/laboratory, he names the Hunchback Igor, after his former roommate. He tells Igor he's not really a hunchback after all, but suffers from a large cyst on his back (wha...?). Victor drains the cyst in the most disgusting way possible, violently realigns his spine, and puts him in a back brace. Igor can now stand normally for the first time in his life. He cuts his hair and cleans himself up and is instantly transformed into a dreamboat.

Meanwhile,  Inspector Turpin investigates the circus murder. He finds some of Igor's drawings and Victor's bag, which oddly enough contains a severed lion's paw. Turpin knows both men are innocent of the murder, but he believes Victor is the man who's been stealing animal parts all over London. He fears Victor's doing something blasphemous (because Turpin is very devout, you see). He accuses both Victor and Igor of murder, making them wanted men.

Victor tells Igor not to worry about the murder charges, because the police are searching for a hunchback (but... don't they know what Victor looks like, and where he lives?). He tells him he's working on a way to reverse death with the power of electricity. The two then begin reanimating various bodily organs, such as lungs and hearts. Victor celebrates his success by taking Igor to a society ball. There Igor sees the now recovered Lorelei. She doesn't recognize him at first (because of the whole "not a hunchback anymore" thing), but once she does she's happy to see him. Victor seems jealous and warns Igor that Lorelei is a distraction.

Victor takes Igor down into his lab and shows him his latest creation-- Gordon, a chimp hybrid stitched together from various animal parts. With Igor's help, Victor briefly reanimates Gordon. The next day Victor presents his new experiment to his college. Among the few people attending the lecture are Lorelei and Finnegan, who's apparently a wealthy patron of reanimation experiments. Victor reanimates Gordon, who goes berserk and escapes the lecture hall. Victor is forced to destroy the creature.

Finnegan visits Victor and funds an experiment to reanimate a human, because he wants to control an undead army or something. Igor wants nothing to do with the idea, but Victor is inspired and accepts. Turpin, who heard about the Gordon fiasco, finally pounds on Victor's door and wants to search his lab. Victor refuses him entry, telling him to come back with a warrant. Turpin accuses Victor of blasphemy, and says he's messing with forces man wasn't meant to yadda yadda. Later Victor tells Igor that when he was a child, he caused an accident that killed his older brother Henry. Creating life is his way of balancing the cosmic scales.

When Victor's father disowns him, Igor feels bad for him and agrees to help him again. He says in order for Victor's reanimated human to survive the electrical charge that will bring it to life, it needs to be bigger and have two sets of lungs and two hearts. I don't think that's how anatomy works, but at this point let's just all go along with it so we can get through this thing.

Turpin returns with a warrant and a police squad and burst into Victor's lab. He and Victor grapple, and Turpin is shoved into some Steampunk machinery, where his hand is crushed between two enormous gears. Victor and Igor flee in Finnegan's coach. Igor decides to abandon Victor again. Finnegan's men tie him up and toss him into the river. He manages to escape and seeks refuge with Lorelei, who nurses him back to health. Victor travels to Finnegan's family castle in Scotland, where he can finish his project in peace.

Igor and Lorelei go to Scotland to stop Victor, but are too late. Victor, with help from Finnegan and his crew, use a lighting storm to reanimate his "Prometheus" creature. The experiment is a success, and Prometheus lives. Victor and Finnegan celebrate, but lighting strikes the castle and the machinery explodes, killing Finnegan. Turpin reappears, now outfitted with an eye patch and a wooden hand, determined to stop Victor's Satanic experiment.

Just then both men see Prometheus has escaped his bonds and is stomping around the castle. Victor rushes to Prometheus, but when the creature doesn't react to him, he realizes he's made a huge mistake. Instead of creating life, he's created an undead abomination. Turpin shoots Prometheus, but his bullets are useless against it, and it kills him. It then attacks Victor. Igor jumps in and stabs the monster through the heart. It slumps over, but comes back to life again (because two hearts). Igor stabs it a second time, and kills it for good. He then collapses.

The next day Igor wakens with Lorelei standing over him. She gives him a letter from Victor, who apologizes for everything, and says that he, Igor, is his finest creation. Cut to the countryside, where Victor sets off on a new adventure.

Thoughts:
• It seemed weird to not see the Universal logo in front of a Frankenstein movie (it's from Fox).

• Twice during the film, Victor is asked his name. Rather than replay verbally, the title VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN appears onscreen, accompanied by a musical sting, as James McAvoy stares straight at the audience and gives us a little wink. It's very weird.

• This is some heavy duty nitpicking, but here goes. Why is this film called Victor Frankenstein, when the focus is on Igor? It's basically Igor's origin story.

• Oddly enough, there is no Igor character in the Mary Shelley novel. He doesn't even appear in the classic 1931 Frankenstein movie! Dr. Frankenstein does have a hunchbacked assistant in that film, but his name is Fritz. 

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942) both feathered a character named "Ygor," played by Bela Lugosi. Ygor was not a hunchback though, nor was he a lab assistant. He was a blacksmith with a twisted, broken neck. He revived the Frankenstein monster and used him to seek revenge on the townspeople who wrongly tried to hang him.

I'm not really sure where the whole "Igor as assistant" thing came from.

• When I first heard Daniel Radcliffe was starring as Igor, I thought the film could be interesting. I assumed Radcliffe was trying to stretch his acting wings a bit and try a challenging, non "pretty boy" role as he threw off the last remnants of his teen idol status. Haw! I should have known better. 

When a major studio casts a dreamy young hunk like Daniel Radcliffe, there's no way in hell they'd ever let him ugly up, hunch over and limp for the entire film. That would be crazy! That's not what the tween crowd came to see! So the film wastes no time in "curing" Igor of his supposed "hunchbackism." 

It's quite a startling transformation too. In the space of a few minutes he goes from a repulsive wretch to an Abercrombie model, complete with long, tousled locks and shirts with plunging necklines to show off his chest hair. 

His metamorphosis reminded me for all the world of those sitcoms in which a so-called ugly girl removes her glasses and loosens her hair bun, allowing her hair to cascade over her shoulders as everyone gasps and says, "You're beautiful!" Feh!

• In the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, Holmes would occasionally activate his "Deduction Vision," as he seemingly stopped time and narrated his observations. We then saw his calculations and equations overlaid on the screen to help us see what he was planning.

That same trick is used here in Victor Frankenstein. Both Victor AND Igor apparently possess "Anatomy Vision," as they can stare intently at any living thing and see detailed diagrams of its bones and muscular structure projected onto it. Original!

• When Lorelei meets Victor, she mispronounces last name as "Fronk-en-schteen." I'm betting that's a reference to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.

• I've seen actors chew the scenery before, but James McAlvoy goes above and beyond. With his bug-eye manic delivery, he not only devours the scenery, but digests it and then excretes it as well.

• Victor tells Igor that he had an older brother named Henry, who died when they were children. In Frankenstein (1931), actor Colin Clive played Henry Frankenstein, the scientist who created the Monster.

• There are tons of homages and shout-outs to previous Frankenstein movies in this film.

Inspector Turpin, who loses an eye and part of his hand in the film, is obviously an homage to Inspector Krogh, played by Lionel Atwill in 1939's Son Of Frankenstein. In the film, Krogh tells the story of how the Monster ripped his arm out of the socket when he was a boy. His missing limb is replaced by a wooden arm.

Krogh was famously lampooned by actor Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein.

I'm convinced that the Finnegan character was an homage to Dr. Septimus Pretorius in Bride Of Frankenstein. Both characters seemed to exist just to urge Dr. Frankenstein to complete his work.

When Victor and Igor get sloppy drunk while designing Prometheus. As Igor suggest giving the creature two hearts, Victor pipes up and shouts, "We'll give him a flat head!" When Igor asks why anyone would do such a thing, Victor says, "Because I like flat heads!" Of course Boris Karloff's famous Frankenstein monster featured a famously flat noggin.

And of course, when Victor first reanimates Gordon, he whispers, "It's alive!" I think it's the law that someone has to say those words in any Frankenstein film.

• Victor sets a record for "Most Rapid Change Of Heart" in this film. After being obsessed with creating life for years, if not decades, he finally realizes his dream. Then he stares into the vacant eyes of Prometheus, realizes there's no one home and immediately moans, "This is not life!" He immediately tries to kill his monstrous creation. You can practically hear the tires screech as his attitude does a 180 degree turn.

• As I said earlier, anyone coming to this film to see the Frankenstein monster is in for a load of disappointment. The monster doesn't appear until the very end, and even then he's only in it for five minutes, tops. In fact for a terrifying few seconds, I thought the film was going to end without Victor actually reanimating the Monster at all!

Unfortunately this is the best photo I could find of him. The design of the Monster is actually pretty cool, and the highlight of the film. It's too bad we don't get to see more of it.

Victor Frankenstein is most definitely not a horror movie, instead telling the unnecessary origin story of Dr. Frankenstein and a very prettified Igor. The production design apes the two Guy RItchie Sherlock Holmes films so closely, it's almost a sequel to them. Your enjoyment of it will depend on how much you like needless "reimaginings" of age-old stories. Do yourself a favor and watch the 1931 Frankenstein instead. I give it a C+.

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