The film makes clear its own debt to monster movie history, but it remains caught in a universe where its most obvious love story can't speak its name.
"You know the story," submits Daniel Radcliffe's voiceover. "A lightning flash, a mad genius, an unholy creature." As he speaks, you see the storm and the creature, suspended far overhead, swinging in wind and rain. Yes, it does look familiar. And then…
Cut to the alternative universe version of this most famous monster story. Here, Radcliffe tells you, the mad genius' "greatest creation" is not the fearsome thing patched together from body parts and zapped into brief and raucous life by electricity. No. Here, in Victor Frankenstein, that designation goes to the narrator himself, the mad genius' utterly loyal assistant, Igor.
While you may recall that Mary Shelley's doctor had no such assistant and that he's fairly constant in movie and television, in this particular universe, he is at the center. Igor first appears as a huge smudgy impression, galumphing in slow motion across the screen at a circus. While the blurring suggests his own confused self-image, he explains his situation with what seems accuracy: by day he's a clown and a hunchback, abused by the circus owner and laughed at by crowds, and by night, alone, he's a mad genius of his own devising, reading medical books.
This practice seemingly explains his ability to see the bodies around him with anatomical schematics laid over top of them, elegant Leonardo-style sketches of nerves, muscles, and bones. Apart from insinuating Igor's special insights, these drawings also make him a perfect match for the other individual who sees the world in this way, one Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), who attends the circus one evening in search of animal body parts (that backstory hardly needs to be filled in). The two meet cute when the beautiful trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) falls one evening: both men bend over her body in the dingy circus ring: as they determine exactly what must be done to save her life, their gazes meet over her unconscious and still lovely form, their visions and souls united forever.
You know this story, too.
The movie makes clear that Igor and Victor share a special love. It allows you to think they're straight by granting one of them a girlfriend (in this case, Lorelei remains Igor's much discussed primary object of affection). Still, Victor Frankenstein is devoted to chronicling the men's overtly erotic mutual devotion to each other, even their mutual obsession with one another. This begins with a seduction, of course, as Victor insists that Igor leave behind his horrible life at the circus and come home with him.
Their escape from the circus is hectic and action-packed, punctuated by freak showy displays of knives thrown, flames spewed, and a thrilling explosion or two, resulting in a corpse left behind so as to invite the scrutiny of London's Scotland Yard, in particular the painfully pious Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott).
Turpin's view of the couple's activities as ungodly finds some campy support in their scenes back at Victor's laboratory, installed in his phenomenal urban home, where the windows are boarded up and the top floor features two gigantic wooden figures with moving arms advertising cheese. Inside, Victor not only reveals to Igor that he's been living a lie, in the sense that his hunchback is only an abscess, but also, that he can drain it for him, in a scene that ranges from campy to horrific: Victor slams Igor against a column and presses is own body against him, plunges a huge needle into the growth on his back, then sucks out the fluid into his own mouth before he spits it out, gagging and delighting in the moment simultaneously, spectacularly.
It's a moment that shocks Igor as much as it might shock you. Certainly, his idea of himself, as a body, a creature, and a man, is transformed. Imagining himself now indebted to his new master forever, Igor does everything he's told, wearing a brutal-looking back brace, showering, shaving, and combing his hair, venturing into the city and seeking out his fallen angle Lorelei, in hospital until she recovers. (Following her recovery, she's released to a benefactor, a plot point that bothers Igor until he learns this benefactor "prefers the company of men," an observation that is at once deflects and redirects his own love story.)
Inevitably, Igor also agrees to assist Victor with his experiments in jolting dead flesh back to life in the form of grisly homunculi, first working with animal hearts and livers, then human cadaver parts. No doubt, Victor's investment in the project extends beyond contributing to a general notion of science or even ensuring that his name is remembered forever. The film walks through the most obvious, his daddy issues and bad childhood memories, his need for cash (provided by a proto-corporate entity, a young Aryan type who wants his family's name attached to the projected profits) and his increasing personal interest in Igor, rendered in wholly goofy montages that show them bonding over bloody body parts and liquor, more sketches and lab gizmos.
All of this might pass for the mad genius convincing his helper to go along with a madcap scheme that steps over the usual moral lines, with questions helpfully voiced by Lorelei, and also, again, invokes the abject fury of Turpin, embodying here some manner of institutional religion. Victor underlines his intentions when, in a drunken fit, he lays out his vision to a couple of lady friends at "the club". The camera stands back to show their eyes rolling as he explains his intention to show that women's bodies are completely unnecessary for reproduction. At this point even Igor takes a pause, but again, he agrees to press on because, well, he's enthralled.
What's missing here is your own enthrallment. As much as Igor urges you to share his view, his voiceover pinging intermittently to remind you that his view is more or less Victor Frankenstein's, it's a hard sell (so to speak, yes). Despite McAvoy's terrific performance, the movie looks confused, rather like Igor's first self-image. If it's not quite part of what The Hollywood Reporter calls the "Big Queer Year That Wasn't", Victor Frankenstein does slip in between possibilities, hinting at Igor and Victor's glorious queerness but backtracking too, offering a kind of running homage to James Whale, but in moments so convoluted that they might be mistaken for gibes or even mistakes.
The film makes clear its own debt to monster movie history, including bits of iconic dialogue ("It's alive," "Here's the man"), but it remains caught in a universe where its most obvious love story can't speak its name.