You probably have a great many things to be thankful for: family, food, shelter, the nifty electronic device you’re reading these words on. But even if you don't have any of those things and you’ve spied this review while looking over someone’s shoulder, you still likely have at least one thing you can be thankful for: that your best friend isn’t a mad scientist conducting unholy experiments on the newly dead.
Alas, Igor seems to lack even that meager solace.
Of course, the fact that he has a friend at all is a step up for him. Back when Igor was mostly known as “hunchback” or “freak” or (at best) “hey you,” he was the much-abused clown in a traveling circus. It was the very definition of a thankless job, and it’s not like he could get another one. He was essentially a slave. Which was too bad, given the guy’s interest in medicine.
But when pretty acrobat Lorelei takes a terrible tumble, the hunchback makes the acquaintance of Victor Frankenstein. Together they save Lorelei’s life and Victor helps the clown make a dramatic escape. (So much for running away to join the circus.) And that’s not all: Once they make their way back to Victor’s lair—er, home—Victor promptly deflates the clown’s hunch (a massive sack of pus, as it turns out) throws him into a back brace and dubs him Igor, after Victor’s roommate who’s gone (ahem) missing.
It’s a fantastic turnaround for the newly christened Igor. Suddenly he has food, shelter, way better posture and fancy new duds. And he’s hanging with someone who doesn’t automatically kick him in the face whenever he comes near.
You know the saying, though: If something’s too good to be true, it means you’re probably living with a mad scientist. Turns out, Victor isn’t trying to help Igor live a better life. No, he wants Igor’s help in creating life itself—stitched together from spare body parts he finds and powered by a jolt of this newfangled discovery called electricity.
Oh, and it seems that an unfortunate circus worker was killed during Igor’s dramatic escape, too, and a zealous inspector is determined to follow the runaway hunchback’s trail, wherever it might lead.
It’s no wonder Igor feels a sense of loyalty to his talented benefactor. While Victor admits to Igor that “my interest in you does not stem from charity,” Mr. Frankenstein bestowed, in a way, new life on the former hunchback—and a life far superior than he later gives to a … well, more of that later. For now, let’s just say that whatever his motives, Victor was something of a godsend for his newly rescued Padawan. Indeed, this version of Frankenstein wants Igor to be more than a lurching servant: He and the good doctor are to be partners. And in the moment, Victor seems quite sincere. “You are and always remain my greatest creation,” Victor tells him—a little self importantly, perhaps, but he means well.
For such matchless gifts, Igor gives Victor the only thing he really can: his loyalty and friendship. When people question whether Victor’s methods are orthodox and his goals wise, Igor defends the scientist’s work as much as he can. And when Victor’s labors clearly do seem to grow more … disturbing, Igor encourages his mad mentor to throttle back and to take his work in a different direction.
If anyone serves as the movie’s conscience, it's Lorelei. She's an anchor of normalcy in Igor’s stormy, frothing world, and when Igor’s adulation of young Victor grows too strong, she helps give him perspective. When Igor goes to help an imperiled Frankenstein who is holed up in a secret castle, Lorelei opts to accompany him—following her true love while risking herself in the process.
Victor Frankenstein is the Richard Dawkins of this fictional Victorian era—a man who believes science alone holds the answers to the world’s problems, even the problem of death. He mostly scoffs at the idea of God (though he does admit once that He might exist) and believes the idea of heaven is a “fiction.” When he’s visited by Inspector Turpin, he alleges that his experiments with chimpanzees are only behavioral—that he’s managed to teach the chimps “primitive belief systems,” reinforcing Frankenstein’s own belief that faith has no place among more evolved folks. “You are in the room of rational, free-thinking men,” Victor warns the inspector, using some of the terms popular amongst today’s atheists.
Frankenstein’s lack of faith pits him against the pious and humorless inspector, whom we often see clutching at a string of beads terminating in a cross. “Life is a sacred creation,” he tells Victor. And he believes Victor may be doing the devil’s work.
Frankenstein’s monster is sometimes referred to by Igor, in narration mode, as an “unholy” creation. One of the tools that Victor uses to bring his creations to life is called a Lazarus fork—a callback, naturally, to the man Jesus so famously brought back to life. He also refers to his would-be human creation as Prometheus, a Greek titan who defied the gods and brought fire to humankind (and, thus, has long been a symbol of scientific advancement).
When he was at the circus, Igor’s only bright spot was watching Lorelei (who wears tight and revealing circus costumes, as well as dresses that show cleavage) do her work on the trapeze. (When she falls, he and Victor rip open the top portion of her costume, revealing a bit of her undergarments.) It's implied that Lorelei and Igor eventually have sex after kissing. (They're lying on the floor together, and his shirt is off.) There's talk of Lorelei being a consort for a guy who, she says, "prefers the company of men.” Victor talks about sex-free procreation.
Victor Frankenstein—both the man and the movie—is all about taking dead body parts, stitching them together and shocking them into life again. And, boy, do we see a lot of dead body parts.
Victor introduces Igor to his work by showing him a set of eyes—eyelids and all—floating in a jar while connected to a series of wires. (When shocked, the eyes blink and flinch at the "sight" of a match flame.) After that, we see a veritable parade of organs thrown in front of Igor—hearts, lungs, unidentified goo—to be shocked back into some semblance of life.
It culminates in Victor creating what he calls a Homunculus—mostly made from chimpanzee parts, but with an assortment of other animal bits as well. It’s a grotesque creation that you feel mostly pity for … until it’s shocked to life and starts attacking people, snapping its misshapen jaws and clinging to people’s backs. It leaves a trail of gunk wherever it goes, and it’s eventually euthanized by having its head smashed in (leaving a huge, bloody stain on the floor).
Victor believes a human Homunculus will work way better.
It doesn’t. This wouldn't be a Frankenstein movie if it did. The creature is grotesquely shot, stabbed and skewered several times before finally succumbing to a battery of wounds. (The extra set of organs Victor opted to include don't really allow for the monster to experience a quick death.)
Igor is kicked and beaten at the circus, and he’s viciously pushed around even after he escapes. We see Victor stabbing a large needle into Igor’s back of pus, then forces his bent frame into a position Igor’s never experienced (one wherein he can actually stand). “It hurts!” he hollers.
A police officer is assaulted. Explosions go off. Fires rage. One man is killed by a flying knife. Another nearly drowns. Several people fall into a flaming pit. As mentioned, Lorelei falls and is badly injured. (Igor and Victor reset her collarbone on the circus floor, allowing her to breathe again.) A guy gets his hand caught in a piece of machinery, which mangles his fingers. (He staggers away with a blood-spattered face.)
Have I mentioned all the dead body parts yet? Victor wheels out a frozen corpse. Dead chickens hang from string. Turpin displays a lion’s paw he found at the scene of a murder.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word and a few other curses are found in this flick’s formaldehyde, including a half-dozen uses of “d--n,” three or four of “bloody” and one of “h---.” God’s name is misused a handful of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Victor and Igor drink a lot of whiskey as they hatch their plans for a human Homunculus. (In a sort of drunken reverie, Victor announces he’d like the monster to have a flat head—a nod, of course, to the original, iconic monster.) Victor and others get drunk at a party, slurring their speech and generally making spectacles of themselves. There's talk of a morphine addict.
Other Negative Elements
Victor sometimes steals the body parts he needs for his experiments. And even when he’s not technically stealing them, his methods of obtaining them are dubious as best. He's wanted on lots of charges, including assaulting a police officer and possibly even murder. (He escapes to Scotland, with the help of a wealthy benefactor, to continue his experiments.) We see gambling tables in operation.
For full gross-out effect, Victor siphons out Igor’s hump pus with his own mouth (using a hose and a bucket). He spits out residual pus.
Victor Frankenstein, like the scientist’s most famous creation, is not exactly what it might seem. On one level, it is much the movie I expected it to be—a moneygrubbing rework of a Victorian classic. (Sort of like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, with a little twist of horror.)
But while Victor Frankenstein scraps most of Mary Shelley’s book (and bears practically no similarities to the original movie), it still grapples with the core question of Shelley’s work: What happens when mortals try to play God?
“We shall create man in our own image!” Victor exclaims. He's a bit unhinged and playing with powers he cannot even begin to comprehend, of course. Yet the movie wants us to sympathize with this crazy creationist—a bold, handsome explorer pushing against the day’s social constraints. We're led to see him much as Igor does: as a good man gone awry.
Inspector Turpin, meanwhile, is an uncharismatic wet blanket who seems determined to spoil all of Frankenstein’s fun. “It reeks of an evil, sinful mischief,” he glowers. Turpin moralizes, casts judgment … and, ironically, is thrown out of Scotland Yard even though all of his suppositions proved to be exactly right. Rarely has a hero been made to look so horrible.
And yet even the movie seems to agree with Turpin in the end. We’re given a bit of foreshadowing when Lorelei—a woman whom Victor deems silly and superstitious—has a close encounter with his chimp Homunculus. “I looked into its eyes and there’s nothing there,” she says.
Victor’s creations "work": Their lungs take in air, their hearts beat, they move. But not one of them has a soul. There is more to life than the mere presence of breath and beat and touch, the movie tells us. There must be more.
But while that’s encouraging as far as it goes, Victor Frankenstein seems to bend to the modern desire to be “spiritual, but not religious.” To acknowledge the sense of a reality beyond the realm of science while shunting any framework needed to understand it.
To that spiritual miasma we must also add a fawning attention to the macabre and grotesque. Which makes Victor Frankenstein a messy experience, any way you want to slice it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Daniel Radcliffe as Igor; James McAvoy as Victor Frankenstein; Jessica Brown Findlay as Lorelei; Andrew Scott as Inspector Turpin; Bronson Webb as Rafferty
November 25, 2015
March 8, 2016