Is the big studio creative well that dry and desperate that it was an imperative to trot out another Frankenstein movie? Well, like it or not — uh, not — "Victor Frankenstein" arrives just in time to serve as this year's cinematic Thanksgiving turkey.
This latest look at a man and his monster honors and dishonors Mary Shelley's 1818 source novel and the umpteen big and small screen incarnations that have been sci-fi and horror mainstays for centuries. Screenwriter Max Landis ("Chronicle" screenplay author and filmmaker John's son) and director Paul McGuigan ("Wicker Park") take a kind of origin-story approach here. But it's all presented in such a grandiose, panderingly hyped-up style it drowns out the movie's better creative intentions.
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In attempting to reboot the "Frankenstein" tale, the film is told through the eyes of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), the obsessed doctor's trusty assistant, who reminds us in an opening voice-over that we "know this story." But do we really?
Here, Igor begins as a filthy, nameless circus clown with a freakish hunchback who's treated like trash by his co-workers. Enter Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), a medical student at a London college, who, it will turn out, is scouring the circus grounds for spare animal parts. A near-fatal accident involving beautiful acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) leads to an implausible, life-saving adjustment by Radcliffe's clown who, beneath that rat's nest of hair and inhuman posture, is a budding physician. Natch.
Frankenstein, seeing the clown's medical brilliance, helps him to brawl his way out of the soul-crushing circus, sets him up in his murky laboratory, then drains the young man's giant back cyst that's supposedly caused his lifelong deformity. A shower, a shave, respectable clothes and a new name make Igor grateful, and now the upright-standing ex-clown is good to go. That he looks as swoopy-haired adorable as Daniel Radcliffe doesn't hurt, especially when an amazingly recovered Lorelei reenters the picture.
Meanwhile, the self-important, hyper-driven Frankenstein, with Igor's capable help, is attempting to cheat death and reanimate life. Using animal-part discards from the local zoo — apparently heavy on the chimpanzee — they end up stitching together and electrifying what's best described as a homunculus. Big surprise: Its revival does not end well.
But that only inspires Frankenstein to redouble his efforts and resuscitate life in a more human form. It's a tall order, for sure, and Igor, who's gotten cozy with Lorelei, resists his maniacal boss' command to assist him on his God-like quest.
This push-pull, amped up by the intrusion of a haunted, moralistic Scotland Yard inspector (Andrew Scott) as well as the "support" of a Richie Rich-type (Freddie Fox) with a hidden agenda, sends Frankenstein into full-on crazed scientist mode.
It all culminates in a remote Scottish castle miraculously outfitted with a wild assortment of life-rejuvenating equipment for Dr. F. to bring his man-monster into being. Sparks fly — about a million of them — in a loud, unruly, thoroughly improbable lightning-fueled battle for survival that reunites a guilt-ridden Igor with his savior.
Radcliffe does what he can with a tonally and emotionally uncertain role. But McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland" and the "X-Men" franchise), normally no slouch in the acting department, overdoes the mad-genius bit, often making his character seem less human than his creations. Even when he reveals the personal trauma that feeds his death-defeating mania, it feels more tacked on than authentic.
As for the final Frankenstein monster: It's a soulless, violent hunk of who-knows-what missing the tragedy or pathos that could have given the film the depth and profundity it so desperately lacks.
For much of the movie's running time, I wished I were watching Mel Brooks' classic take on Shelley's yarn, "Young Frankenstein." At least that one was intentionally funny.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for macabre images, violence, sequence of destruction
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release