Review: Victor Frankenstein

All film reviews contain SPOILERS.

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The title of Victor Frankenstein (dir. Paul McGuigan, 2015) is hugely misleading; it’s Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor, not James McAvoy’s Victor, who is the film’s central protagonist. Igor – a name traditionally associated with the stock character of the hunchbacked lab assistant – was never a part of Mary Shelley’s original novel. And the first of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked lab assistants, appearing in director James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, wasn’t even called Igor. His name was Fritz. The Igor name, originally spelled ‘Ygor’, has its origins in Son of Frankenstein (dir. Rowland V. Lee, 1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1942), the third and fourth films in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein series. House of Frankenstein (dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1944), the first of Universal’s ‘monster rally’ films, introduced another hunchbacked lab assistant, called – wait for it – Daniel. Coincidence? Undoubtedly.

Victor Frankenstein takes the idea of Igor as lab assistant and runs with it, even going so far as to portray Igor as a better physician than Victor. I don’t suppose Igor Straussman (for now the character has a surname) would’ve been as catchy a title, but the one we’re stuck with is too one-sided. Everything about the way this film was publicized – most notably through McAvoy and Radcliffe’s budding bromance – framed it as a buddy film. So why not compromise, and call it Victor & Igor? Okay, it wouldn’t have the name Frankenstein in it, but it would better capture what this film is about – because this is, not to put too fine a point on it, possibly the gayest interpretation of Frankenstein to date.

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Actually, I should qualify that last sentence. Victor Frankenstein is the gayest mainstream interpretation of the Frankenstein story that I know of.  I haven’t seen Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), but I’m sure it’s about as far from ‘mainstream’ as you can get, being a schlock-horror film by an openly gay director, starring Joe Dallesandro, my personal favourite queer underground sex symbol (pictured above with Arno Juerging). But wait! How could I forget that grand old queen Dr. Pretorius, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the homosexual readings of that film, and the fact that it was helmed by another openly gay director, James Whale? Or the queerness of the original novel, for that matter? Many literary scholars, following Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, frame Shelley’s novel as the story of a man taking control of human reproduction, thereby eliminating women from the equation. Victor Frankenstein shares this understanding of the novel, signposts it and finds additional ways to make the Frankenstein story even more ‘queer’ than it already is. Sticking with the novel for the moment, some scholars read the relationship between Victor and his friend Henry Clerval (not featured in the film, though he may have been the inspiration for Victor’s dead off-screen brother, also called ‘Henry’) as being possibly homosexual. Just Googling ‘Frankenstein Clerval’ brings up the auto-suggestion terms ‘gay’, ‘homosexuality’ and ‘relationship’, as well as an abundance of slash-fiction, including Victor/Henry and other pairings, captured in yaoi-style fan-art. Victor Frankenstein is really just the latest in a long line of queer interpretations of Shelley’s novel.

The film’s in no way a direct adaptation of the novel. Instead, screenwriter Max Landis chooses to treat the Frankenstein story as a myth (even if, as noted by Harry Edmundson-Cornell, he doesn’t know his Prometheus from his elbow). Igor, in voice-over, states at the beginning of the film and just before the climax words to the effect of ‘you’ve already heard the story,’ before listing what he takes to be its ‘essential’ elements: a mad scientist, the creation of an unholy abomination, a bolt of lightning, etc. I’m reminded of a similar opening in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman (2005-2008), possibly because Landis is a Morrison fan himself and is currently writing Superman: American Alien (2015-2016), the latest update of that particular ‘modern myth’. It seems fair to say that if you’re a stickler for ‘textual fidelity’ then you probably won’t like Victor Frankenstein. You might not like how I stop talking about the book from this point on, or that I pretty much ignore the film’s own monsters and refuse to address the question of whether or not this is even a horror film, let alone a good film. C’est la vie. I calls it like I sees it – and what I see here is a lot of gorgeous guys making goo-goo eyes at each other.

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The film opens with Igor, at this point a nameless hunch-backed clown-come-self-taught physician. He pines after Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), a circus acrobat who, following a near-fatal accident, is saved through the combined efforts of Igor and one Victor Frankenstein, who happens to be in the audience. Victor, impressed by Igor’s talent, comes to his rescue that night in an exciting jailbreak sequence that gives the viewer no reason to think that they are watching anything more than the beginnings of an action-packed buddy film. It’s what happens next that queers it.

Victor takes Igor back to his place, a run-down soap factory, leaving him alone for a moment to take in his new surroundings. Not much is known about Victor at this point, other than he’s a physician and some sort of wealthy recluse. He returns, carrying a lot of strange-looking medical equipment. He then tells Igor to take his shirt off. At this point I turned and whispered to my friend that the film had ‘gone a bit Fifty Shades‘. I was only joking, but before we knew it Victor was throwing Igor against a pillar and penetrating him from behind with a painful-looking instrument, inserted directly into his… back. (What did you think I was going to say?) Victor explains to Igor that he isn’t hunchbacked, and that he’s actually been suffering from an untreated abscess. Victor drains the abscess, even going so far as to suck out some of the fluid through a rubber tube. Lovely. Victor also has Igor don a suggestive-looking harness over his (frankly, rather lovely) bare chest, before slamming his back against a pillar, ostensibly to straighten it. But never mind what Victor says during this scene; what does it look like he’s doing? Frankly, it looks like he’s performing a variation on the infamous corset scene in the manga/anime series Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji.

Meanwhile, back at the circus, the film introduces the first of its two antagonists: police inspector Roderick Turpin, as played by Andrew Scott. Viewers may recognise Scott from his recent turn in Spectre, and from his role as Jim Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock. To quote YouTube’s Rantasmo, ‘If a slashier show than Sherlock exists, I have not seen it.‘ Well, if Victor Frankenstein were a TV show, it would be a strong contender. Turpin’s obsession with Victor is motivated by a religious sense of duty that brings him into conflict with his employers, who (I don’t think it’s ever confirmed) may have been under pressure from Victor’s influential father (Charles Dance, doing his best Charles Dance). Turpin knows that Victor is up to something that goes against the ‘natural order’, and the pair will later come to blows, following a heated exchange of a ‘God versus science’ nature. I ended up wishing the two would kiss to relieve the tension. You could very easily, in these scenes, read Turpin as an uptight closet-case stalker. His being a widower hardly counts as an obstacle to anyone who might wish to ship ‘Vicpin’, ‘Torpin’, or whatever this pairing might one day be called.

The film contains several other significant Sherlock connections beyond Scott. Its director, Paul McGuigan, directed four of the series’ (at time of writing) nine episodes. And Louise Brealey, Sherlock’s Molly Hooper, makes an appearance as ‘Sexy Society Girl’ (seriously, that’s how she’s listed in the credits). It’s she who first questions Victor’s decision to write women out of the reproductive process, a role subsequently taken up by Lorelei, who I think might be the film’s only named female character. Like its title character, Victor Frankenstein – or rather Max Landis’s script – marginalizes women in a way that Shelley’s novel never did.

Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss also has a cameo in the film, as the engineer ‘Dettweiler’. It’s nice that they were able to name his character, despite the fact he has less to say on screen than Brealey – just one line, before he meets his doom. Also making a special guest appearance is Sherlock‘s trademark special effect, pioneered by McGuigan. The original effect, showing ‘floating words representing text messages, internet searches, or some other form of technological interface‘, is cleverly adapted to the film to make use of words and diagrams lifted from period-appropriate medical textbooks. And it’s not just Sherlock the TV show that gets referenced: Victor’s note to Igor, at the end of the film, recalls the note Sherlock left for Watson in ‘The Final Problem’. Victor and Igor as Holmes and Watson via Burke and Hare… As flawed as this film is, there are some excellent ideas in here that might have been better served in a different format, either in a novel or on television. In my restless dreams I see Radcliffe and McAvoy taking a break from film to star in several seasons of a TV series called Victor & Igor, an unholy mash-up of shows like SherlockPenny Dreadful and Sleepy Hollow, with a twist of Queer as Folk for good measure.

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After Victor and Igor’s disastrous public unveiling of ‘Gordon‘, the first of their creations, the film introduces its principal antagonist, Freddie Fox’s Finnegan. Finnegan is a foppish aristocrat with an air of Dorian Gray about him. He looks decidedly jealous of the relationship between Victor and Igor when he visits them in their digs, and I got the sense in this scene that Finnegan wanted Victor for himself. And he does, though for a more banal reason than I initially suspected. Finnegan wants to make his family, already the third richest in the country, even more rich and famous by exploiting Victor’s talents in order to create an unstoppable army of undead soldiers. Yawn. It’s an idea that would feel more at home in a film with a bigger budget and less intelligence than this, and so we’re spared the uninspired CGI spectacle of undead legions. Still, I wish they hadn’t gone there, and it’s a pity that more wasn’t done to develop the character of Finnegan, away from this textbook super-villain scheme. Fox’s camp villainy, whilst great fun to watch, marks him out as another familiar stock character, one that’s been recognised as being potentially homophobic. I suspect the reason I didn’t find the character offensive was in large part due to it’s being so easy to read most of the rest of the film’s male cast as queer – in particular, Victor and Igor, the relationship that Finnegan attempts to derail.

And this takes us into the film’s most interesting deviation from Shelley’s novel: how it rejects the idea of Victor going it solo, by having the act of creation stem from a civil partnership between him and Igor. By that I mean the pair enter into a partnership that is more than civil. It is, to be sure, an occasionally abusive relationship, though not in the way it’s traditionally been depicted. Any conflict that arises between the pair exists to maximize ‘the feels‘. During one particularly romantic scene Victor says something to Igor along the lines of ‘let’s not mince words – you are my partner.’ He goes further, telling Igor that they shall make a being ‘in our image’. So now the Creature has two daddies. It’s this relationship between Victor and Igor that makes Victor Frankenstein a truly modern reworking, albeit one that comes to have some unfortunate and, I hope, completely unintended implications. Because what we have here is a film that seems, on the one hand, to be actively gay-baiting its audience, teasing to distraction those of us with a taste for slash and yaoi, whilst at the same time depicting the products of Victor and Igor’s union as an affront to the ‘natural order’. How much you enjoy the film may depend, then, on how much you enjoy your slash-fiction when it’s served on a bed of homophobic assumptions regarding what is and isn’t ‘natural’.

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That brings us to the character framed as Igor’s ‘natural’ love interest, and who is virtually the film’s only female character, Lorelei. After recovering from her injuries Lorelei shows up at a high society soiree where she’s reunited with Igor. Their paths parallel one another’s: not unlike Igor, Lorelei’s been freed from the circus to work in an eccentric aristocrat’s private cabaret, appearing in public as his consort. This is purely for show, as she reveals the aristocrat ‘prefers the company of men’. She is, to use a gay slang term, his ‘beard‘ – and it’s tempting to say that, for the rest of the film, she serves as Igor’s. Of course, it’s supposed to be true love. That’s how the film presents it – dare I say, pushes it – when Igor decides to go to a party with Lorelei rather than stay at home with Victor to help create their love-child/unholy abomination. In one of the oddest scenes of the film (which is saying a lot, when your film features a ‘Frankenchimp’), Igor and Lorelei find a room at the party where they can be alone.

 

IGOR: ‘I don’t know what to do.’

LORELEI: ‘You’re already doing it.’

 

Oo-er, missus! Don’t get too excited though – that one exchange is about as risqué as the film’s only ‘straight’ relationship gets. A bare-chested Igor lies down on the bed next to a fully-clothed Lorelei – on her skirts, in fact, thereby pinning them down instead of raising them up. We’re left to wonder what, if anything, will happen, before the scene cuts to Igor heading back to the factory the next day, looking every inch the cock of the walk. It’s implied that Igor and Lorelei have Done It, but the way it’s presented, or rather not presented, makes the whole business seem tame, even sexless, at least when compared to Victor’s figurative f***ing of Igor back at the start of the film. There’s just no getting round the fact that the relationship between Igor and Lorelei is too chaste, too dull, and too completely lacking in the chemistry, excitement and passion that characterizes Igor and Victor’s relationship. After Victor heads up to Scotland for his final experiment, under the watchful eye of Finnegan and his men, Igor tells Lorelei he must now go to Victor, that Victor needs him, etc. You could read this as Igor’s way of tactfully telling Lorelei to naff off, that it’s over between them, and that it’s Victor he loves. I’m sure that’s how some wishful viewers, myself included, chose to read it. Imagine how thrilled I was when she insisted on going with Igor.

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The couple head up to Scotland by stagecoach, where Victor is working with Finnegan and his men to produce the Creature designed by Victor and Igor during a particularly intense drinking session. Lorelei gets given the Very Important Task of distracting Finnegan’s men by asking for directions, while Igor hops out of the coach to make his way to the castle by foot. Lorelei doesn’t show up again until the end of the film, after Victor has disappeared. The couple embrace and anyone who was at all afraid that the film would explicitly acknowledge its own flaming queerness will be reassured by its tediously conventional ending. That drab ending still doesn’t change the fact that all of the passion on display in this film is between men. It’s between Victor and Igor, first and foremost, and to a lesser extent between Victor and Turpin. Both pairings involve intimate conversations and heated arguments that bring the men to the verge of tears, whilst hitting a certain portion of their audience directly in the feels.

This is a film that actively encourages a queer reading, teasing its audience by appearing to promise something rarely seen, and therefore still sensational, when viewed in your local multiplex. It’s a film that baits and frustrates in equal measure, consistently failing to deliver on its promise to ‘challenge the natural order’. That might sound angrier than I intend. I should stress here that I did enjoy watching Victor Frankenstein. I was expecting a buddy film and got something closer to slash-fiction, which I enjoy. So that was more than I expected. A pleasant surprise. But, urgh, that bland hetero love-interest, shoe-horned into the film to make it palatable to studio executives and any uptight straights in the audience… That stuck in my craw. The Frankenstein story, as writing this review has reminded me, has a distinctly queer heritage. The film-makers not only recognized this but they made it central to the film. For all the criticisms that can and should be levelled against Victor Frankenstein, and at the film-makers for being too afraid to throw their weight behind the precious gay love story at its heart, nothing in the film’s final act can erase its queerness. Which is to say, no one who sees Victor Frankenstein will ever forget That Abscess Draining Scene, though they’ll almost certainly forget the scene in which Igor and Lorelei don’t have sex.

Contrary to what some critics have said, Victor Frankenstein is not ‘just another’ Frankenstein film. But I do wish it was more like the film I had briefly dared to dream I was watching. I wish that the script didn’t, in the end, flatly contradict what could so easily be inferred from what was happening on screen. I wish that those involved in making it had been brave enough to produce a more natural conclusion for the film’s central couple, Victor and Igor. Could no one involved sense how unnatural, how forced, how tacked-on its hetero Hollywood ending looked and felt? How at odds it was with the film built around it? Ultimately, Victor Frankenstein is a film that is, to quote Andrew Wheeler, only ‘as gay as it’s allowed to be’.

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In response to the Victor Frankenstein that played in cinemas an alternative vision of the film has since emerged online, in slash-fiction and fan-art (like the example above, taken from the artist’s tumblr). While the film was a resounding flop in theatres, this undead army of Victor Frankensteinsbrought to life by audiences in response to the film, may help to keep it alive long enough for it to be rediscovered and reappraised. Because Victor Frankenstein is a film that deserves a better reception than the indifference it met. Though it shouldn’t be praised too highly, it remains an intriguing, albeit deeply flawed film that could, had everyone involved in making it had the courage of their actors’ conviction, have been brilliant.

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