Victor Frankenstein review: A monstrous mess

At its best moments, Victor Frankenstein feels like an episode of Sherlock.

Corny special effects are used to explain medical terminology, fight scenes are slowed down at seemingly random intervals and, much like the BBC series, the film somewhat succeeds when the focus is purely on the relationship between its two main stars, James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. At its worst, the film feels directionless, as if no one figured out what the point of the story they were trying to tell was and grasped onto any arc they could to fill the nearly two hour space.

Written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Chronicle), Victor Frankenstein has all the markings of a traditional buddy-cop comedy, much like Sherlock often does. The mad doctor Frankenstein, played brilliantly by McAvoy, is unpredictable and completely deranged. He's obsessed with the idea of death as a symptom, not a final fate, and through the help of an unknown man upon whom he bestows the name Igor after rescuing him from a London circus (Radcliffe), starts working on his monster. For everything that is simply mediocre about the take on Mary Shelly's classic horror story, McAvoy and Radcliffe's on-screen chemistry is certainly not.

The two bounce well off each other, physically encroaching on each other's space often and using that physicality to try and further the story. Both actors are known for the exaggeration they bring to their work, going above and beyond what the character demands in almost every role. It's what makes their presence on screen so magnetic, and despite having a severe lack of material to work with, the two own their roles. Much like Sherlock, McAvoy easily slides into his holier than thou mentality, bossing around Igor in an almost abusive manner and displaying his erratic nature with pride whenever the two step out of their lair.

At the same time, Radcliffe plays the role of the sidekick surprisingly well, considering he's never had to do it before. He's accustomed to playing the leading man, and as such, has been allowed a certain amount of grace with his hyperbolized performances. In Victor Frankenstein, however, Radcliffe waits for McAvoy's cues and responds to each one in turn, instead of trying to take the lead in their complicated dynamic. While the two actors make the film tolerable at points, it doesn't stop the feeling of boredom from creeping in the rest of the time.

Victor Frankenstein never figures out whether it wants to be a comedy, a dramatic retelling of a horrific tale or a thriller, and alternates frequently between all three scenarios without giving enough time to properly establish the tone. Instead, Landis and director Paul McGuigan treat each like a sample serving, just barely giving a taste of what the film could have been before jumping into a scene that doesn't make sense. One of the best examples is when Frankenstein and Igor manage to bring their first creation to life inside the walls of the medical school Frankenstein attends. Up until that point, it's a string of comedic scenes and witty one-liners, but in an instant, it becomes a horror film that's given absolutely no time to develop. The creature gets loose, there's a two-minute chase scene, and then it's over, jumping right back into the comedic undertone Landis has always preferred to navigate in his films.

By the time the monster is finally addressed, it seems superfluous

The result is a general sense of apathy for what the movie should have been about from the very start: the mad doctor and his monster. There isn't enough emotional backstory given to McAvoy's character to care about whether or not he manages to bring the monster to life. By the time the final act rolls around and the aforementioned monster is finally addressed, it seems superfluous. The film spends the entire time setting up this moment as the climax, as the final goal that must be reached in order for the story to have a tidy ending, and yet dilly-dallies so much on unneeded, extra material that the final scene feels like an afterthought.

The relationship between Igor and the woman he falls in love with, Lorelai (Jessica Brown Findlay), for example. It's the perfect example of a romantic angle being introduced because it's a customary tradition, not because the film needs one. While the relationship is well introduced in the beginning, the two go from never speaking to practically married in the blink of an eye, spending little to no time developing the chemistry. An obvious issue that carries through Radcliffe and Findlay's performances, who look close to grimacing every time they share an intimate moment on screen.

The only relationship that matters in Victor Frankenstein is the one between McAvoy and Radcliffe. It's their relationship that makes the creation of this monster a feasible feat in the first place, and having Findlay around just distracts from the more interesting character development. It's a sentiment McAvoy's Frankenstein even makes in the film, telling Igor that he shouldn't be wasting his time with frivolous companionship. As harsh as that sounds, it perfectly sums up what their romance feels like the entire time.

Victor Frankenstein could have been a good movie, however, and that's what makes it all the more upsetting. Squinting hard enough, it's not impossible to see the outlines of a well-written, modern take on the story, but unfortunately, that's not the film Victor Frankenstein became. The movie may have worked better as a mini-series, with enough time spent over the course of eight hours to properly introduce all the characters and their backstories, as well as incorporate some decent horror with the various monsters cooked up in the eerie laboratory, but it's just not overly enjoyable. Victor Frankenstein should have been, if nothing else, a fun, fantastical romp, and it failed to deliver upon that promise.