Dispatches from Horror Outsiders: My Friend Frankenstein | A Review of Victor Frankenstein (2015)

In this ongoing feature (which has its beginning here!), I invite friends of mine who do not identify as fans of horror--some, even, stay as far away from it as possible--to write on a horror film from their perspective. I am a firm believer in getting as many perspectives on horror as I can on this blog. So I am excited to get some fresh eyes on the genre and films that I love. Up first is a review of a film I still have yet to see from Amanda Martinez Beck. Enjoy!

I have to admit, I never thought I’d write a review for a horror film blog. I am somewhat of a weenie when it comes to violence and tension on screen. My idea of intense is Ursula’s creepy (and I mean really creepy) performance in The Little Mermaid. So when a couple of my husband’s honors college students asked me to go see Victor Frankenstein with them on a school night (at 9 pm, even!), it was pretty crazy for me to say yes. But I’m glad I did.

Blake has said before that “horror works the best when it refuses to indulge the human desire to sense, rationalize and control the unknown.” Victor Frankenstein is not a horror film because there are so many attempts to do these very things--and it’s not very scary. But apart from its failings as a film and its poor box office return, I think it’s worth a watch.

James McAvoy (Victor Frankenstein) and Daniel Radcliffe (Igor) team up for the first time in this film directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Max Landis. It isn’t horror--rather an attempt at sci-fi and drama; but since it exists in the Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein universe, that counts as horror-ish, right? While I acknowledge that it’s not McAvoy’s or Radcliffe’s best work, I liked this film and would recommend it because it is a movie about friendship, power dynamics, and salvation.

There’s a lot going on in the film. Frankenstein is at odds with his father (a jerk who is condescendingly ugly toward his son) and the law (because he keeps stealing body parts from dead animals and the zealous Christian Inspector Turpin is after him). He is nearly kicked out of medical school for failing to attend. He is plagued with regret for causing the death of his brother as a child and it has driven him to isolation and the task at hand: reversing death. When Frankenstein sets out to share his amazing life-giving experiment with his medical school colleagues, only one--the snotty and filthy rich Finnegan--shows up. Finnegan is interested in Frankenstein’s powers and hires him to create an army of supermonsters (with German imperialistic overtones?). With regard to these aspects, the film is lackluster and very strange.

But, like I said, I was intrigued by the depiction of friendship, power dynamics, and salvation. The main relationship in the movie is between Victor Frankenstein and the hunchback to whom Frankenstein gives the name Igor. Along with almost every high school student in the past fifty years, I have read Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, the tale of man striving to create life and the moral danger that lies therein. The book is wonderful, grappling with questions of ethics and the superiority of science over the limits that religion gives us about the role of creator. The film takes a different direction and goes for the backstory between Frankenstein and Igor, a hunchbacked clown at a local circus who exhibits amazing knowledge of anatomy. (Interestingly, Igor is not in the original Frankenstein story and doesn’t actually appear specifically until the 1974 film Young Frankenstein.)

The hunchback has never known love or kindness from anyone before being saved from the circus. He has existed in the shadows and given himself heart-and-soul to someone who has never really noticed him--the beautiful trapeze artist Lorelai (Jessica Findlay Brown). So when Frankenstein recognizes his medical genius and whisks him away, the hunchback is awed into a servile thankfulness. It is clear to see that Frankenstein really only values the hunchback’s talents for the sake of his grand endeavors to create life out of death. He uses flattery and unabashed praise to convince Igor to work with him.

Igor, on the other hand, is full of fresh-faced innocence. We never learn how he got enslaved by the circus or how he learned to read and write, but we see his transformation--at the influence and interference of Frankenstein--into a (literally) upright man of society, clean-shaven and well-dressed. The cyst on his back is drained (through an oral siphon, which is truly a horrific moment in the film), he wears a brace to make himself stand upright, he washes off the clown makeup from his face, and he shaves his beard and brushes his hair. He is a new man.

Frankenstein helps Igor with all this for the sake of furthering his experiments. But Igor surprises him with his concern and genuine interest. Their intellectual camaraderie grows into a tentative friendship. But then promises of partnership and equality are handed like a bone to a hungry dog from Frankenstein to Igor and for a moment, I was afraid that Igor would actually become the monster, that Victor would mold him into his own image. (Fortunately this doesn’t happen.)

As Igor’s confidence increases, he encounters his love Lorelai, whom he rescued from certain death when she fell from the trapeze. She recognizes him and they begin a friendship, but a friendship very different from the one he enjoys with his own savior--Frankenstein is jealous and demanding. Lorelai is kind while still asking pertinent and critical questions.

The parallel structure of these friendships is striking to me. Frankenstein saves Igor from the slavery of the circus and gives him a position of honor as his assistant. But Victor’s moods and humors are tempestuous and Igor doesn’t know when it is safe to be around him. There are moments of vulnerability where you think that friendship will actually change Frankenstein. But as Igor presses for more genuine relationship with Victor, he is rebuffed. The savior mentality penetrates many aspects of their relationship and makes it impossible for Frankenstein to take Igor seriously as a moral agent, particularly when Igor tries to distance himself from the decisions that Frankenstein makes concerning working for Fennigan (who then tries to kill Igor for knowing too much).

On the other hand, Igor is Lorelai’s savior, but his efforts to help her when she nearly dies are motivated by a deep love for her and not by a desire for self-aggrandizement. He visits her in the hospital when she is unconscious and makes sure she is well cared for, but he doesn’t even leave his name. He merely calls himself “a friend.” When the two are reunited at Frankenstein’s club, a genuine appreciation for each other is evident, and their friendship begins to grow in earnest (and ultimately into romantic love).

The difference between the savior Frankenstein and the savior Igor is what they demand of the one they have saved. Frankenstein offers friendship as a token to get what he wants--service and loyalty to his cause. Igor gives his love and friendship to Lorelai with no demands. It is clear which one is a more excellent way.  

The film climaxes with Igor, supported by Lorelai, going against all odds to save his savior, to rescue him from the fate which he has chosen--creating life from death and reaping the consequences as the monster kills everyone in its path. Interestingly, it is their friendship which overcomes Frankenstein’s allegiance to his monstrous creation, and we see for the first time Victor choosing the best for another person, his friend Igor.

Then Victor skips off happily to the countryside on the Continent to consider more whacky scientific ideas while Igor and Lorelai pursue love and friendship together. It is such a strange movie, but if a friend asks you to see it with them, you should. Because, y'know, friendship and all.

Victor Frankenstein (2015)
dir. by Paul McGuigan
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay
Language: English
Runtime: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

Amanda Martinez Beck is a wife and a mom to lots of small kids. In her spare time, she writes on culture and theology at amandamartinezbeck.com and faith-based body positivity at FatinChurch.com. She is not into horror films (because she's a wimp), but hey, she liked Victor Frankenstein. So that's something.