“You know this story,” Igor says at the beginning of “Victor Frankenstein,” and, boy, do we ever. The zapping Tesla coils, the barking-mad doctor, the moldering thing stirring to life on the platform under the storm — Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” has long since become part of our cultural and cinematic DNA. Is there any way to defibrillate this story back to life?
Director Paul McGuigan (“Wicker Park”) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of “Animal House” director John) have a novel approach: They make Igor the hero. Yes, that’s the former Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, as the cringing circus hunchback who just happens to be a skilled, self-taught surgeon and whose talents are recognized by the passing Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), who just happens to be needing a partner for his experiments in re-animating dead flesh. Within minutes of meeting Igor, the good doctor has literally straightened him out. To quote a knowledgeable source: Hump? What hump?
“Victor Frankenstein” goes uphill from there for a bit before plummeting downhill fast. The filmmakers’ other improvements include relocating the action to industrial-era London, casting the insufferably dull Jessica Brown Findlay (the doomed youngest daughter on “Downton Abbey”) as Igor’s love interest — she’s a circus acrobat who somehow becomes a fixture of high society and has a 21st-century tattoo on her shoulder that the makeup department seems to have overlooked — and encouraging McAvoy to dig into his hammiest impulses as Victor.
McAvoy’s performance is a deep, deep shade of gonzo and by far the most enjoyable aspect of “Victor Frankenstein” — you don’t often see over-acting this enthusiastic or this flecked with spittle. (“EMBOLISMS!” Victor shouts at one point, apropos of not much.) The script gives the character a childhood tragedy and a disapproving father (Charles Dance, riffing on his “Game of Thrones” tyrant) and also a nemesis in Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) of Scotland Yard, a religious sort who’s as barmy as Frankenstein. Scott plays Moriarty on the BBC “Sherlock,” four episodes of which were directed by McGuigan; perhaps that’s why Igor seems oddly like this movie’s Watson.
If you’re going to make a Frankenstein movie in 2015, it helps to have a sense of humor, a nose for trash, and respect for those who’ve gone before you. “Victor Frankenstein” initially appears to have all three, with the dialogue given an intentionally campy spin in places and sly call-outs to the 1931 “Frankenstein,” 1957’s “Curse of Frankenstein,” even Mel Brooks’s 1974 “Young Frankenstein.” McGuigan is nothing if not a stylist and he’s not afraid of a good gross-out, either. The Victor/Igor team’s first creation is a nightmarish mash-up of several animals — mostly one very angry chimpanzee — and the scene in which it gets loose in a teaching hospital is the movie’s icky high-water mark.
The filmmakers keep piling it on without logic or point, though — a snippy blond rich kid (Freddie Fox) to bankroll Victor (we never find out why), a strained bromance between Igor and the doctor, and the flame-out of the director’s visual games in a disastrous climax where the roof caves in and so does the movie.
Worst of all? The Frankenstein monster (Spencer Wilding), when we finally get a look at it, is all muscle and makeup, utterly lacking in the spark of humanity that made Boris Karloff’s version one for the ages. This guy’s just the biggest bouncer at Club Crazy, and he’s not around nearly long enough to have an impact.
Besides, do the filmmakers think we’re actually here for Victor? After 200 years, there’s a reason everyone mistakes the name of the creator for his monstrous creation. Any Frankenstein movie that forgets that is in need of a brain transplant.
Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Max Landis, based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Starring Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox. Boston Common, suburbs. 109 minutes. PG-13 (macabre images, violence, and a sequence of destruction).