“You know this story,” Daniel Radcliffe announces during the narration that opens “Victor Frankenstein,” a largely forgettable take on the Gothic tale first conjured into existence by Mary Shelley. Radcliffe is only half-telling the truth.
Yes, the screenplay by Max Landis, as directed by Paul McGuigan (“Push,” “Lucky Number Slevin”), is based on the core elements in Shelley’s well-known story about an addled scientist who engineers a new, dangerous being using discarded body parts and jolts of electricity. But it also pulls from other equally well-known updates of the novel — including those monster movies from the 1930s and ’40s that first introduced Dr. Frankenstein’s loyal lab assistant — while adding twists of its own. The result is a movie that feels like one of Frankenstein’s experiments: a creation odd and off-putting, made from stitched-together pieces of borrowed, once vital things.
The most notably different narrative device in “Victor Frankenstein” is the fact that it’s told from the point-of-view of Igor (Radcliffe), the humpbacked wretch who becomes the inventor’s most trusted ally. When the film begins, Radcliffe, the actor formerly known as Harry Potter, is an anonymous circus performer working under abusive conditions as both a medic and a clown. When a trapeze artist for whom the clown carries a torch (Jessica Brown Findlay, a.k.a. Sybil from “Downton Abbey”) takes a nasty spill, he skillfully resets her fractured bones to relieve pressure on her lungs, impressing an audience member named Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) who later returns to rescue the face-painted outcast. After a dangerous escape that results in the murder of another circus employee, Frankenstein takes in the clown and gives him the name of his mysteriously absent former assistant and roommate, Igor Strausman. That’s when the two begin the often grisly work of reanimation, while a suspicious, God-fearing Scotland Yard inspector (Andrew Scott) sniffs around with increasing determination.
Only two elements in this film will keep eyeballs at least partially glued to the screen: the anticipation of seeing the gargantuan beast whom Frankenstein eventually lightning-shocks to life and McAvoy’s often hyper-manic performance. An actor who has been a grounding force in films ranging from “Atonement” to the recent “X-Men” movies, McAvoy really lets it fly in “Victor Frankenstein,” to the point where it sometimes seems he’ll need dental surgery if he keeps sinking his teeth so deeply into the scenery. He’s never uninteresting to watch, though, and in some key moments — most notably an emotional scene when he’s confronted with memories of his brother — he’s even moving. (His purposely understated reading of the classic, over-the-top line, “It’s alive,” also provides a fleeting second of delight.)
But even McAvoy’s reincarnation-obsessed Frankenstein can’t breathe vitality into this shallow adaptation, which careens from moments of horror to serious drama to attempts at comedy that don’t quite land. There are so many small, misjudged details — from the lack of chemistry between Radcliffe and Findlay, whose romance becomes a key subplot, to the period-inappropriate gown Findlay wears to a ball, to the obviously CGI-enhanced London where this macabre-lite saga is set — that they collectively undermine the authority of the whole production.
This Thanksgiving’s major movie releases are strangely connected by the notion of bringing the dead back to life, whether it’s the reversal of extinction in “The Good Dinosaur” or the continued resurrection of the Rocky franchise in “Creed.” It’s unfortunate that “Victor Frankenstein,” perhaps the most well-known examination of the thrills and perils that accompany rebirth, is so drab. As Radcliffe says from the beginning, we know this story. Since we already do, the longer this particular version of it continues, the more we wonder why we’re bothering to sit through it.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction. 109 minutes.