Almost certainly, the brains behind Victor Frankenstein - set first in 1860s London, then in a jagged castle on the rocky Scottish coast - were out to mimic the steampunk vibe of Robert Downey Jr.'s hit Sherlock Holmes pics. The cogs and gears and smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution grind and clang and hiss, a Scotland Yard inspector furrows his brow in forensic disdain, and an eccentric genius dashes to and fro, occasionally resorting to gunplay and pyrotechnics to elude his pursuers.
Less certainly, writer Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan appear to be paying homage to Mel Brooks' 1974 horror spoof, Young Frankenstein, in their new and somewhat deranged interpretation of the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley classic.
James McAvoy, eyes ablaze and lips aspittle as the titular mad scientist, doesn't quite say, "You know, I'm a rather brilliant surgeon - perhaps I can help you with that hump" when the stooped and hunchbacked Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) first enters Frankenstein's lair. But it's pretty close. Igor is a lowly circus clown and a closeted medical whiz who creates gorgeous anatomical drawings on scraps of paper. His hump, it turns out, is really only a large, long-festering pustular cyst. With the help of a super-size syringe and a back brace, Igor is defluidized and straightened up quite nicely.
It's hard to get a reading on how much of Victor Frankenstein is being played for laughs. McAvoy and Radcliffe expend considerable energy hamming things up, barely pulling back from the brink of spit takes and pratfalls. But Andrew Scott (the prissy C in Spectre) is completely straight-faced as the detective inspector who suspects Frankenstein of stealing assorted animal parts from the zoo, entering Frankenstein's quarters (without a warrant), sniffing about and declaring: "Something reeks here - reeks of an evil, sinful mischief!"
And what to make of Lorelei, Igor's circus muse? She was the big tent's beauteous acrobat, for whom Igor pined from afar. Then, as Igor is spirited off by Frankenstein, Lorelei - played with full lips and taut corset by Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay - is taken by a wealthy gent as a kind of beard. (He prefers the company of men.) In hoop skirt and bustle, Lorelei attends a ball, doing a jig with the admiring Igor. Out of skirt and bustle, she does another kind of jig with the clown-turned-aide-to-Frankenstein - taking his virginity in the lovingest of ways.
Yes, Victor Frankenstein is really Igor's story, a kind of mad coming-of-age yarn embellished with lightning bolts and monsters made of cadaverous flesh. There are two monsters here, in fact: a homunculus chimp with the dentition of a jungle cat, and a giant humanlike creature with a flat head, two hearts, and four lungs.
Which brings us back to Young Frankenstein again, and Gene Wilder's line: "For the experiment to be a success, all of the body parts must be enlarged."
Victor Frankenstein stops short of citing that "enormous schwanzstucker." Maybe it should have.
Victor Frankenstein **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paul McGuigan. With James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, rotting flesh, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.