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film review

A scene from Victor Frankenstein.Alex Bailey

"You know this story," the agitated new horror film Victor Frankenstein begins, a narrator listing off the basic components of Mary Shelley's monster franchise: The mad genius, the crack of lightning, the unholy creation. The twist of this Max Landis-penned variant has to do with the prominence and viewpoint of the titular physician's assistant, Igor, the hunchbacked helper famously and mischievously portrayed by Marty Feldman in Mel Brooks's comedy Young Frankenstein.

In that 1974 film, the doctor offers to help his spinally afflicted sidekick. "You know, I'm a rather brilliant surgeon," says Gene Wilder's lab-coated character. "Perhaps I can help you with that hump." To which the stooped subordinate replies, "What hump?"

But here's what happens in Victor Frankenstein: The radical man of medicine (played ferociously by James McAvoy) forcibly restrains his helper (an often astonished Daniel Radcliffe), hastily drains the hump of fluid, performs an aggressive chiropractic procedure ever so violently, slaps a brace on his bewildered patient and, voila, Bob's your uncle and Igor is a new man – straightened out and standing tall (or as tall as the pocket-sized Harry Potter actor can pretend).

So, hump? What hump?

The scene is frantic, as is the entire film. McAvoy plays this young Frankenstein – a fast-talking, hyper-driven medical student and border-case sociopath in London – as if cocaine-addled. Or maybe his Victorian stagecoach is double-parked? Director Paul McGuigan's pacing is equally urgent, his attempt to breathe new life into the film-world Frankenstein canon mirroring the madness of the overexcited physician.

McGuigan won an Emmy for his direction of an episode of the BBC-PBS miniseries Sherlock, and one doesn't need to be a fictional character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to figure out that the Scottish filmmaker is a fan of Guy Ritchie's two stylishly appointed and thrill-packed Sherlock Holmes feature films.

Indeed, right off the bat we have Frankenstein dashing in like Robert Downey Jr. to rescue his own version of Watson from a circus, where the hunchback is an indentured clown with a hobby of anatomy. When Frankenstein recognizes the humped man's heretofore hidden aptitude – revealed when a trapeze artist falls from her flying perch – he engineers a daring escape, fending off fire-breathers and knife-throwers while causing the death of a circus worker in the process. The escapade brings in Scotland Yard's Inspector Turpin, who was already on to Frankenstein's ethically questionable activities involving animal parts.

(The suspicious detective is played by Andrew Scott, who, as it happens, is best known for his role as the malevolent Moriarty in television's Sherlock.)

Once liberated from the circus and relieved of his ground-sniffing posture, Igor – he is given the name of Frankenstein's former assistant – cleans himself up and is basically reborn as a protégé of the single-minded scientist. For that reason he is indebted to the man, and finds himself in a moral quandary when it comes to Frankenstein's hubris and mad quest to resuscitate the deceased. "If life is temporary," says Frankenstein, "why can't death?"

Well, the religious Inspector Turpin reasons that Frankenstein's actions interfere with God's natural order. Frankenstein, who sees life as nothing more than "applied chemistry," has sneering contempt for what he considers religion-based fiction and irrationality.

As mentioned above, you already know the story, but the screen time to the "monster" is downplayed here, except as a concept of a creature bigger and stronger than humans.

McGuigan's visually vivid Victor Frankenstein races to its lightning-storm finish, running over the solid (if not electrifying) acting of McAvoy and Radcliffe.

A coda signals sequel ambitions – elementary, my dear Watson, that must be McGuigan's rush.