Nearly 60 years ago Hammer Films released The Curse of Frankenstein and critics and audiences alike went stark, staring mad.
Critics hated it. The gruesome combination of murder, decapitation, corpse stealing and the wholesale creation of an abomination led Campbell Dixon in The Daily Telegraph to go on the attack. He wrote: “When the screen gives us severed heads and hands, eyeballs dropped in a wine glass and magnified, and brains dished up like spaghetti, I can only suggest a new certificate – ‘S.O.’ perhaps, for Sadists Only.”
What offended Dixon so much was Hammer’s approach, ditching the traditions of Mary Shelley’s creaky 137-year-old novel and imposing new elements.
What’s more, copyright prevented Hammer from basing its monster on Boris Karloff in the Universal series of the Thirties and Forties. So they started from scratch.
Key to the film’s approach was its use of lurid colour cinematography that emphasised the gore. The creature – played by Christopher Lee – was a patchwork thing cobbled together from body parts stolen from gibbets. And his creator was a scientist of overwhelming zeal played with Byronic flair by top TV star Peter Cushing. Audiences loved it.
Flash forward six decades and Victor Frankenstein is dividing audiences and critics in the same manner. Some fans have embraced the frenetic style that sucks in aspects of Universal and Hammer whilst giving the tale a dynamic new twist. Others – and many reviewers – want familiarity and a touch of Mary Shelley.
Screenwriter Max (son of John) Landis focuses his revisionist take on the relationship between Victor (obsessed, driven, mad) and assistant Igor (moral, loyal, appalled). This is a buddy movie with some not-so-subtle gags and a lot of gore. It’s Hammer Redux. Either you get it or you don’t.
That’s certainly director Paul McGuigan’s take. Best known for Gangster No 1 and The Acid House, the 52-year-old Scotsman saw genuine value in Landis’s approach.
“Max has an extraordinary mind. What he basically did was cherry pick good ideas from the movie [1931’s Frankenstein] and from the book itself, and he’s created his own monster within that.
“He’s made a script, which has Igor in there – and of course Igor was never in the book – and he has these other little monsters that have never been in the films. So he is his own man.
“We find Igor at the beginning of the movie and he’s all hunchback, as you expect Igor to be but then you see that he’s got this passion for anatomy. Then he meets up with Victor, who also sees that in him. They work together to build what is a prototype and then it becomes a monster.
“It’s all about science. It’s about that passion that they have for it. And it’s really about giving the name Frankenstein back to the scientist. You always think it’s the monster, so that was great.”
Daniel Radcliffe cuts to the chase.
“It’s also unashamedly entertaining. There’s an energy behind it, which is just from Max.”
Casting two of the UK’s hottest young actors gives this latest incarnation of the Frankenstein story added commercial kudos. McAvoy, 36, is the acclaimed star of The Last King of Scotland, Atonement and Trance and, on stage, The Ruling Class, for which he received the Evening Standard Award as Best Actor.
Radcliffe is, at 26, the breakout star of the Harry Potter movies who, in films such as The Woman in Black and Kill Your Darlings, has proved himself to be a far better player than many people imagined.
For each of them Victor Frankenstein offered a challenge. Clearly it was also a lot of fun. In the US preview audiences have reacted positively to the evident chemistry between the two men. Mary Shelley would be spinning in her grave at the thought of a “bromance”. McAvoy laughs.
“The movie is fuelled not so much by creating the monster but also that these two guys have such a good time together. As an audience you want them to be together. It’s exciting; they get into all these adventures and scrapes… that’s half the time.
“The other half… if you’ve ever wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe utterly abused, beaten up, hurt, embarrassed and just manipulated by me, then that’s your movie!”
Radcliffe quips “I bounce,” and adds: “At the beginning of the story Igor is being kept in abject conditions where he’s treated almost as sub-human. Victor lifts him out of that. That sets up a very interesting dynamic in their relationship where Igor’s life has essentially been saved and made possible by this man. As we embark on this journey together he starts losing his mind [and] I’m trying to pull him back from the edge of insanity. So the imbalance in that relationship and the tension that results from that is what makes it interesting. How do you stand up to and tell somebody they’re wrong when they have given you everything?”
The buddy-buddy element passed from the set into real life. Each actor was a fan of the other with Radcliffe praising McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland and McAvoy pointing to Horns – “a crazy, unexpected film” – as a Radcliffe highlight. “There isn’t a specific moment you could point to as being ‘the’ moment that we liked each other,” says Radcliffe. “You just get on. It’s just like you have a connection.”
Victor Frankenstein is on nationwide release.