It’s alive! FrankensteIn returns – with a bromantic twist. nick setchfield meets the monster makers...
Frankenstein! It’s the greatest name in horror. Go on, roll it around your tongue. Feel the power of lightning in every last, corpse-bothering syllable. Frankenstein! It’s alive with electricity, isn’t it? Enough iconic voltage to reanimate a heap of stolen, stitched-together body parts. But it’s also a name that needs to be reclaimed, returned to its rightful owner – even if that’s an obsessed, grave-robbing sociopath with a nasty sideline in daring to be God…
“People say Frankenstein’s the monster and it’s not, it’s the man,” says director Paul McGuigan, pointing out the greatest fallacy in horror. “We’ve given Victor Frankenstein back his name.”
This latest take on Mary Shelley’s enduring fable of mad science shifts the focus from
creature to creator. With a screenplay by
Chronicle’s Max Landis, Victor Frankenstein maps the friendship between the title character and his hunchbacked aide, Igor. Think of it as a bodysnatching bromance. Think of it, if you must, as Frankenstein Begins.
“It wasn’t a horror movie I was making here,” McGuigan tells SFX. “It’s about the relationship between two young men and that’s what I was keen to play. These men are scientists who happen to make monsters.
“This is the beginning of the story that everyone is familiar with. Our story actually ends where the story normally begins. We create a monster at the end of the film. We still get the monster at the end – it’s still a very exciting last third – but that isn’t our movie.”
Don’t look for Igor in the pages of Shelley’s high gothic masterpiece. The crookbacked lab assistant is strictly a cinematic fixture. But then neither Landis or McGuigan set out to bring that 1818 novel to the screen. The first page of the screenplay bore the words “Frankenstein – based on (the pop-culture zeitgeist interpretation of ) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
“That’s the kind of thing Max Landis would say!” laughs McGuigan, whose movie aims to synthesise visions of Frankenstein from James Whale to Mel Brooks while bringing a contemporary insight to the friendship at its heart. “He cherry-picked all the good ideas from all the Frankenstein movies as well as Mary Shelley’s book and he made up this whole backstory of who Victor Frankstein was and how he and Igor met. After reading that script it felt like The Social Network or something!”
McGuigan has form when it comes to immortal literary figures. He made his name on the big screen with Gangster Number 1 and Lucky Number Slevin but also launched Sherlock, stamping Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s update of the Baker Street sleuth with a distinctive visual stamp. He tells SFX he wasn’t remotely daunted by the prospect of tackling this equally much-told tale.
“I was excited to take hold of it,” he shares. “When I did Sherlock people would ask ‘Why do Sherlock Holmes? It’s been done a hundred
times before!’ And then suddenly it comes out and they go, ‘Oh, okay… I understand.’ Max Landis had something new within his script that I liked, which was the bond between these two men.
“Igor was a contrivance of cinema, this weird character who’s a hunchback and who’ll do anything for the mad scientist because he’s crazy as well. In a way those characters were very much a reflection of what Hollywood at that time thought science was like. So we’ve taken them back and realigned this whole relationship. We’ve actually given Igor a voice. And to give Igor a voice allows us to see Victor Frankenstein for the first time.”
Igor’s played by former boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe, carving a niche as a modern horror icon following turns in Horns and The Woman In Black. “Daniel brings a heart,” says McGuigan. “He brings a voice to a character who’s never had one before. He’s a bit like Watson to Sherlock. We see Victor through his eyes.”
this is the beginning of the story that everyone is familiar with
Radcliffe’s paired with X-Men franchise star James McAvoy, cast as the obsessive creature maker who’s out to challenge death itself. “James is just full of energy and flamboyance. He will never just walk in a room. He’ll always think of another way to come through that door. He’ll run, he’ll batter down the door, he’ll come in sideways. Victor Frankenstein is a sociopath. He doesn’t like people very much and that’s hard to watch if you don’t colour that with some kind of energy and eccentricity. You need someone who you want to watch on screen and James is a person you want to keep watching despite yourself, even if you don’t know if you like the character or not.”
And then there’s Victor’s monstrous creation itself. Every big-screen incarnation of the Creature inevitably lives in the lurching, flat-skulled shadow of Karloff but McGuigan’s take doesn’t run from that comparison. In fact the man who reinvented Sherlock insisted he embrace it, neck-bolts and all.
“I spoke with Steven Moffat about it,” McGuigan recalls. “I told him I was going to do this movie and he said, ‘Promise me one thing – don’t fuck with the monster!’ And I know what he means. It’s so good. Why fuck with it?
“I was so glad that Steven said that because it really resonated with me. People were endlessly sending me sketches of how they thought the monster should look. I kept saying, ‘No, no – I want it more like Boris Karloff!’ People thought that was a bit strange but it was the best piece of advice I had. It made sense because a lot of these other Frankenstein movies try to reinvent the wheel too much. Sometimes it’s best to leave it be. We went okay, this is our template and we’ll make our version of it. It still has the same silhouette. We have bolts on the neck but they don’t stick out as much. And we had the flat head because we could.”
McGuigan laughs, realising he’s a creative soulmate to Mary Shelley’s monster maker. “In the film someone asks Victor, ‘Why design it this way?’ And he says, ‘Because I could’. I’m a bit of a Victor Frankenstein myself that way.”
Victor Frankenstein opens on 3 December.
Making a monster looks like a job for a lot of people.
Note the lack of “Victor” on the clapperboard!
Paul McGuigan: not in costume. Some filming took place at Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire. Andrew Scott about to do to Victor what he did to himself in Sherlock?