Ten minutes into "Victor Frankenstein," there's a scene so gross, ghoulish and goofy that it demands you make a big decision: Get on board this wild ride or bail.
Daniel Radcliffe's hunchbacked Igor is at the center of this devilish and deliciously twisted action-comedy that plays as prequel/counterpoint to Mary Shelley's classic novel "Frankenstein." After being freed from his circus prison by the impulsive Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy), the next matter of business is Igor's horrid hump. With a crazed look, the not-so-good doctor tackles his trembling patient against a pillar in his decadent London flat. Then after a quick promise of pain, Victor plunges an oversize needle into that malformed mound, extracting the misidentified abscess' repulsive yellow pus as one might siphon gasoline, with the use of rubber tube, and the scientist's grinning mouth. It's a prolonged process, punctuated by sweat, grappling and shouts from the straddled Igor, and completed by Victor proclaiming, "I'm pulling out now," before spewing pus all over the place.
It's not subtle. It is, however, hilarious. And if this doesn't sound funny, then "Victor Frankenstein" isn't for you.
Written by "Chronicle's" Max Landis and directed by "Sherlock's" Paul McGuigan, "Victor Frankenstein" reimagines the origins of the terrible twosome who have long loomed large in horror fiction. Radcliffe brings his effervescent earnestness to Igor, a friendless freak who didn't even have a name before he met Victor. Pulling double-duty as a kicked clown and disrespected doctor at a seedy London circus, he meets his fated match when the girl from the flying trapeze ("Winter's Tale's" Jessica Brown Findlay) takes a terrible fall. Together the pair repairs her, sparking an intense and often toxic relationship, founded on a shared interest in anatomy.
Victor brings the poor hunchback home, cleans him, cures him, names him after his mysteriously MIA roommate, and faster than a lightning strike invites Igor to collaborate on a project to reanimate dead organs. That leads to the requisite grand finale familiar to all "Frankenstein" fans, but the journey there is the true treat, chock-full of outlandish action sequences, bromance, monstrous moments (some involving a resurrected ape called Gordon), grandiose dialogue ("You toy with wrathful forces!") and delightfully over-the-top performances from McAvoy and his onscreen nemesis, a religious detective played by Andrew Scott ("Sherlock").
Every scene between McAvoy and Radcliffe is like a shot of adrenaline. Their chemistry is blinding, and McAvoy -- who alternately offers restrained dramatic turns or totally unhinged ones -- cranks his "mad scientist" dial up to 11, then snaps the damn thing off. He delivers the kind of camp that makes cult movies so distinctively deranged yet entertaining. Radcliffe is remarkable, bringing an impressive craft to the physicality of the role that demands he be a gnarled creature one moment, and a jaunty young gentleman in the next (albeit one sometimes chased by rampaging beasts). Scott, who brought scads of dark fun to "Sherlock" as its Moriarty, brings a welcomed sense of menace to his obsessed copper. But he hits prime preposterous appeal when he employs a freshly fashioned prosthetic hand to stroke his jaw while lost in thought. Would that every performance worked on this ludicrous level!
Sadly, Findlay is given little to do but keep Igor and Victor's relationship from looking too blatantly homoerotic. She's as lovely as ever, but the only color she brings to the film comes in the form of her blood-red and emerald-green gowns. Her sexual chemistry with Radcliffe is comically overshadowed by his sexual tension with McAvoy, which makes for the films richest and most compelling moments.
For better or worse, "Victor Frankenstein" follows in the footsteps of movies like "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." In retelling a story so known to modern audiences, it amps up the camp, the craziness and the color to create something so strange it's a miracle a studio produced it at all. It's destined to be niche, appreciated only in excitable pockets. But I'm pleased any time a big-budget movie this brazenly weird gets made. It feels like a victory no matter the execution. But to that end …
The frantic pacing that makes the first hour such fun falls apart as the story becomes bloated with villains and storylines. Plot holes gape as "Victor Frankenstein" forges into its climactic monster reveal. The final wonky moments might make you wonder if the short running time (109 minutes) and jarring tonal shift could be blamed on skittish studio notes. But its lunacy-laced story of a beastly bromance is wildly entertaining enough not to be bothered by this flawed finale.
"Victor Frankenstein" opens Wednesday nationwide.