Written by: D. S. Ullery
I feel it’s important to let you, the reader, know at the top of this review that by the time I had heard of the film The Frankenstein Theory, the descriptive term “found footage” was capable of involuntarily activating my gag reflex. It’s 2014 and I’m jolly well over found footage movies,
Ever since the (in my opinion) vastly overrated The Blair Witch Project grossed north of $100,000,000 at the box office on a budget comparable to the price of a good new car thanks to a brilliant and (at the time) innovative viral internet marketing campaign (which convinced millions of horror fans that the footage being exhibited in the film was real), we have witnessed attempt after attempt to replicate the same success. That wouldn’t be so bad if- by and large – these flicks hadn’t turned out to be exactly what you’d think they are based on their descriptions: Cheap-jack attempts to make a feature length flick with almost no budget by presenting poorly shot, extremely shaky camera work as real documentary footage of a person (or group) experiencing a series of unexplained events that grow more sinister as they push the limits of what we consider reality, eventually ending with the death of everyone in the film, leaving only said footage as evidence of what happened.
Most of these movies head straight to DVD and for good reason. Of the ones that did secure a mainstream wide release (or at least above average levels of home video release recognition), only a handful are worth anything. Cloverfield succeeds because of its convincing presentation as a video file kept by the government. Diary of the Dead works because it’s George Romero getting back to his pure, not-studio-imposed indie roots. Quarantine succeeded (despite blowing the ending in the fucking trailer) because, well, it was really scary goddamn it, and that still counts.
But the rest? Crap. Ever seen Apollo 18? Yeah, me too. Sorry (Don’t worry, the shame begins to subside after about a week. It’ll take longer for the guilt to fade). The Paranormal Activity sequels are terrific examples of millions of people apparently having nothing better to do, because there’s no way anyone can tell me that, aside from the original, those movies are good enough to deserve their runaway success and not expect me to point and laugh. And so on.
You get the idea. It was in this spirit that I took the recommendation from a fellow horror fan to watch The Frankenstein Theory. I did the research, learned that it was produced by some of the people behind The Last Exorcism (one of the good found footage films) and that it had a very limited theatrical run before being shuffled quickly off to DVD. I groaned. But, having nothing else to do one night, I took the plunge.
Well, I can safely report that The Frankenstein Theory does not break any new ground in terms of how the plot of a found footage movie plays out. It follows the standard “eager group goes out to investigate a legend in the wild only to have increasingly scary things happen that eventually threaten everyone’s lives” motif to the letter.
However, this time they got it right.
The Frankenstein Theory represents a terrific example of the “building a better mousetrap” phenomenon- where something very familiar is pulled off in such a fresh, quirky and entertaining way that it really stands out from the pack.
The film opens with a small documentary film crew interviewing John Venkenheim, a university student who has been suspended from school for espousing a most bizarre theory- that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is actually a fictionalized work inspired by a real event. He uses as his proof copies of letters from the Venkenheim family vaults, which he maintains are the actual letters the sea captain in the Arctic at the opening of the novel was writing to a relative back home, explaining his meeting with Victor Frankenstein, a man in pursuit of a being he claimed to have created with his own hands. Except, according to Venkenheim, it was actually his great grandfather who was in pursuit of the reanimated man.
Venkenheim has paid the film crew to follow him into the arctic wilderness and document his efforts to track and find the creature, which he believes is not only real but currently stomping around the frozen north , very much alive. He hopes that, if he can secure proof of his theory, he will save both his reputation and the family name.
The pacing in this movie falls into the slow burn category and it’s taken some hits online because a lot of people didn’t feel there was enough of a pay off at the end to warrant staying with it, but I have to strenuously disagree. I’m glad these early scenes were fleshed out, because it gives us a chance to really get to know these characters before they’re put in jeopardy.
As the obsessed researcher, Kris Lemche is superb, giving a dedicated, plausible essay of a man who is determined to validate his work while also being aware that, on the margins of his life, he’s risking the loss of everything.
The documentary crew are also well cast, with Heather Stephens amiable and likable as Vicky, the woman who assumes our perspective for the majority of the film, addressing the camera throughout. She is ably assisted by Brian Henderson and Eric Zuckerman as, respectively, Brian the sound man and Eric the assistant producer. Henderson in particular is a joy to watch because he has a natural humor about him and the film, surprisingly, allows him to be genuinely funny a times. He certainly fares better then Luke Guiessbuhler, who as Luke the cameraman has maybe three lines and is the one truly disposable character in the film. Personally, I would have just had Eric carry the camera and eliminate the need for this extraneous person, but it is what it is.
They’re accompanied by a wilderness guide named Karl, played by Timothy Murphy with enough gruff charisma to remind us of Quint (including a scene where he tells a story about a polar bear that was a clear nod to the Indianapolis speech from Jaws) without seeming like a carbon copy, Despite his forceful and at times almost threatening manner, Karl is actually one of the most level headed and reasonable characters in the film and the movie has enough respect not to paint him as a bully. When he tells these people what to do, it isn’t because he wants to boss them around, it’s because he knows the wild and they don’t…..and out there, it’s life or death.
Director Andrew Weiner manages to elicit really convincing performances from his cast and he takes a wonderfully minimalist approach to what may or may not be Frankenstein’s monster. We never once get a good, clear look at its face and that’s why this works. The mystery – that question of whether or not this is what we’re being told it is (and Jonathan is convinced it is) – remains there throughout. No bolts in necks, no elaborate, lightning charged lab sets. Just glimpses of a visibly grotesque figure of massive size wearing furs and stomping violently through the snow covered forests, combined with the fact that most of Venkenheim‘s assumptions about the behavior of the creature and it’s hunting patterns turn out to be right, lending credibility to his theory.
The same can be said for the horror elements. Forget any idea of a seven foot tall, stitched together monstrosity tearing people apart limb from limb in full, bloody detail. There’s a place for movies like that, but this isn’t that kind of film. The focus here is on building suspense rather than hardcore gore. The deaths are gruesome enough for us to know that something ferocious and strong is out there, but not so blood drenched as to make this a splatter flick. I think that was a smart way to go. Make no mistake, when events begin to grow more dangerous as the film progresses and whatever it is they’re heading toward a confrontation with begins to make its presence known, this film rapidly gets scarier .
Now, with all of that praise heaped on this flick, I did have some issues later on when they switched to the classic found footage standby, infrared night vision. Yeah, they pretty much aped The Blair Witch Project in these later scenes, right down to Vicky’s cap being a twin for the one Heather wore in TBWP. Up to that point, The Frankenstein Theory had managed to work this sub-genre on its own terms, so to see the filmmakers fall back on such an obviously borrowed trope was a disappointment for me.
However, the film recovers from this very quickly and leads to a climax that is brutal in its directness and, if not quite surprising, is at least chilling in its inevitability.
The bottom line: I loved this movie. It’s a buried treasure. I was really surprised at just how much I enjoyed it, especially after reading reviews that called it “boring”. No, it isn’t. It’s dialogue heavy and it takes it’s time, but it’s a horror film for the thinking fan. It poses the question- what would really happen if there actually was a Frankenstein’s monster and someone encountered him out in the untamed expanse of nature? – and does an admirable job of answering it.
The Frankenstein Theory isn’t the most original film in terms of the structure and it’s not an action movie with tons of violence by any stretch. But I love the core concept, I found it to be very well made, it featured extremely engaging and above average performances for a film of this type and , most importantly, it managed to be legitimately scary. I recommend this one.
(For those who keep track: A gentleman by the name of Roger Morrissey plays the Monster. He certainly is imposing and inhabits the role well in the scenes where we see him.)