Written by: Vlady Pildysh and Andrew Weiner
Directed by: Andrew Weiner
Starring: Kris Lemche, Joe Egender, and Timothy V. Murphy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The Frankenstein monster is real, and I think I can find it."
A found footage take on Frankenstein might seem eye-rollingly obvious and derivative at this point--of course someone is going to attempt to marry one of horror’s most enduring stories with its most recent stylistic trend. However, this is actually quite in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s epistolary narrative; since the story has been co-opted so many times over the years, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the novel was actually presented as a series of letters, making it the literary precursor to the faux cinema verite approach of found footage. As such, you can lower the pitchforks and torches you may have raised against the very thought of The Frankenstein Theory, especially since it has a pretty intriguing hook beyond “Frankenstein…found footage...good!”
Obviously, the film dispenses with the Victorian setting but instead occurs during the present day. Its subject is John Venkenheim (Kris Lemche), a prodigal PhD student with a stunning claim: not only were the events of Mary Shelley’s novel real, but his family provided the inspiration for the story. Perhaps even more outrageously, he supposes that the legendary creature is still alive and well and roaming the Canadian wilderness. In an effort to prove this theory, he teams up with a documentary crew in the hopes of seeking out this distant family member.
Despite the relative correctness of co-opting the found footage gimmick for this mythos, The Frankenstein Theory doesn’t engage it in any compelling way. Instead, it’s just your run-of-the-mill, minimalist Blair Witch riff, only Shelley did most of the legwork in crafting the underlying lore. If not for that built-in flavor, this could be any sort of found footage creature feature; with a few tweaks here and there, you could turn the Frankenstein monster into a Yeti or any number of mythical beast. As such, The Frankenstein Theory adheres to the formula: it’s dialogue heavy, doesn't fully reveal its monster until the end, and relies on atmosphere, suspense, and night-vision. While it accomplishes this moderately well, the approach is almost a complete contradiction to one of the myths the film is attempting to dispel: that the Frankenstein Monster is a mindless killing machine. Those familiar with Shelley’s novel know otherwise, of course, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in the monster’s (brief) portrayal here.
This leaves The Frankenstein Theory to be a bit of a mindless, dry monster movie that takes a while it find its pulse. Due to its structure, the documentary crew doesn’t even make it to the truly, isolated Northwest Territories until about halfway through, so it attempts to build suspense through other means, such as an interlude involving a meth tweaker who claims to have had a previous encounter with the Creature. The exchange starts off unsettling enough but soon becomes as laughable as it sounds once it degenerates into a Rob Zombie sketch. Once it moves past this and settles into the wilderness, The Frankenstein Theory thrives well enough on its atmosphere; the Northwest Territories offer a bit of a unique setting since it presents vast, desolate, and icy vistas rather than the woodsy, claustrophobic sort typically found in horror films. Director Andrew Wiener strikingly captures these locales, which bring ominous vibes to proceedings that so desperately need them; without its notable sense of atmosphere, The Frankenstein Theory would basically amount to a few bumps and growls in the night and a smattering of blood before its predictable climax.
The main cast of characters don’t bring a lot beyond general competence. Unlike a lot of found footage movies, it actually opts to feature recognizable actors, which somewhat detracts from the effect a bit. All of them are relegated to the usual stock characters: Lernche acquits himself well as a Frankenstein (er, Venkenheim) descendent, as he mixes petulance with genius right from the start when he recounts how many degrees he’s already earned. He’s just as obsessive as his name suggests, so he (of course) comes off as the unintentional jerkoff, thus fulfilling his destiny. The other characters are pretty bland—the three crew members are a bunch of smartass jokesters, while Heather Stevens plays the girl who’s actually in charge of the documentary. Eventually assisting the crew is Timothy Murphy as a mercenary outdoorsman/survivalist type; if his gruff, vaguely Scotts-Irish demeanor doesn’t immediately recall Quint, fret not: he gets his own Indianapolis monologue, only his version involves a story about a buddy who once had a scrap with a rogue polar bear that left him scarred for life. I guess morale-building wasn’t in this guy’s contract with the crew.
When people lob their universal criticism about nothing happening in found footage films, they’re probably thinking about stuff like The Frankenstein Theory, a film that packs most of its meat in its intriguing premise. Its idea to tackle this particular story in such a fashion is admirable, but it doesn’t deliver anything past the concept. Ultimately, it leaves me wishing someone else would adopt the general premise that Frankenstein’s monster is alive, well, and eking out an existence in modern times and actually engage it in some captivating fashion. Shelley’s creation is one of the most fascinating characters ever created, so it’s a shame to see it reduced to a fleeting, empty money shot at the end of a generic monster movie. Until that happens, we’re left with The Frankenstein Theory, which will be released on DVD by Image Entertainment on March 26th. The disc is about as bare as the film itself, but its presentation is solid enough: the crisp, clean anamorphic transfer does the film’s remarkable photography justice, while the 5.1 surround track throws enough sound around the room to envelop viewers. In some ways, The Frankenstein Theory mirrors the central themes of Shelley’s novel in its frustrated attempts at ambition; unlike Dr. Frankenstein, though, this film doesn’t overreach its grasp as much as it doesn’t reach far enough. Rent it!
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