The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

MARCH 21, 2013


So here's an interesting situation - The Frankenstein Theory thankfully avoids the problem I've seen in a lot of found footage movies as of late, in that it almost never has characters filming things for no reason, doesn't have "coverage" (a problem I was very afraid of since it was from some of the producers of Last Exorcism, one of the worst offenders), and, most importantly, isn't about a haunted asylum. But because it follows the "rules" for the most part (it has a score at times, and whoever found the footage apparently wanted to classy it up a bit with occasional establishing shots even when things have gone to hell), it has another problem: it's kind of a chore to sit through.

For starters, writer/director/producer Andrew Weiner has clearly seen Blair Witch Project and possibly Troll Hunter (the movie is copyright 2011, same year Troll Hunter first started playing in the US), and apes their structure a bit too closely at times, especially in the 3rd act where a character disappears without a trace, howls are heard in the middle of the night when they think they're safe in their tents, etc. The deja vu got to be a bit much for me, and that's for a movie that already hadn't done much to win me over. Perhaps it's just because I've seen a lot of these things, but at no point did I find myself thinking "Oh, that's new!".

But isn't it about Frankenstein? Yeah, technically. The setup is the best part: our flawed hero is a descendent of the real Frankenstein (named Venkenheim), who believes that his creation inspired Mary Shelley's book and that the creature is still roaming around in the Canadian part of the Arctic Circle. So he does what anyone would do: gathers a documentary crew of four (really three; the camera guy is very serious about his job and we almost never see him - he's like Cambot from MST3k) and heads into the wilderness with more film equipment than food, no weapons of note, etc. To be fair, they didn't expect to be gone for as long as they end up being there and they do hire a guide (who is very matter of fact and has a thick accent, which is what made me think of Troll Hunter, though at one point the movie just becomes Jaws as he tells a horrific story about an encounter with a polar bear), but still, don't any of these folks ever hire some off-duty police officers or something when tracking a dangerous monster?

And that's the other thing - it's an awesome concept, but it sadly plays out just like any other FF about trying to find Bigfoot, trolls (natch), etc. Even when Venkenheim (Kris Lemche, the only actor I recognized, though the sound guy reminded me a lot of Joe Lynch) is talking about his ancestor and the science of the monster, the movie never really dives into it enough for it to have its own identity apart from those others. Also (SPOILER), we only really see the monster once in the last shot, and looks pretty great which doesn't help matters any - why didn't you let us see him throughout the movie? And why turn him into a generic lumbering brute, instead of something with a bit of character and intelligence like in the 1994 film (which is one of the few (only?) to use the idea of him being in the Arctic)? It's like they had all these potential paths to take that would turn this into something really memorable, and opted to do the same sort of stuff even a casual fan of the genre has probably seen enough by now.

It's also difficult to tell the characters apart at times, as they're all bundled up (even the coat colors are similar!) and often in the dark - the third act has a lot of night vision where even Lemche (who has a distinctive face) kind of blends with the others. That said, I do like that it was set in the snow, which is rare for these things and boosted the survival aspect to some extent, especially since (again) they're stuck out there longer than planned. Plus, even if it kind of hurt the movie in the long run, there IS some realism to the idea that people shooting a documentary under extreme conditions might end up with footage that isn't exactly movie-ready. But this is a "meet me halfway" genre; we can accept some boredom and not getting everything in the shot, but every now and then it's OK to cheat to provide us with some release. I mean, hell, all of the kills are off-screen - one or two makes some sense but come on, they can't offer ONE SHOT of the guy with the camera walking right into the monster?

And it's a shame, because this is actually the most likable cast in one of these things that I've seen in ages. I loved the interplay between the sound guy and the backup camera operator (not sure if he had any other function), and the girl who was directing was charming and did a fine job of looking out for her team while keeping Venkenheim on track. Venkenheim butts heads with the others from time to time, but it's natural frustrating coming to a head, not the usual just plain dickishness that clouds a lot of these movies. And Weiner keeps shaki-cam and other obnoxious staples of the mock-doc genre to a minimum, and even finds a few ways to add excitement before they even get to the snow: there's an early bit where the director is talking to the camera while driving and almost hits a guy (who then tries to pull her out of the car), and an interview subject who also happens to be a meth-head suddenly turns hostile and pulls a gun on them. So that stuff, along with the setup, makes this the rare found footage movie where the first act is better than the others - usually these things are interminable until the back half, but that's pretty much where this one's problems really start.

However, Weiner definitely approaches this sort of thing more logically than most of his peers, so hopefully he will try again with a more unique script. I was saying the other night on a podcast - the GENRE isn't "found footage", it's applying it TO a genre. You can take any of those sub-genres listed on the right and make a found footage movie out of it, so there's no need to stick to ghosts in buildings and monsters in the woods all the time. I know most of the review is negative, but it's really not a bad movie, and if you've only seen the Paranormal Activities out of this recent wave I'd definitely recommend it if you don't mind a lack of on-screen action (it's not rated but it could be PG-13 save for language). I'm mostly disappointed in the vast chasm between the promise of the setup and the execution - if you strip Lemche's dialogue out it's basically yet another Bigfoot one. Better than the other two I've seen recently, but not enough to stave off the feeling I had already seen it.

What say you?

P.S. Filmmakers, I BEG you - change the damn Final Cut Pro default font for your titles! As soon as I see it, it just sends one word to my head: "lazy". I swear they make it ugly on purpose so that people DON'T use it and you go ahead and do it anyway.


  1. Hmm. I actually noted many instances of "coverage" in the film, if by that you mean the camera cutting to different shots and camera angles within a single scene that would be impossible with their established documentary camera setup. I noticed at least once a glaring instance in which the camera jumped from in front of two characters to behind them without any passage of time or a cameraman visible in either shot (I think this was when one character was riding off on a snowmobile), but I recall smaller bits of camera confusion as well.

    1. They have two cameras, and one of them is a tiny DLSR that you wouldn't see unless you could actually see the hands.

    2. Yeah, I recognized that there were two cameras, but I'm still dubious about how some of the cuts within scenes could have been accomplished, even with two possible operators. I'll have to go back and check, but I'm fairly confident. (And yeah, matters aren't helped by the Cambot-quiet dude, whose silence sort of makes the FF aesthetic feel really artificial in this movie anyway, as if they wanted to make it more "cinematic" by removing the human operator while still having it conform to the trend). Anyway, solid review; I felt virtually the same way about the film.

  2. Just want to quickly add one thing here: do you think (SPOILER) Frankenstein carried the girl and fading from the horizon in the final scene meant Frankenstein might eventually have a baby with her?

    I spell out this question because Venkenheim kept emphasizing the psychological status of Frankie to be lonely, rejected, failed to find his own kind, and so on....

    I go for the thought that the ending is an echoing of those understandings toward Frankie. Otherwise, I failed to find a sensible point other than they confirmed the existence of Frankenstein.


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