Friday, June 05, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

The Frankenstein Theory (2013) proceeds from a fascinating and inventive notion.

What if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1814) is not a work of fiction at all, but rather a fictionalized version of a true story?

Since the 1930s, many adaptations of Shelley’s story have graced the silver screen, but the modern found footage format permits director Andrew Weiner to examine the core conceit that the Frankenstein Monster is real and still prowling the Arctic Circle in a novel and often satisfying way.

The Frankenstein Theory cleverly erects a plausible case for the Frankenstein Monster as a real, historical creature, and brings in a lot of small, smart details from Shelley’s literary work. The film’s down-side is, simply, that -- because of a low-budget -- it doesn’t really build in a significant way, or offer much of a pay-off. The last act never reaches the threshold of terror one might hope for or expect.

A documentary crew goes to the Arctic Circle and tracks down the Monster, and the film ends with a nod and a oblique wink towards Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (or the 1984 cult-slasher film, The Prey..) but with no real visceral or vital thoughts about the preceding 87 minutes. 

Surprisingly, however, the characters featured here are better drawn than they are in many found-footage horror films.  But finally the movie has no valuable commentary on the discoveries made by them.

So credit this found-footage movie with a terrific premise, and some strong attention to detail. The Frankenstein Theory is intelligent, but, in the final analysis, the movie is little bit of a let-down in terms of execution.

“This isn’t going to end well.”

Dr. Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche) has been ostracized from the academic community, and is on the verge of losing his girlfriend too, all because he keeps pursuing a crazy theory. 

In short, that theory is that the Frankenstein Monster is not a work of fiction, but a real, honest-to-goodness living creature.

Venkenheim hires a camera crew and producer, Vicki (Heather Stephens) to record his journey as he relates his theory and goes in search of the monster. 

As proof of his hypothesis, he shows the camera crew yellowed letters to and from Captain and Margaret Walton, characters featured in Shelley’s epistolary work. He also shows them an old photograph of an ancestor’s laboratory at the University of Ingolstadt.  Jonathan reveals how an ancestor there, working from the research of the Bavarian Illuminati, delved into genetic science and forged…life.

Vicky and her crew are understandably suspicious about Venkenheim’s claims, but follow him to the Arctic Circle.  First, they interview a man who claims to have survived an encounter with the monster.  And then they meet their guide for the northern trek: Karl (Timothy Murphy).

Riding snow-mobiles, Jonathan, Vicky, Karl and the crew travel sixty kilometers into the middle of nowhere, to a place called Potter’s Gulch.  Although Karl is more concerned about polar bear attacks than the Frankenstein Monster, Jonathan presents an intriguing and rigorous case about mysterious deaths in the area…

“The Creature has enormous destructive potential.”

The Frankenstein Theory’s best quality involves the myriad and smart ways the film’s action ties in with Shelley’s work. 

Our protagonist, the slightly unhinged Jonathan Venkenheim, lays out a solid case for the creature’s existence, utilizing letters, photographs, a rough sketch, and police records about the death of a child and the trial of a governess centuries earlier.  

In the last case, fans of the novel will remember that Justine Moritz raised Victor Frankenstein’s young brother, William, and was executed for his murder. In truth, the Monster was responsible. The movie remembers that interlude in the literary work too.

Similarly, most movie versions (save for the 1994 Kenneth Branagh adaptation…) entirely omit the book's prologue involving Captain Walton and his ship, stranded in the Arctic Circle. The Frankenstein Theory instead adopts that element of the literary work as its starting point.

The film’s central unanswered question also links back cleverly to Mary Shelley's original creation. 

Nobody really knows why the Frankenstein Monster is killing people in the film. 

Is it so he isn’t discovered?  Is it to maintain the secret of his existence?  

The film’s final, long shot (creepily held for a long time) explains an alternative answer, and leads right back to Shelley's development of Adam, the Monster.. The creature wants -- has always wanted -- the companionship of a female.

So give this found footage film some credit, certainly, for knowing its source material well, and using that cherished source material effectively as a starting point for the story.

And it surprises me to admit it, but I was also rather taken with the film’s many characters.  At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like Kris Lemche as Venkenheim much, primarily because he looks so young, especially to be an established -- then ostracized -- college professor.  I was burned, recently, by Daylight (2013), a film in which adult social workers are played by actors who look like they haven’t yet turned twenty.  

But after the first few scenes, one gets the impression from Lemche's solid work that Venkenheim is a misunderstood genius. His relative youth plays into that perception, and the character discusses how he graduated high school at sixteen, and then attended Oxford.  

One senses from Lemche’s portrayal that Venkenheim doesn’t take failure well, and is hell-bent on proving his unusual, but brilliant theory.  Also, of course, Venkenheim is a modern-day scientist -- a modern day Victor Frankenstein -- someone taken with ambition; someone who simply doesn't know when to stop pursuing the truth; when to turn back.

Similarly, Timothy Murphy’s Karl is a great character.  He is clearly a variation on Quint (Robert Shaw) from Jaws (1975), to be certain, but he’s fun to watch, and carefully drawn.  Karl can sleep through anything -- including wolves baying at the moon -- and at one point gruffly tells a story of friends menaced by polar bears in the Arctic Circle.  The harrowing story is, of course, the equivalent of Quint’s Indianapolis tale on the Orca in the Steven Spielberg picture.  But Murphy is perfect as the grumpy, no-nonsense, strong-but-silent mountain man.  The character works as a great foil to the sassy and sometimes assy camera-men, who are products, clearly of our technological (indoor-based..) society.

And finally, those camera-men are actually pretty funny.  At times, the camera pans to their priceless reactions to Venkenheim’s theories, and without going over the top, these characters provide the film a real sense of humor.  The humor isn't forced.  It feels remarkably natural.

All these performances in The Frankenstein Theory are better than a found-footage horror movie demands, frankly, and go a long way towards making the movie a compelling work of art.  

Where The Frankenstein Theory collapses, unfortunately, is in the horror movie stuff; in the terrain of terror.  

Nothing scary really happens. Ever.

On two occasions, the survivors of the party simply happen upon dead colleagues. Another, crucial death scene also takes place largely-off camera. So the red meat that a horror fan may be seeking in the film is absent.

Instead, the film relies on some very Blair Witch-ian type moments.  There's an extended scene using night vision, set in a cabin in the Arctic.  

Noises are hear outside, while the characters react fearfully. 

This sub-genre trope was last used (and better used, in Willow Creek [2014]).  But after a long night of creepy noises, the characters leave their shelter to find the camp destroyed, and that too is a familiar scene. We see the aftermath, but no attack. Presumably, this is because found footage movies are inexpensive to make.  It's easier and cheaper to depict the chaos after the appearance of a monster, rather than the monster attack itself.

I’m the first one to champion cerebral horror movies, but even thoughtful horror movies must create and sustain an air of tension or suspense, and The Frankenstein Theory, for all its humor and intelligence, never proves scary. It proves interesting as hell, but not scary.

So The Frankenstein Theory really is better in theory than in practice.  

Yet I would still recommend it if you are a fan of the found footage format, or of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


  1. I recommend the graphic novel "Heart of the Beast." It's an excellent take on the idea of the Frankenstein story actually happening.

  2. Watching the series 'Penny Dreadful', I have now a renewed interest in the story of Frankenstein. This is definitely on the to-see list.

  3. I wanted to like this more than I did. It probably hurt that I watched it right after the zany FRANKENSTEIN'S ARMY which isn't as aspirational but a hell of a lot more fun.