While the “found footage” genre has seemingly worn out its welcome with fans, many low-budget filmmakers have gone back to the pseudo-documentary style employed by the cost-effective genre’s most well-known progenitors like The Blair Witch Project and, although rarely given credit for it, the granddaddy of found-footage films, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. While the results have been decidedly mixed, there have been a few really excellent examples of the pseudo-documentary, including the brilliant Norwegian film, Troll Hunter, and, more recently, the surprisingly entertaining and effective demonic possession thriller, The Last Exorcism. The producers of the latter now focus their shaky cameras on an entirely different breed of monster with The Frankenstein Theory.
Recently suspended from his teaching gig at a university for postulating that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had its basis in fact (as well as the suggestion that he is a descendent of the man upon whom the character of Dr. Frankenstein was based), Professor John Venkenheim (Kris Lemche) decides to head into the great white north of Canada’s Yukon territory, where he aims to prove his theory by finding and filming said creature with the help of his college pal/documentary filmmaker, Vicky (Heather Stephens), and her reluctant crew (Brian Henderson and Eric Zuckerman). Using the migratory patterns of the northern wildlife, missing-persons reports, and a spate of grisly murders as a guide, Venkenheim and his team, accompanied by their gruff woodsman guide, Carl (Timothy V. Murphy), hone in on the monster’s location. Once the team sets up camp, not much happens beyond the usual infighting and grousing about the inhospitable climate and the howling carnivorous beasties patrolling the perimeter, but it’s not long before John’s monster makes his presence known, and the trip to document the creature’s existence turns into a fight for survival.
The Frankenstein Theory has a great concept, a few excellent performances (Lemche is deliciously disturbed as the obsessed professor), and very competent direction by Andrew Weiner, who wisely chooses to forego the genre’s traditional “shakycam” aesthete in favor of a more polished documentarian panache. All the ingredients for a great found footage film are here, but, alas, something went wrong in the preparation, resulting in a somewhat pedestrian, slow-moving, and, ultimately, disappointing concoction.
The fact is, we’ve all seen – or, more appropriately, in this case, heard – this sort of thing before; lots of grunting and groaning, crunching snow and snapping bones, with nary a monster or murder in sight. Yes, it’s all well and good to leave some stuff to the imagination, but when more than three quarters of what happens in a film is implied or, worse yet, left to lengthy exposition, why even bother shooting it on film (or video) in the first place? Just make an audio book or an Orson Welles-style radio play and be done with it. The first rule of screenwriting is show, don’t tell. Film is a visual medium, and while earlier entries in the found footage sweepstakes were able to get away with violating that rule due, the genre has moved well beyond that. Audiences demanded more, and, in the case of films like Troll Hunter (to which this film will no doubt be compared based on the cover art alone), they got it, with numerous shots of the titular creatures in action. Here we’re given just a fleeting glimpse of the creature, and, even then, it’s mere minutes from the film’s dour conclusion.
The Frankenstein Theory isn’t a bad movie – it’s actually better than the average found footage offering, and that’s what makes it so infuriating, as it had the potential to be so much more. While the concept may be outlandish, it’s also kind of neat, and I’d have loved to see it realized to its full potential. The script is mostly smart, the acting is solid, and the production values are top-notch, but, at this point in the found footage film’s evolution, you simply can’t have a movie in which the audience is expected to fill in all the visual gaps. Consider this one a rental.