I’ve got a confession to make. I like found footage movies. Well, good ones. In fact, I even invented the genre.
Back in 2000, when I was a film student, I had this idea about different people shooting various mini films on a stolen camcorder. Anyway, that idea was ripped off by some bastard in Hollywood and eventually became V/H/S. But I never sued or anything because that film was garbage and I don’t hold grudges.
In the interim of that fiasco The Blair Witch Project came out. I still haven’t seen it and that ship has sailed now I think. No, my actual found footage virginity was stolen by Paranormal Activity which scared the willies out of me. Considering that it was made on the super cheap and that every idiot now has a camera on their mobile phone, it’s spawned a whole slew of copy-cat knock-offs, some good and some bad.
The general gist of all found footage movies is the same; the characters are recording themselves doing something or going somewhere. They come across something unusual and they all die or get lost or whatever. The footage is then “found” and presented as a sort of psuedo-documentary/warning about not pissing off demons or hill-billy Satanists (The Last Exorcism).
Unlike normal film, the characters are aware they’re being filmed and they often are the filmmakers themselves. This restricts certain things. So no Hollywood editing and no music save for what is happening on screen. No set pieces, helicopter shots or wide angle lenses. No typical horror movie cut-away shenanigans.
But having less options can be a blessing. Afterall, necessity is the Mother of invention. Or Father. Whichever.
An example of this is the fixed camera of Paranormal Activity. By having a single shot we never cut away from, director Oren Peli could really ramp up the tension. In the 3rd film (I think), they’ve got the camera on a swivel mount and when it’s turning you’re literally just waiting for some evil shit to show up.
The one thing any found footage movie has to get a cross really quick is why the fuck they’re doing it. If it’s not made abundantly clear why the characters are filming themselves sharpish we’ll start to tire of the lack of normal movie quality. It’s usually during this explanation that we’ll all make an internal decision that we’re either buying what’s going on or rejecting it. Sort of like an amputee getting a new limb – if it works it’s gonna be awesome. But if it fails, well sir, you’ve got a mutant limb dangling from you.
The Frankenstein Theory (2013) goes right for the jugular in this regard. The main guy, Professor Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche – Final Destination 3) is a young college teacher who claims to have evidence that not only was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a true account of an actual scientific experiment gone terribly wrong, but that he himself is related to the real Frankenstein. He also believes that the monster may still be alive today and he has the means to find him .
Naturally the people filming him (for a documentary that he is paying for) and ourselves think he’s full of shit. But he’s got a ton of money and a hot British girlfriend (Christine Lakin – Jewtopia), so we’re gonna give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Apparently, his ancestor had actually discovered the theory of genetics, but due to the fact he’s dead and all his work was burnt he has no proof. He happily goes into speculatory detail to Vicky (Heather Stephens – Dantes Peak – the girl who gets melted in the hot spring), the director. Behind closed doors the rest of the crew, Eric, Brian and Luke, all think he’s mental.
Vicky reminds them that it’s paid work. Who cares if the subject is fucking bananas. So off they pop up to Canada. Wait, wasn’t Frankenstein set in Europe? Well, we got you covered because during the winter it gets so cold that you can literally walk across the frozen Arctic ice from one continent to another. And the monster, clearly tiring of the aesthetic of mainland Europe, upped shop and went to greener pastures in Canada. Yeah.
Heading north the group swing by some dude Jon has been chatting with on Chatroulette called Clarence. Clarence is an unhinged meth-head who claims to have been attacked by some ten foot dude a few years back out in the wilderness. He starts freaking out when Jon pulls out an 18th century sketch that is apparently the spits for whatever tried to kill Clarence. To me (and the film crew), it looks like a rejected drawing from a Dungeons & Dragons manual. But it’s clearly bothering young Clarence, so they get out of there.
Shaken but not stirred, they continue on with their journey. The hot British GF dumps Jon over the phone, and he’s consoled tenderly by Vicky. But not in that way. He’s not paying enough for that. They rendezvous with Karl (Timothy V, Murphy – Sons of Anarchy), the no-nonsense guide. He has a gun and tells stories about people getting gimped by evil bears. He’s the type who sleeps with his eyes open. Like everyone else he thinks the whole expedition is a big joke but he’s getting paid to take a bunch of kids into the frozen wild, so who cares right?
Jon tells Karl where he wants to go – out into the middle-of-bloody-nowhere. He thinks the monster is tracking a heard of caribou for food. How does he know that? Well, according to a handy cross-referenced map of unsolved murders, Jon is pretty confident he’s nailed down the monster’s yearly migration. Wait, there’s a whole load of unsolved murders where we’re going? The film crew shit bricks. But money talks and they’ve come this far right? Plus Karl looks pretty handy so nothing is gonna happen.
Up in woodsman-country and the car is abandoned for snowmobiles. After a few days of riding they make camp is some old shack. We find some bones and Jon is 100% sure the monster has been here feeding. The next morning one of the snowmobiles has been smashed up and another is missing. Karl, whose car insurance is gonna go through the roof, heads out to try and find out wtf has happened. Jon tells him to calm the heck down to no avail. Karl heads into the forest and doesn’t come back.
The group eventually muster the courage to go find him and instead stumble upon his mangled body. They freak out and head back to the hut. Luke decides to head out to get help on the remaining snowmobile, but there’s a storm coming hard and fast. Will he make it back? Will any of them be alive if he does!?!
If the first two rules of Found Footage Club are you don’t talk about Found Footage Club, the third rule has to be that the subject matter must be believable. Now, I can believe the fact that NASA sent a secret mission to the moon in Apollo 18 to keep an eye out for the pesky Commies. I can also buy thrill-seeker backpackers taking an illegal trip inside the quarantine zone in the Chernobyl Diaries. I can even accept a bunch of students tracking down a the eponymous Trollhunter. But I’m not on board with Professor Jonathan Venkenheim’s theory of Frankenstein. Sorry Doc.
Maybe Frankenstein is so intertwined in the fabric of our culture that it’s too far-fetched for me. Maybe I don’t really accept the fact that someone so young would have enough money to pay for a documentary film crew to go on his wild adventure. It would have worked maybe if he’d been an older character, and he’s being helped by some younger family member perhaps? Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if Hot British Girlfriend had stayed in it for longer. Who knows.
As a genre piece, The Frankenstein Theory is 100% hardcore found footage, with minor editing, no music and purely hand-held footage. It doesn’t defer to the occasional non-found-footage shot (like in District 9) and sticks rigidly to the tropes of this film-making sub-species. Night vision moments? Check. Stuff that we the audience see but the characters don’t notice? Check. Annoying characters? Check.
Director Andrew Weiner actually plays this last part up. For one, the film crew are always moaning about being cold, about it being dangerous, about thinking the Doctor is mental. Well, dicks, why not just up and leave? It’s not like he’s chucking around Kanye levels of cash? Surely you can get others jobs shooting wedding videos or something. Their total reluctance to do the job just doesn’t gel with the fact that they don’t get the hell out of there when they encounter Clarence. Yeah, Cloverfield pushed believability boundaries with them never dropping the camera, but there was an emotional investment at work in that film (to find that guys girlfriend). In this there is no investment. So why keep filming and why not get the fuck out of there?
They’re all so feeble as well. Surely, they’ve seen Predator. They need a natural solution. Maybe instead of complaining, they could have tried to catch the bastard monster with some good old fashioned boy-scout bullshit.
The Professor is also as un-relatable. He keeps saying cryptic shit like “I can feel it doesn’t want to be alone” then spouts of science stuff about genetics. Get a grip. His whole motivation to prove that he’s related to this thing seems just too awkward as well. Because finding the Holy Grail isn’t enough; you have to find King Arthur, the round-table, and architectural drawings to Camelot too. Look, finding an immortal super-creature is pretty badass enough. The rest of the “emotional” garbage can stay at home, please.
Only Vicky seems realistic, caught between doing her duty, being supportive/pitying the professor, and wanting to stay alive. Karl is awesome, and actually lends a sense of realism to the whole thing. And Clarence too, he is genuinely creepy. But these are only the peanutty nuggets found within the larger mass of excrement that is The Frankenstein Theory. They’re few and far between.
So is it a total bust? It is an unashamed found footage Paranormal Activity-clone, and not a very good one either. I did get a shock early on when they nearly run over a weird black guy. It really comes out of nowhere and his performance is really unsettling. Watching the movie alone, I suddenly felt “Uh oh, if this is the level we’re at already, I’m gonna crap it at the end”. Alas, this was the scary high point of the movie.
Despite the lack of scares, the annoying cast, and the uncreative film-making, it’s the films very soul that takes the biscuit. It’s the very concept that beats this movie before it gets in the ring and gets knocked out by sense, reason and taste. We all have our own preconceived notion of what Frankenstein’s monster would look like. Be it Herman Munster, the Boris Karlov, the de Niro, or the woeful Eckhart version, we kind of have an idea of what to expect. In other, decent found-footage films, we don’t know what to expect. And it’s this unknowing that messes with our heads. The Frankenstein Theory can never deliver that truly unexpected feeling, and we’re always going to be disappointed when we’re given a fresh take on something so tried and tested. That’s just human nature bro.
And as Peter Griffin muses about the Phantom of the Opera, the reason a lot of people watch this shit is to see how messed up the monster is. And in fuzzy found footage definition, The Frankenstein Theory fails to deliver on this ultimate factor.
Get it watched if you like any old found footage nonsense and Frankenstein-related films (there is a market for that shit).