Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Frankenstein Theory (Andrew Weiner, 2013)

In the last decade, the found footage sub-genre has suffered from it's own success. Most famously, the Paranormal Activity franchise became a Halloween behemoth. Spawning three sequels of varying quality, the little found footage indie that could became a bonafide phenomenon and then suffered the inevitable consequences visited upon anything that gains any degree of popularity these days, including a backlash against the genre it's a part of.

The entire sub-genre owes a debt to The Blair Witch Project, a film that although it's still controversial, proved there could still be inventive, crowd pleasing ways to approach familiar stories and icons, and succeeded in scaring audiences out of their wits. Had it not become the most profitable independent film of all time (before Paranormal Activity stole that title), found footage wouldn't be a sub-genre at all.

The Frankenstein Theory is a film that is intimately familiar with the sub-genre it belongs to, and it's best elements result from that understanding. It takes the things in other found footage films that have worked and uses them well. It also avoids some of the common problems of found footage through it's cast, location and script. Most notably, it uses the aspects of The Blair Witch and The Last Exorcism that were most effective and avoids most of their mistakes. Some of the creative team behind The Last Exorcism (definitely among the better found footage horror films) are also involved with The Frankenstein Theory.

The comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are going to be unavoidable because of the way the story is structured. There are some distinct differences between the two films though. The first is that there's actually a script here. It's funny at points, and actually succeeds in building characters and acts two and three build on the suspense of the first act, instead of relying on exposing the audience to the same tricks more often. Having a script also prevents some of the dull, wandering repetition of The Blair Witch (almost all of the dialog in that film was improvised). Another major difference is that this film looks great. Some of that may be due to a difference in the technology available when The Blair Witch was shot, but some of it is the choice of location and that The Frankenstein Project had a proper cinematographer. It doesn't look so perfect that it destroys the found footage illusion either, which is an extremely hard trick to pull off. Having dealt with the fact that it will be compared with the more notable films in it's sub-genre, it's important to note that The Frankenstein Project is definitely it's own film and it's own story. The story, the hunt for Frankenstein's Monster, is slyly written in a way that makes this concept (which seems so completely ridiculous when read in synopsis) work pretty well.

Writer/producer/director Andrew Weiner does a great job of finding an interesting way into the story and giving the audience a compelling character to follow on this journey whose motivations are understandable and reasonable. The gist of the story is that one man believes the novel Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the fictionalization of a real event. He's an academic by profession, and his insistence on the idea that Frankenstein's Monster exists has caused him some career problems, which in turn are causing him some relationship problems. Getting proof that The Monster exists would not only make him incredibly famous, but it would vindicate him with his employers and his girlfriend. In order to prove this, he hires a documentary crew to accompany him as he goes to find Frankenstein's Monster in the frozen wilderness. The how and why this man believes he can find The Monster is part of what makes the film fun. All of this might sound trite, but the way that it's written and the performance by Kris Lemche make it believable.

The pacing of this film is spot on as well. The story and plot move along at just the right momentum to give the characters a chance to grow without ever running into the kind of dead spots that become boring exposition dumps. The characters are also grounded well enough to never come across as the empty stereotypes that populate so many films. The dynamic of the group is well established, allowing for all of their interactions to make sense without seeming forced and shoved into the script as an afterthought. All of that comes together to create a cast of characters that are likable and that as audience members, we're not just sitting back  waiting and hoping to see killed off in a way that will be equal in viciousness to the dislike we feel for them. There are a few really fun moments that establish just how out of their depth this group of people is. One particular scene, Joe Egender's opportunity to shine, makes a hairpin turn from being funny and kind of silly to being harrowing in an organic way, successfully ratcheting up the tension when the audience least expects it.

In some ways, second and third acts of The Frankenstein Theory have the feeling of a classic monster movie (minus the man in the rubber suit). They're built around the suspense created by the isolation of these characters, their relationships and traits and this horrifying thing out there somewhere that is inevitably going to come for them. Once the crew arrives in the wilderness, that isolation feels completely real. Timothy V. Murphy gets a few really great moments in that part of the film, hitting on the kind of major bad ass performance that he's becoming known for, and he also gets a really great moment that's reminiscent of Quint in Jaws. It's not a straight rip off, but it definitely comes across as a loving homage as he gives a short monologue about a polar bear attack.

Some audiences are going to find this film lacking though. It's not going to meet the criteria for the gore hounds. There's just not enough blood and carnage. Most of the violence happens off screen. Anyone who has already decided they don't like found footage films isn't going to change their mind after seeing this either. It's unapologetic about it's place in the sub-genre. There are also going to be people who aren't happy with the way the monster is used in the film. Some of it does stray from the roots of the story, the original novel, in one specific way,  but anyone who can enjoy an interesting new take on the old fashioned monster movies that also has a good script and good performances will have fun with The Frankenstein Theory. The story is the thing in this film, and to it's credit, even though it's pulling from one of the most well known and beloved characters in all of film, not to mention in all of horror, it works well. I have no particular gripe with found footage, and I enjoy a gleefully gruesome romp as much as anyone else, but it's not a requirement; so I came away feeling The Frankenstein Theory is a fun indie monster film that knows what it is, isn't ashamed of it, and seems more interested in creating a good story than just checking off the boxes in order to make a movie that will be most likely to sell.

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