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‘The Frankenstein Theory’ movie review

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The idea behind “The Frankenstein Theory” is clever enough, if more than slightly silly: Mary Shelley’s monster wasn’t fiction, but thinly disguised fact.

That’s what the movie’s protagonist, a desperate, disgraced academic named Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche), believes anyway. Presented as found footage in the style of “The Blair Witch Project” or “Trollhunter,” “The Frankenstein Theory” follows a deeply skeptical documentary film crew as they record Jonathan in his attempt to track down the still-living creature that inspired Shelley’s 1818 tale. According to Jonathan, his ancestor, Johann Venkenheim, was the man on whom the character of Dr. Victor Frankenstein was based.

If Jonathan’s research is correct, the monster is still living on the fringes of the Arctic Circle in remote Northern Canada. This is based on Jonathan’s study of the migratory movements of caribou, which seem to be followed by sharp spikes in the number of unexplained human deaths. (The monster’s freakish longevity is explained, somewhat less plausibly, by Johann’s experiments combining human DNA with that of birds and other animals.)

So off Venkenheim goes in his SUV, hoping to restore his academic reputation by capturing photographic evidence of this proto-Bigfoot’s existence. If the creature gets aggressive, Venkenheim intends to reason with him. After all, he’s not some dumb animal.

Heck, even I’d make a movie about this guy. He sounds absolutely stark-raving nuts.

The feature directorial debut by Andrew Weiner (a native Washingtonian whose parents are local documentarians Hal and Marilyn Weiner) benefits enormously from the incredulity of the film crew following Venkenheim. Although the fictional director (Heather Stephens) seems the most open-minded, her crew (Brian Henderson and Eric Zuckerman) spends much of the movie winking and smirking into the camera in disbelief. Their doubts echo our own, which helps us to swallow what is admittedly a pretty far-fetched premise.

But once Jonathan and the film crew set up camp in the frozen north with their grizzled French-Canadian guide (Timothy V. Murphy), things start to go bump in the night. The film genuinely gets a little creepy at this point.

Fourteen years after “Blair Witch,” has the whole found-footage-horror genre jumped the shark? Maybe. Weiner, however, manipulates its well-worn tropes deftly. The fumbling for the light in the dark; the eerie, green, night-vision glow; the shaky camera; the hyperventilating victim as something sniffs around outside; “Frankenstein” gets as much mileage out this shtick as it possibly can.

“The Frankenstein Theory” is not a slasher film, nor torture porn. Most of the scariest stuff takes place just off camera, in the mind’s eye. Although the technique may be a bit tired — and the source material almost 200 years old — there’s something refreshing about the lengths to which the movie won’t go in its search for old-fashioned frights.

Unrated. At AMC Potomac Mills 18. Contains obscenity, a drug reference and some scary imagery. 87 minutes.

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