Sunday, March 16, 2014

Project Perfectly Acceptable: Frankenstein: The College Years

Welcome back to Project Terrible! Tonight's movie comes to us from Al, my fellow blogger here at his site.

I have to admit, I've been pretty lucky this round. Dance or Die was pretty much okay, and now Frankenstein: The College Years turns out to be a perfectly acceptable bit of cheesy 90's comedy. I'm not going to go heavily into things in this review because, honestly, this isn't a bad way to spend an hour and a half if you don't mind some fairly goofball comedy and watching the early 90's distilled into movie form.

This is a pretty decent little lighthearted comedy. It has a weird but fun premise, and it makes the most of it. We're promised Frankenstein's Monster in a college setting, and that's pretty much exactly what we get. If you're interested in that, you're probably going to enjoy this film enough to justify the time to watch it. If you're not interested in that, well, that's all this film is, so you can safely skip it.

So, here's the idea. Frankenstein: The College Years is the story of two college students who carry on the research of their favorite professor, who passed on suddenly. That work happens to be the reanimation of Frankenstein's Monster, because the science used to create him might lead to perfect organ transplant treatments with no chance of rejection (the idea being that this thing was made by combining parts from loads of different bodies, so Dr. Frankenstein must have figured out a way to stop them from rejecting each other). Meanwhile, an ambitious professor also discovers the project and wants to take the monster for himself to gain fame and fortune. As you might guess, the students manage to reanimate the monster, have to hide him, and hijinks ensue. (It bears noting that this is quite similar to the slightly later Encino Man, which features a similar plot with a caveman rather than Frankenstein's Monster.)

The film, by large, is put together well. Decent actors and writing are matched by good direction, it just works on whole. It mostly moves quickly and keeps up a good pace, and is an easy watch in that respect. Your mileage may vary on the humor. Some is clever, while some is fairly standard 90's sarcasm and smug faces. I kind of alternated between enjoying it, and wanting to punch the heroes in the face, but I leaned more towards the former for the majority of the film. The plot is pretty much exactly what you'd expect, with no major twists. It's acceptable, but as I'll get into a little bit below, there could be a lot more done to make the characters sympathetic. It sometimes feels more like a sequence of events than a story, albeit a sequence of events that does tie together in a logical progression.

This is the part where I would often say something about "I can see the people involved in this film going on to do great things in the future if they refine their craft," but hey, this was made in I can tell you what some went on to do. Director Tom Shadyac became quite the director, responsible for several good films including Liar Liar, Patch Adams, and Bruce Almighty. (And Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but no one's perfect...I kid, I kid.) Christopher Daniel Barnes, who plays one of the two students, Jay, went on to a successful voice acting career, notably including the lead role in the exceptional 1994-1998 Spider-Man show. Our other lead, William Ragsdale (playing Mike), earlier starred in Fright Night, but has largely dropped out of the leading roles since--though he's had quite a career featuring a wide variety of recurring roles on various television shows. And our evil professor Loman? He's the very funny Larry Miller, who shows up...uh, basically everywhere.

So, basically, what we have here is a fun early effort from people who would by and large go on to hone their craft and have fulfilling careers. I don't think this will go down as the finest work for any of them, but I don't think it's something any should feel shame over, either.

Now, that's not to say it's entirely without problems. I mentioned above that this feels somewhat more like a series of connected events than a full story, and I should explain that a bit more. What's the difference? Well, basically, what happens here is that while we do get a connected plot and don't seem to miss out on details, there's not really any sense of adequate build to much of anything. The majority of the film consists of random hijinks with Frankenstein's Monster (who gets named Frank N. Stein, by the way, but don't worry--the movie is aware that's actually the name of the scientist), as he lumbers around the college, drinks beer, ends up on the football team, goes on dates, and busts a move. It varies between "oh, ha-ha, okay, move on," and actually pretty hilarious depending on the scene (the bit with him breaking it down on the dance floor is pretty glorious, while the football practice kind of belabors its point...a lot), but really there's little sense of plot development until a sudden spurt of everything happening at once about 20 minutes from the end of the film.

The fault largely lies with the part of the plot surrounding professor Loman, who makes his ambitions clear but doesn't really present much of a threat for most of the film. It would be much stronger if our heroes had to face off against Loman more directly, but Loman doesn't really get any information he needs to be evil until late in the film, so despite the fact that the guys are utterly failing to hide the fact that they have a gigantic reanimated monster running around campus (and, again, even name him Frank N. Stein in an attempt to disguise him as a student), he pretty much sits in his office trying to translate Dr. Frankenstein's notes for most of the film rather than being a more active threat.

I know that sounds like a small issue to harp on, but it hurts the film a lot. Without an active threat, we don't have tension, and without tension, we don't have character development, and without character development, it isn't much of a story. It's really notable how much things improve once we finally do get that late movie tension. It goes from kind of a sketch comedy show involving putting Frank N. Stein in various normal life situations and watching him do weird things, to a movie about two students trying to save their reanimated friend from being doomed to a life of lab tests and scientific exhibitions. It's just a shame it didn't hit that point earlier in the film.

Aside from that, the problems are more minor. The humor can be hit or miss, but your mileage may vary on that depending on your particular tastes. Nothing's offensive, but some is pretty cheesy, and sometimes the film reaches too far for a joke...or worse, pretty much explains or lampshades it. There are a few bizarre running gags, such as the monster falling over in the dorms and shaking the entire building (I really don't think he's that heavy) or footballs repeatedly landing in Loman's lab assistant's pasta for no reason other than that the movie seems to hate the poor guy.

There are plotholes as well, and while they can honestly be forgiven in some part since this is pretty much intended as basic comedy, it still bears noting that there is no way you could just pop onto a college machine, add a fake student with no sign of any backup documentation, get him on the football team and in the newspaper, and not 1) Get caught immediately or 2) Immediately alert the evil professor you're supposedly hiding this guy from. Now, to the film's credit, our heroes do get caught and do alert the evil professor specifically because of this, but 1) It takes far too long, and 2) if they're supposed to be smart, why the heck would they go about things this way? This is mitigated a bit by the fact that it's honestly a little uncertain just how lengthy the timeline of the film is, so it's possible that we're really only talking about one or two nights rather than a longer period, but it feels like a long time.

Additionally, Vincent Hammond, who plays the monster, is okay, but feels almost embarrassed by the role at times. His monster voice is a little too...self-aware? Basically, he's a big actor putting on a Frankenstein's Monster impression, rather than being Frankenstein's Monster. It's a little thing, but it's one of those cases where the person himself doesn't quite seem to believe the role, so it's hard for the audience to get into it either.

I won't go into the ending, but I do have to note that there's a bit of deus ex machina involved, though it's a deus ex machina with a little bit of setup earlier in the film if you're listening closely. Maybe a bit of Chekov's gun in the form of passing mention of self-education? Anyway, the ending does involve a few handwaves in how the students are able to accomplish quite a number of tasks, and Frank himself demonstrating some abilities that are only barely justified, so it feels weak. Somewhat funny, but weak. Even in a comedy, you have to build to an ending, and this doesn't feel like it did so very well.

Honestly, though, I have to reach pretty heavily to find anything particularly noteworthy to bring up as a negative here. You may or may not like the film, but it is competently made and can be pretty fun. I can't say I'd recommend going out to see it right away, but if the general idea sounded like fun, you might have a good time watching it. Terrible? Definitely not. Perfectly acceptable 90's cheese--nothing exceptional, but nothing bad either.

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