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Frankenstein's Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst
Cast: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang

(US DVD: 10 Sep 2013)

Okay, first things first: Frankenstein’s Army kind of rocks. It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, but it’s offbeat and engaging enough to keep viewers riveted—this viewer anyway. It relies on the kind of “found footage” trope pioneered by The Blair Witch project and used (or overused) in everything since in from Cloverfield to Quarantine to District 9. If that particular cliché; isn’t a dealbreaker for you, then there’s much to enjoy here, in a gory, gross-out way, particularly the clever WWII premise.


This is a movie about the grandson of Victor von Frankenstein going to work for Hitler to create an army of grotesque, steampunk-inspired human-machine monsters. This secret army is discovered by a reconnaissance squad of Soviet soldiers passing through rural Germany in the final days of the war. Hilarity ensues.


Writing for The Onion AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky complained about the historical inaccuracies of the film, such as the type of camera used by the Soviets to capture their “found” footage, but you know what? In a movie that features Frankenstein’s grandson stitching together cyborg monsters for Hitler, minor historical oversights are hardly the biggest strain on audience credulity.


Anyway, there’s much more to focus on here, both good and bad. Direcor Richard Raaphorst’s decision to make a group of Soviet soldiers his heroes gives the movie a decidedly different spin than most cheapo horror flicks—there’s no panty-clad “last girl” in distress here—and the historical milieu does much to add a layer of interest to what could have been just another monsters-in-the-basement type of movie.


From what I can tell, and I’m no expert, a fair bit of effort has gone into details of costumes and props, and even the rousing, Russian-patriotic score does much to set the tone. There are occasional flickers of humor as well, especially in the opening minutes, as the conceit of the “army documentary made in the field” is set up.


Those first 20 or so minutes feel more like a war drama than a horror film, as the soldiers tramp across the landscape, attack a sniper’s position and generally act soldierly. These opening scenes also do a nice job of establishing the isolation of the surrounding landscape, all wintry forests and brown grass and rugged mountains looming in the distance. Intimations of horrors to come are sprinkled in as well, in the form of bodies half-buried the mud and so forth. Then again, this is war, so nobody worries too much about bodies in the mud.


Frankenstein’s Army is rather less successful at establishing character, and does little in these scenes moments to differentiate the men from each other, which feels like a lost opportunity. There’s the old bald guy in command, the Polish guy from Krakow who fled the Nazi invasion, the long-haired guy who looks like an extra from Game of Thrones, but that’s about it.


Not that this matters all that much once the plot kicks in. The platoon responds to a distress call from a fellow Russians reconnaissance patrol, and—ignoring the oddness of receiving a call when they’re supposed to be the only Soviets in the area—hurries to investigate. Before long they are poking around the ruins of a deserted—church? abbey?—some vaguely religious building in any case, judging from the pile of dead nuns outside.


This is the cue for the discovery of the titular army, and basically everything goes to hell after that. There are several gruesome monsters and even more gruesome deaths, shot with jittery hand-held cameras in poor light. Technically, the film is effectively crafted and adept at conveying a few shocks and scares, but the lack of characterization badly hampers the viewer’s engagement with the story. A bit of phony, jumped-up tension about chain of command does little to mask the fact that these Soviet soldiers are all fairly interchangeable.


The monsters, on the other hand, stand out in terms of their monstrosity: there is the ogre with scythes for hands, and the robot-thing with the flapping metal head, the one with enormous mechanical lobster claws, and of course the unforgettable gas-masked hunchback with spears for arms. And that’s not even all of them. (“Propellorhead” is a personal favorite.)


Cut off from the outside world with only a few captured Germans for comrades, the Soviets play a game of attrition with the monsters, which should surprise nobody at all. Besides this, there’s a clever plot twist regarding the Soviet squad, which does indicate that the filmmakers were striving for something more than the usual by-the-numbers splatterfest. And when Frankenstein himself appears in the third act, the intensity and grotesquerie ramps up yet another notch, but the climax relies on an idea more notable for cleverness than shock.


The DVD offers one significant extra in the form of a 30-minute “making of” featurette, which gives us plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of the production. There are also numerous clips of the various monsters taken from the film, which serve no discernible purpose, as no commentary or information is supplied with them.


No matter: with its washed-out color palette and jumpy, hyperkinetic visual style, Frankenstein’s Army is long on atmosphere and dread, not to mention gore. (There’s an awful lot of blood in the movie, including medical-procedure blood, so viewers with weak stomachs will want to keep away.)


Frankenstein’s Army fails as high art, but that’s unlikely to deter many viewers who make it past the title. The movie succeeds in many ways, though, as an effectively creepy bit of ridiculousness. Ultimately, this is a scare-fest, or at least a gore-fest, and as such it gets big points for inventiveness.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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