Reviews

Soviet Soldiers vs. Nazi Monsters! What More Could We Ask For?

With its washed-out color palette and jumpy, hyperkinetic visual style, Frankenstein's Army is long on atmosphere and dread, not to mention gore.


Frankenstein's Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst
Cast: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang
Distributor: Dark Sky
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-09-10

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
9

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Alt-rock heroes the Foo Fighters deliver a three-hour blast of rock power that defies modern norms.

It's a Saturday night in Sacramento and the downtown area around the swank new Golden 1 Center is buzzing as if people are waiting for a spaceship to appear because the alt-rock heroes known as the Foo Fighters are in town. Dave Grohl and his band of merry mates have carried the torch for 20th-century rock 'n' roll here in the next millennium like few others, consistently cranking out one great guitar-driven album after another while building a cross-generational appeal that enables them to keep selling out arenas across America.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image