Written by: Chris W. Mitchell, Richard Raaphorst (story), Miguel Tejada-Flores (story, writer), and Mary Shelley (characters)
Directed by: Richard Raaphorst
Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, and Robert Gwilym
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
War is hell. This place is worse.
It seems appropriate that a film titled Frankensteinís Army would be a patchwork effort that stitches together a couple of modern trends in grindhouse nostalgia and found footage. Iím almost surprised nobody thought to marry these before, but itís even more surprising that this idea is the one that inspired it since a World War II period piece that re-imagines Frankenstein as a cog in the Nazi war machine doesnít exactly beg for the found footage treatment (the anachronisms alone seem like a big enough hurdle). Its Naziploitation bona fides arenít in question, thoughóthereís all kinds of gruesome, brain-splattering, limb-ripping, undead creature feature action rumbling around, so itís a little disappointing that the filmís gleefully demented soul is handicapped by the gangly, unwieldy found footage approach that causes it to lumber about.
The film takes audiences back to the waning days of the second World War, where theyíre introduced to a battalion of Russian soldiers (who conveniently speak English with each other) trudging through Nazi-occupied territory. In their company is a cameraman intent on documenting every step of the journey, which becomes increasingly strange as they stumble upon bizarre phenomena, such as deceased soldiers arenít quite dead. When the group discovers a hidden bunker, theyíre even more startled to discover half-human, half-robot automatons whose mangled steel and flesh have been manipulated by an unseen madman operating in the bowels of Hitlerís army (spoiler alert: the title gives his identity away).
Itís at this point that Frankensteinís Army springs to life a bit after a listless introduction that, to its credit, allows the film to unfold like a true ďfound footageĒ movie since it eschews the typical mockumentary setup that has the characters explain who they are and what theyíre doing. Over time, you glean that theyíre in search of some missing Russian prisoners, so the film relies more on mystery than character development in order to build intrigue. That approach diffuses throughout, so audiences are always kept at armís length from the characters, most of whom wind up feeling like mowed-down fodder for the titular army. The cameraman eventually emerges to become more than a simple audience surrogate, but, by that point, Frankensteinís Army has revealed itself to be a gratuitous cacophony of blood, guts, and twisted metal.
And thatís okay for the most part because Iím not the type of guy to dismiss a movie with killer Nazi robots and the deranged mad scientist who created them. Again, after the initial stumble, the film finds a little bit of footing once the Russian troops actually discover Frankensteinís army because it begins to feel like a true descent into hell (which makes the bunkerís location beneath a converted church all the more ironic, I suppose), complete with cybernetic demons that spring around every corner, each more disturbing and deformed than the last. Forgive me for breaking out the video game comparison again, but the stretch of the film that finds the soldiers fending off Frankensteinís hideous creations is the closest weíll ever come to a Castle Wolfenstein movie (the found footage aesthetic here obviously replicates the look of the FPS at times, even). Frankensteinís Army also follows the structure of a shooter, as itís often nothing but a series of harried set-pieces that are occasionally interrupted by dialogue to move the threadbare plot along.
Director Richard Raaphorst is deft enough to keep those proceedings from growing too tedious, so the film takes a bit of a different turn during the final act. Raaphorst really plays to the filmís strengths here by slowing things down and reveling in the incredible production design as audiences are treated to a tour that has the camera skulking around Frankensteinís laboratory. During a sequence that subtly echoes the plunge into Dr. Satanís abode in House of 1,000 Corpses, the screen is littered with anatomical refuseóan arm here, a leg there, a head attached to a teddy bear (!) here. Imagine touring through the most grimy, demented, filthy funhouse imaginable, only without the seams and obvious wire-work. Instead, the effects and set design here are tactile thanks to some incredibly intricate (and practical!) effects that at least bring the world of Frankensteinís Army to life. Obviously, the aforementioned anachronisms require a suspension of disbelief, but it otherwise feels like youíve wandered into some forgotten Nazi outpost crawling with strange creatures and spattered with gutted, disemboweled carcasses.
However, while that authenticity is a boon, itís also feels like a bit of a curse since it speaks to the inherent contradiction running throughout Frankensteinís Army, as itís a film thatís attempting to coast on the faux-verite aesthetic of found footage while simultaneously tapping into the over-the-top, retro-grindhouse sensibility. Such an approach is at odds, and Raaphorst has trouble sewing the two together, especially since the found footage angle is never justified; in fact, it might be more of a hindrance because it results in a bunch of anonymous, interchangeable characters wandering around a funhouse maze. And despite the balls-out approach that has these guys callously harming animals, enemy soldiers, and even a German child while trying to outrun Nazi cyborgs, the movie never finds the sustained spark that it requires to excel as a trashy, Naziploitation throwback. Perhaps thatís only because the found footage approach demands that it stays groundedóI could easily see this idea truly taking off had it been played more like Planet Terror (weirdly enough, the footage isnít even consistently weathered, even though the found footage approach would lend itself to such a look).
But thatís harping on what Frankensteinís Army isnít instead of highlighting what it is, and I suppose itís ultimately a solid but ungainly entry in both its respective canons. Coincidentally, itís not even the first Frankenstein/found footage mash-up, but it easily triumphs over The Frankenstein Theory because itís not selfish with its creatures. Unlike that film, which withheld the Monster until literally the closing seconds, Frankensteinís Army trots out an imaginative horde of cool, varied creatures that speak to the filmís handcrafted film. Even though a more traditional approach might have done them more justice, itís easy to tell that this effort was a labor of love for Raaphorst and his crew, who have wrung every nickel and dime out of their small budget.
Peeking behind the curtain will reveal that, too, as it took Raaphorst a while to bring his idea to fruition, so if it feels like youíve been hearing about Frankensteinís Army for over a year, itís because you actually have (the film even had a presence at Comic-Con last year). After all the hype and cool promotional materials, the film has finally arrived on Blu-ray thanks to Dark Sky, who has put together a fine disc. The high-definition transfer is sleek, and whatever speckles pop up are intentional in order to faintly replicate the film stock of the era; likewise, the color palette is intentionally muted in the same fashion (even though it doesnít really come close to matching 16mm WWII footage, but whatever). On the other hand, the discís DTS-MA 5.1 track paints a stellar soundstage that engulfs viewers in the hellish fog of war; low-key atmospherics are also in steady supply, particularly when the audience finally reaches the thunderous, rumbling lab of Dr. Frankenstein. Extras include six quick glimpses at the filmís creatures that served as viral marketing, plus a high-def trailer. The centerpiece here is a 32 minute making-of featurette that destroys any doubt about the passion and craftsmanship that went into this film. Like a lot of similar efforts, Frankensteinís Army is a bundle of good intentions and killer ideas that are somewhat hampered by awkward execution. Letís call it an interesting experiment thatís half-failure, half Ėsuccess, just to keep this Frankenstein metaphor going. Rent it!
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