cinema, conceptual artist, cyborgs, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, found-footage films, Frankenstein, Frankenstein's Army, horror films, mad scientists, Movies, Nazis, Paranormal Activity, Richard Raaphorst, special-effects extravaganza, The Blair Witch Project, Viktor Frankenstein, World War II, zombies, zombots
Full disclosure: I’ve always had a soft-spot in my heart for found-footage horror films. When done well, such as with Man Bites Dog (1993), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), [REC] (2007) and Home Movie (2008), found-footage films can be genuinely claustrophobic and down-right frightening. There’s something about the illusion of looking at “real footage” that can truly mess with an audience’s mind, especially when the fake footage is seamlessly integrated into the fictional material. On the other hand, found-footage horror films can be the very definition of cheap tedium, full of huge plot holes and reduced to the hoary old cliché of staring intently at security camera footage, waiting for a cabinet door to mysteriously open (every Paranormal Activity film after the first one: take a bow) and wondering why the hell the camera operator doesn’t just drop the damn thing and hightail it outta there. By their very definition, found-footage horror films provide both a blessing and a curse: the ability to tell scary stories, from fixed perspectives, on minuscule budgets vs the inherent straitjacket provided by the “rules” of this particular subgenre (picture/audio degradation; a camera that must always be filming, lest we miss any action; amateur actors; slow pace; etc…).
Since found-footage films tend to be cheap to make and currently enjoy a high-profile within the horror community (for better or worse), there’s no chance of the fad dying away anytime soon. At its worst, we’re all guaranteed to see at least another bakers’ dozen of terrible found-footage films within the next few years (at least three of which will be Paranormal Activity sequels, I’m sure, with another couple going to beef-up the [REC] franchise), although I daresay that several gems will, inevitably, sneak their way in. On the plus-side of this equation, we have conceptual artist Richard Raaphorst’s feature-film debut Frankenstein’s Army, a goofy, gory, glorious special-effects bonanza that makes good use of the found-footage aesthetic while giving enough nods to classic horror and ’80s gore films to keep any horror hound satisfied. While it may not be a perfect film, Frankenstein’s Army ably replicates the comfy feeling of settling down with some good, old-fashioned trashy cinema, no mean feat in this era of films that attempt the look but miss the intent of actual exploitation cinema.
The film opens with a small group of Russian soldiers, in the waning days of World War II, on a mission into the dark heart of Nazi Germany. As with most filmic army regiments, these Russians are a pretty varied group of folks, composed of so many different personalities, ethnicities, attitudes and personal morals that they could easily serve as either a criminal enterprise, ala Die Hard, or a super-team, ala The Expendables. There’s even a film student in their midst (how convenient!), which ably explains away the found-footage portion of our proceedings. As the group troops around the desolate wastelands of the German countryside, they begin to notice signs that all might not be right in this neck o’ the woods, especially when they discover what appears to be a large human skeleton with an odd, horse-like head. In due time, our plucky group finds their way to a deserted church, complete with a pile of burned nuns stacked before its front doors. Since curiosity is only natural when one is confronted with a creepy, dilapidated church and evidence of a mass killing, our (un)lucky group decides to head inside to investigate. When they do, they notice that the old church has been retro-fitted into something more closely resembling an Industrial Revolution-era factory. When one of their number turns on the power (via a hand-crank, natch), the Russian soldiers realize two things: they aren’t exactly alone and they’re pretty fucked.
After their captain is killed by a grotesque “zombot,” a vicious power struggle ensues among the survivors, although one of the men, Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), has a little secret of his own. As the rapidly dwindling group progresses further into the abandoned church, they enter a world that’s like a steam-punk version of Saw until they eventually find the madman responsible for it all: one Viktor Frankenstein (Karl Roden). As more and more secrets are revealed and Dimitri takes charge, our intrepid “heroes” now find themselves in the fight of their lives, caught on one side by the megalomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together a new race of monstrosities out of the dead soldiers and busted war machines and on the other side by the evil ambitions of their own government. As the poster so eloquently puts it: War may be hell but this place is worse. Much worse.
Once upon a time, the horror/exploitation world was filled with little gems like Frankenstein’s Army, good-natured trash that mixed gooey practical effects, plenty of clever monsters, dynamic (if nonsensical) storylines and fast-paced action. Films like Maniac Cop (1988), Puppet Master (1989) and Wishmaster (1997) were gonzo good-times that seemed made for the drive-in or a rowdy, beer-fueled night with friends. Even though Frankenstein’s Army follows these originators by nearly two decades, it does their sordid memories proud, making for one of the most uproarious times a genre fan can have these days.
Writer-director Raaphorst is a conceptual artist, by trade, and you can really see the influence of his “day job” on his feature-length debut. In short, the zombots are all completely amazing and a few of them are absolutely jaw-dropping (try to not be impressed by the creature with an airplane for a head or the one who seems to be a living tank: I bet you still rewind and take a second…or third…look at ’em). As with the Puppet Master films (or any Full Moon Production, come to think of it), Frankenstein’s Army lives or dies by the strength of its creature creations and these are all top-notch. Truth be told, some of this stuff was as well-done as any of del Toro’s phantasmagorical creations and a few of them may have been cooler. Don’t shoot me, folks: I’m just the messenger!
Are there problems with the film? The answer, obviously, is yes. The found-footage aspect becomes a bit too obvious over time (way too much audio/video grain, dropped sound, etc…) and the Russian soldiers all have a tendency to blur together into one anonymous mob by the film’s final third. If some of the cast have a generic, interchangeable quality about them, this may actually have a bit more to do with the tropes of this particular sub-genre than with any inherent faults of the screenplay or acting, although it doesn’t make it any easier to pick any of them out of a crowd.
The most important question, however, is this: Do the various problems with Frankenstein’s Army detract from the overall impact of the film? Not in the slightest. In fact, these foibles are all things that are pretty much tied in with these types of film. The acting is actually quite good, finding a nice middle ground between over-the-top scenery chewing (could you ever have a Viktor Frankenstein that didn’t chew scenery?) and more restrained, atmospheric tension. The settings, particularly the awesome factory/church/abattoir are all memorable, made even better by the World War II time-frame. I’m a sucker for horror films set during the Second World War: there really aren’t enough of ’em, especially when one compares them to the glut of Vietnam War/Korean War-set shockers and I’ll always welcome a new member to the fold. Whereas previous favorites like The Keep (1983), The Bunker (2001) and Below (2002) were more measured slow-burns, Frankenstein’s Army is all popcorn film and proud of it. While I tend to gravitate towards creepier, more atmospheric horror films as I get older, I cut my teeth on the campy, hyperactive stuff and it will always be comfort food to me.
At the end of the day, I asked myself the same questions about Frankenstein’s Army that I ask about any film, horror or non: Did it keep me interested? Was I eagerly awaiting the next development? Is there enough imagination on display for several complete films? Did I stand and fist-pump at least once, if not more, during the film? Many films are lucky if I can check a few of these off the list: for Frankenstein’s Army, I had to turn the page over. Will I be planning future vacations to this little spot of cinematic terra firma? Absolutely. Will I be eagerly awaiting Raaphorst’s next film? As fast as he can deliver it. Is this film a complete blast from start to finish? Do zombots like to kill?