Frankenstein’s Army (2013) – Directed by Richard Raaphorst – Starring Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang, Andrei Zayats, and Mark Stevenson.
Oh, for the love of not having any new ideas, another found footage horror movie!
At this point, if Adam Sandler made a found footage comedy where he played himself, his sister, his nephew, a priest named Rob Schneider, and a Jack in the Box named Rapscallion Tookapoopinmypants, I’d likely line up for tickets early and applaud for 90 minutes just to see someone do something else with the genre.
This time around, we’ve got a cameraman following a bunch of Russian soldiers through Nazi territory near the end of World War II. There’s a bunch of shooting and shaky camera-ing and shouting in Russian-accented English. They trudge, trudge, trudge, shoot, shoot, shoot, sit and smoke, sit and smoke, stand and smoke. They have names but you don’t care because these aren’t people, they’re types: the old-timer officer, the noble soldier who has to do things he doesn’t want, the jerk, the newbie, the muscle, and other people in uniform. They trudge, and shoot, and sit, and smoke, and glance disparagingly at the cameraman in between bouts of saying disparaging things to the cameraman and—
What the hell was that!?!?!?
Was that a zombie with metal arms?
Yup. It was.
FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is the kind of movie that does almost nothing to get you interested in the story or the characters during the first act. It plods along in a competent, if uninspiring, manner, and then, in the sudden appearance of what the filmmakers call a “zombot,” the movie demands that you pay attention and you realize that you are watching something that is, if not spectacular, certainly much more than it appeared to be at first glance. This is not a movie that simply replicates the formula from other movies, or mockbusters its way into your heart-slash-Blu-ray-player. No, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY is, without question, it’s own thing, and that is always something to admire and appreciate.
I’d love to say that once the Russian soldiers end up in the deserted village where they uncover the Nazi zombots that it made me realize the first act was a lot better than I thought it was, but it’s really not. Even though the entire film clocks in at under 90 minutes, the first act feels dragged out and elongated. It establishes the look and feel of the movie, but other than establishing the cameraman is sorta unliked, and that principled Sergei (Joshua Sasse) and jerky Vassili (Andrei Zayats) are our two binaries, I don’t find much of it engaging.
Once the monsters start appearing, however, I can see what the filmmakers were doing in that first act and why it was important to establish certain things, even if it was done in a pedestrian manner. Vassili’s jerkishness, for instance, eventually brings him to a tipping point. It’s not so much the effect that this has on us, but on his decision-making process in the film, when he cuts off a finger of a guy just to get information from him about where some other Russian soldiers they’re looking for have gone. It doesn’t make me care for Vassili in any way, but it does make me hate him, which is just as good because it makes me committed to following the character through to the end. Whether you want a character to be rewarded or punished, the minute you actually want to see either of those things is the moment you have to give the filmmakers credit for doing their job.
Vassili leads a small group down into the bowels of a building, but only after delivering the best line in the movie to a German caregiver: “I am liberating your rabbits from fascist oppression.” The tight corridors are right out of Competent Filmmaking 101, the cramped physical location exacerbating the growing unease of the Russians. The jerkishness gives way to agitation gives way to exasperation gives way to fear.
The arrival of the zombots kicks the film into high gear. Monsters appear in doorways and from around corners. The use of the single camera format becomes an effective technique because we’re seeing what Dimitri, the cameraman (Alexander Mercury), is seeing and experiencing what he’s experiencing. There’s no security camera footage to de-personalize the experience and switch up the audience’s line of sight. Director Richard Raaphorst is committed to the single camera and makes it work because he’s got a nice narrative twist up his sleeve – the cameraman is actually the highest ranking soldier in the unit and he’s got orders to bring the mad German scientist behind these experiments back to Mother Russia. It’s not just a secret mission, though – bringing Dr. Frankenstein back to Russia ensures the safety of his father, so the personal experience of the single camera is compounded by the importance of the experience to the cameraman. It’s a really smart move and it’s in that moment where FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY really began to work its magic.
It’s a pretty disgusting form of magic, too, but I love the look of this movie once it moves out of the fields and indoors. Sergei and Vassili get separated from Dmitri and dump him down a chute to land in some chopped-up body parts. This move is another really smart narrative strategy – in the first act of the movie, the film seemed to be about Sergei and Vassili, and then in the second act, it was a three-headed focus with Dimitri added to the mix, but now in the third act, Sergei and Vassili are abandoned as we follow Dimitri through the laboratory of horrors.
Dr. Frankenstein is played by Karel Roden, who played Rasputin in Hellboy, and you can see a definite Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignolla influence on the look of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. Everywhere you look, Frankenstein’s monsters and facility are dirty and mad but there’s a touch of real genius to the madness. Monsters resting in tiled shower stalls. Dead bodies in a mass refrigerator unit. Blood is everywhere. So are body parts and corpses. Frankenstein cuts off skulls and cuts apart brains.
It’s disgusting, and as much as I loathe the torture porn of films like Hostel and Human Centipede, the inclusion of gross out moments work in FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. The reason it works for me is that the grossness isn’t used to shock and titillate as much as it’s used to bet functional. Blood and body parts do not represent the filmmakers attempts to make you squirm nearly as much as they use these things to reinforce the story. Roden is really engaging as Frankenstein, and because he buys into the genius part of the character (instead of focusing on the madness), it makes cutting off someone’s skull so you can pry apart the two halves of their brain play like an afterthought instead of the reason for the scene existing. Roden made me buy into the deranged genius of the scientist to the point where it’s like, “Yeah, of course he has to cut away the skull. How else are you going to get to the brain?”
Sergei and Vassili come back into the film, but not as soldiers shooting up monsters. Instead, they’ve been captured and we watch them get experimented on by Frankenstein. Again, it’s a really smart narrative technique to bring these characters back. Vassili is still a jerk, but knowing him makes the experiments done on him much more effective for the audience than the experiments done on just some random German. I like, too, how Frankenstein is working for the Nazis but hates them just as much as he hates the Communists and Capitalists.
By the time Dimitri started wandering around the basement and discovering Frankenstein’s lab and living area, I was totally invested in the experience of just watching FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I enjoyed Bounty Killer, which is still one of the most enjoyable ow budgets I’ve seen, but ARMY turns out to be an admirable effort. I love the look and became caught up in the story. Director Richard Raaphorst is a guy to keep an eye on. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Thanks for reading. If you are so inclined, please check out my horror novel, THE HAUNTING OF KRAKEN MOOR: