Frankenstein's Army (2013)
"What is dead may never die."
Towards the end of World War 2, a group of Russian soldiers pushing into German territory stumble upon a secret Nazi lab that has been conducting unthinkable experiments based upon the work of Dr Victor Frankenstein.
Are you old enough to have played any of the Wolfenstein games? They were a successful series of first-person shooters set during WW2 and had the player facing off against waves of monstrous Nazi experiments in Castle Wolfenstein. They played upon the weird and perverse fascination that many people have regarding the Nazis and their experiments on the occult. In the darker days of WW2, it was long rumoured that Hitler and his top brass were looking for different ways to win the war and the occult was one direction that they tried to take. It's proven to be a gold mine for filmmakers over the years with everyone from Hellboy to Indiana Jones confronting Nazis who were attempting some black magic rituals. Frankenstein's Army is Wolfenstein brought to life, an vividly imaginative and concept-fuelled horror film which not only follows in the footsteps of films which dealt with the Nazi occult but stamps its own madcap mark on the sub-genre. Forget Dead Snow, Outpost or Iron Sky, this is the new benchmark of Nazi-themed horror, a uniquely perverse assault on the senses which takes no prisoners, leaves no idea unturned and will have you cheering and squirming in equal measure.
First things first though - enough of the found footage horror films already! With The Blair Witch Project being fourteen years old and Cloverfield coming up on five years, it's about time that filmmakers put that fad to bed despite the odd success (Troll Hunter, I'm looking at you). Frankenstein's Army shoe-horns this gimmicky, over-exposed plot device into the film for reasons unknown and it's a mixed bag as to how successful it is. The situations that the cameraman finds himself in are too contrived for him to feasibly hold the camera and record everything in the face of overwhelming danger (let's face it, confronted with those zom-bot monsters, you and I would run a mile). Other situations have characters coming up with reasons for the camera to be recording the action (the finale springs to mind). It forces the script to become too focused on the camera and less about what is going on. There's just no need for the film to use this gimmick and it would have worked better without it. However, at other times, Frankenstein's Army uses the technique brilliantly, with the camera sometimes swinging around to reveal a monster half-glimpsed down a corridor or something moving around in the back of the shot. But it's nothing that couldn't have been achieved with a normal camera and you get the sense that you're missing a lot of the great stuff because the camera is shaking or facing the wrong way.
After the initially drawn-out sequences of the Russian soldiers going about their mission, all hell literally breaks loose as Frankenstein's army of cybernetic monsters springs into life. Human remains fused with machine parts, these hideous monsters are steam-punk inspired Nazi creations right out of Hell. Frankenstein's Army then plays its aces, unleashing some of the most surreal and nightmarish creatures to emerge over the past ten years. Though filmed on a low budget, Frankenstein's Army packs in some incredible production design that would put the majority of Hollywood mega-budget films to shame. The tour of Frankenstein's laboratory that takes place in the final third is simply a fright-fuelled trip through the warped mind of director Richard Raaphorst. It's like a walk through a Nazi/occult-themed Halloween funhouse and the first-person point-of-view really hammers this home. Gloomy, damp, smoky visuals with machines rumbling in the background, screams and monstrous moans happening around the camera, and with the sight of hulking robotic zombies with knife-fingers or propellers for heads staggering from room to room with bloody, dismembered corpses lying around the floor, it's an unforgettable scene. Grotesque, gurgling creatures emerge from behind doorways or heave themselves up out of chutes with no warning. It's a claustrophobic setting, with no escape and a deadly surprise lurking around every corner.
Where Frankenstein's Army will win most plaudits with genre lovers is with this large variety of practical effects-based monsters. The only comparison I can make with them is to think of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser films and how uniquely outlandish and terrifying they were when they appeared for the first time - like nothing you had ever seen before. The selection of Nazi monsters here has that same 'wow' factor. You won't have seen anything as unearthly and as abhorrent as these monsters, each individually unique in their composition. Frankenstein's traditional fleshy patchwork experimentations take on new life when fused with mechanical parts. In different hands, these monsters could have turned out cartoony and ridiculous. But director Richard Raaphorst treats them with respect, refusing to allow their dubious nature to dominate, and keeps them grounded in as much reality as possible.
If there is a big drawback with Frankenstein's Army, it's that I doubt it will find much affection outside of hardcore horror fans. The plot is too simple, the characters are thinly-sketched stereotypes and the film does seem to power ahead solely on its conceptual ideas and the "I wonder what we'll see next" approach. Those expecting a torrent of blood will be disappointed as well. The majority of the gore is from freshly-dismembered corpses lying about Frankenstein's lab rather than any damage the creatures do to the Russian soldiers. There are two films tussling with each for dominance here: the blander found footage film and the throwback grindhouse flick and neither one quite wins out. Just when you think things are picking up and the film is kicking into gear, it stalls again, despite the best efforts of the cast and crew who clearly enjoyed working on this.
In case you haven't realised by reading this review, I loved Frankenstein's Army. It's one of the most rewarding horror films I've watched for a long time and whilst it's not likely to be everyone's cup of tea, there's no denying how original and creative it is. Sadly the use of the found footage approach restricts the scope of the great visuals that we get to experience, leaving the audience wanting to see more. Maybe that's not such a bad thing given how the film ends.
Director(s): Richard Raaphorst
Writer(s): Richard Raaphorst (original idea & story), Miguel Tejada-Flores (story & screenplay), Chris W. Mitchell
Actor(s): Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang, Andrei Zayats
Duration: 84 mins