The most fitting label for Dutch filmmaker Richard Raaphorst’s feature-length debut is an obvious one: Frankenstein-ian. The movie grafts together Nazisploitation, WWII drama, zombies and robots, steampunk, and the aesthetics of first-person survival horror games. Despite all the genre splicing, the movie is never truly “alive.”
Frankenstein’s Army is also a found footage movie, and among the most egregious abusers of the device. On top of the usual nagging question of why the cameraman (here making a propaganda film) continues to film as hell breaks loose within inches of the lens, the production values are inauthentic for the period. While booming sound design and score, crisply captured dialogue and handsome cinematography tend to enhance the “traditional” movie, they distract here, undermining the subgenre’s conceit.
The period in question is World War II, specifically 1947. As the war winds down in Eastern Germany, the surviving members of a Russian battalion track a radio signal they believe to be transmitted by stranded Soviet allies. Undeterred by a couple jump scares courtesy of mechanically modified half-dead littering the surrounding countryside, Sergeant Novikov (Robert Gwilym) and his men arrive at a bombed-out compound. Inside, they’re soon greeted by a horde of “zombots” (a term bandied about in press materials, but absent from the film itself). These towering supersoldiers grind and gore their way down corridor after corridor, each equipped with a unique characteristic – a propeller for a head, a drill in place of a mouth, and machetes for arms, included. Turns out that Victor Frankenstein is to thank for these abominations. After his journal fell into Hitler’s hands, a German scientist (Hellboy’s Karel Roden, always a welcome presence) has been tasked with building an army from scraps of fallen soldiers.
The carnage is shades of Hellraiser meets Hardware, but the grisly zombots are hardly on screen long enough – or clearly enough – to be fully appreciated. It’s an odd choice, considering director Raaphorst (who has a conceptual art background) designed them. Blame it on the choice to go the found footage route. For most of the runtime, the camera whips across walls, floors, faces, feet, and, maddeningly, the monsters that will be the main attraction for many. (Warning: those made nauseous by “shaky cam” may want to wait until Frankenstein’s Army is available for home viewing, when they’ll be able to take in the frenetic movement from a safe sofa distance. I didn’t get queasy watching Blair Witch or first two Bourne sequels on the big screen, but this one nearly moved me to chunks in the middle of the auditorium.)
A common criticism leveled at Insidious was that the third act felt like watching someone navigate a haunted attraction. Frankenstein’s Army’s middle stretch is just as deserving of that complaint. Refreshingly, its final act is the strongest. The camera goes largely stationary, making the audience complicit to a few heinous operations. The wonderfully staged gore gags play out in unbroken takes, with practical effects. It’s also during this lab-set finale that the movie’s best bit of dark comedy occurs, when Roden, in the midst of a gruesome procedure, dryly delivers an expertly timed, “I’ll be right back.”
Hopefully Richard Raaphorst will soon be back in the director’s chair, utilizing a mode of filmmaking that better showcases his macabre imagination. Frankenstein’s Army has admirable parts, but as a whole, it’s an ambitious experiment that wasn’t quite ready to leave the laboratory.