When it’s firing on all cylinders, Frankenstein’s Army is a great monster movie. The creatures that appear on screen have an odd aesthetic to them: warped, fascistic, mechanized; rusty and pockmarked and necrotic; it’s humanity perverted into semi-primitive, semi-advanced weapons of war. They are killing machines in the best sense of the term, and little Easter eggs are there for genre fans, like a proto-ED-209 and a pseudo-Space Jockey.
I had a chance to talk to director Richard Raaphorst, and he teased the possibility of a second Frankenstein’s Army film, which would no doubt include more monster movie delirium. Raaphorst also talked about two other horror projects he’s developing that sound absolutely amazing and that I hope get made.
And yet even though Frankenstein’s Army has so much going for it thanks to the creativity and design, there’s one problem that holds it back: it’s a found footage movie when it really didn’t have to be.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical and VOD release of the film.]
Director: Richard Raaphorst
Country: The Netherlands
Release Date: July 26th, 2013 (limited, VOD)
My problems with found footage in Frankenstein’s Army aren’t as glaring as those in Mr. Jones. In other words, I don’t hate Frankenstein’s Army, but the use of found footage was enough to undermine a lot of the strong imaginative material in the film. Frankenstein’s Army is set at the end of WWII. A small squad of Russian soldiers goes to answer a distress call from fellow troops. What they discover instead is the insidious creations of a madman (or perhaps a genius, because they’re always a bit of both).
Since it’s found footage, there’s a certain expectation of verisimilitude, but it doesn’t really work for a few reasons. For one, the footage is supposed to be 65 years old but it looks better preserved than the footage from The Blair Witch Project. The footage also includes synced sound yet there’s no soundman present. The film tries to explain this away by saying the camera’s got a built-in microphone, but in one shot of the camera in action, there’s no microphone visible. (The film’s also in color and the dinky film rolls loaded into it last longer than just a few minutes, so there’s that.)
The most notable thing for me, though, is that the Russians and Germans in the film speak accented English rather than in their native tongues. This is one of those weird things that found footage reveals about my suspension of disbelief. In a diegetic narrative film, Russian soldiers speaking accented English is acceptable to me as a stand-in for people speaking Russian, but in a found footage movie, I expect Russian with English subtitles. It’s the same way that turning into a pumpkin at midnight is acceptable in a fairy tale but not in a Raymond Carver short story (unfortunately).
And yet somehow it’s this mundane stuff in a found footage movie that is less believable to me than an entire army of insane Nazi zombie robots, including a man with a giant engine and propeller for a head.
Re-reading that, this hang-up of mine is completely absurd, I agree.
Then again, I think it’s less a reflection of my own strange preferences when it comes to storytelling and more a testament to Raaphorst’s imagination when it comes to the creatures in Frankenstein’s Army. The zombots are all so coolly designed, and when they show up it’s a complete breath of fresh air right when the movie needs it. There’s propellerhead, for one, but there’s also this bizarre mosquito-like zombot that looks like it could have been a side creature in the first Hellboy, and an entire group of weirdos with crab pincers and lobster claws and scythes for hands.
It takes a little too long to get to this moment, which is why the movie opens up in a big way as soon as the first Nazi zombot shows up, and really takes off when we finally get acquainted with the madman who created these creatures. Karel Roden plays this iteration of Frankenstein, and it makes me wish the movie had gotten to him sooner than it did. Roden steals the film at the end, becoming just as memorable as the monsters. He’s less a mad scientist and more like a deranged mechanic or demented plumber. He’s a tinkerer at heart, his material flesh and diesel, and he grafts the pieces together like he’s fixing pipes.
In some ways Roden’s inspired work in the film shows a few ways that the found footage aspect could have worked to greater effect. The movie could have gotten to Frankenstein’s lab sooner, for one, or the movie could have been Frankenstein’s footage rather than Russian army footage. A few scenes, including one with a brain, show a lot of promise when Raaphorst and Roden are at home within the form — the scene feels right and feels inspired.
There’s a story in Frankenstein’s Army that could have fit as a found footage film without much difficulty, but it’s a story other than the finished film. And yet I can sort of understand the impulse to give the camera to the Russian army. They’re an entry point into the madness of the film, and they help as a counterpoint to the craziness of Frankenstein’s wokshop. But even then, the moments with the Russian army would have been more effective as part of a non-found footage film.
Even though Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t quite work as a found footage movie, Raaphorst’s madcap imagination and Roden’s acting make me excited for a sequel. If Frankenstein’s Army II is also a found footage movie, I just hope it’s executed better, but I’m really hoping it’s not a found footage film. That would give Raaphorst and Roden a chance to really let loose and conquer the world.