rating: 3/5If you think youve seen every possible extrapolation of the found footage concept, think again. Richard Raaphorsts Frankensteins Army may do its best to adhere to a first-person camera perspective, but its crazed mixture of classic old-school Gothic horror, steam-punk monsters and extravagant gore effects ensure that it feels fresher than other recent forays in the genre. While theres not exactly a good reason that Army need be a found footage film, the approach doesnt inhibit what Raaphorst is up to, and on more than one occasion it allows him to have a certain degree of trashy fun with the concept. Whether this ends up being to the delight of the audience, or at their expense, will depend entirely on the squeamishness of the viewer. Its the waning days of WWII and we are behind German lines with a Russian recon squad who pick-up another units distress call and make their way to an abandoned church only to find it has become the deranged laboratory of Victor Frankensteins son, now working for the Nazis. Raaphorst, who has been working on this film in some form or other for about ten years, takes his time in setting everything up; the unit and their mistreatment of innocent villagers, the questionable motives of the cameraman, Dmitri (Alexander Mercury), and the suggested nature of the cruelty inflicted at the site. As the team make their way through the tunnels and warrens leading to the lab, they begin to encounter monstrous chimeras of blood, bone and metal, forged together by some dark alchemy and now stalking the shadows as undead soldiers. In the films turgid, teasing first act, theres an odd feeling we are watching someone play an early first person shooter like Wolfenstein, featuring monsters that are refreshingly realthanks to the practical fx workbut lacking characters that feel grounded or interesting. -->
Its not really until the second half, when Raaphorst starts involving the stranded Russians in skirmishes with his twisted creations, that t Army takes off and becomes the demented, splattery offering the title promises. Theres a good deal of fun to be had with the picture, as long as you arent looking for much more than creative gore and imaginative monsters tied together with a modestly designed carnival ride. Raaphorst, who worked as a concept artist for both Brian Yuzna (Faust, Beyond Re-Animator) and Stuart Gordon (Dagon), brings a sinister and almost classical edge to his monstrosities, melding sickening visceral imagery with absurd, sublimely incongruous mash-ups; tantalizing proof can be found in aptly named opponents like PropellerHead, Machete Zombot, Mosquito and Protobot.
The frustrating first-person camera obscures the wealth of detail that has been lavished here, not just upon Frankensteins concoctions but the elaborate and disturbing setting. In truth, Raaphorst is setting us up, as that very limitation allows the director to send the beasties hauling ass into the field of view for their sickening extreme close-ups and establish shaky, crackling pans across the blood-soaked surgery table of Dr. Frankenstein. Sure, none of this ever feels like it was actually filmed with the capabilities present during WWII, but that element of authenticity fades as the horror elements take over, creating a surreal dream trip that doesn't exclusively feel like any one era.
Ultimately, theres a reason Raaphorst is going to lengths to make this a geek show; theres nothing dramatically interesting in Frankensteins Army outside of that kid-in-a-candy store genre perversity. Once Karl Roden (Grigori Rasputin in Hellboy) shows up as the esteemed doc, and starts unleashing some subversively humorous but stomach-churning medical procedures( a half Nazi, half Communist brain!), it becomes clear that Raaphorst has limited interest in the ways his picture ties to the themes of Shelleys own Frankenstein, or how this distorted, inhuman rabble reflect the misshapen ethos of the Third Reich. On top of that, even our heroes have been ousted early as opportunistic brutes, and we are left with very little to care about on an emotional level.
This amounts to a film that isnt every really scary, although its spooky enough on occasion and down-right revolting during the finale. One cant expect Raaphorst to take his material too seriously, as it would collapse on itself (the heap of burned-up nuns would see to that), but there's not a single second of real weight to the peril. The finished picture is just a bit too much like Victors original patchwork automaton; a malformed, lurching hulk that reflects the shape of its individual pieces but not the humanity they once retained. Just a touch of real gravity amidst this sauntering pile of exploited parts would have likely solidified it into something quite persuasive.
Dont get me wrong, though, as a late-night monster mash, Frankensteins Army is a mostly pleasing, rather disturbing freak-show worth the admission price for those curious cinematic carnivores that eat this stuff up.
Frankenstein's Army opens in limited release in the U.S. on July 26th.