Ever since its trailer debuted, Frankenstein’s Army always enticed me because it teased the idea of a World War II-era Victor Frankenstein, and a plethora of steampunk/dieselpunk monsters. This period of world history has always interested me, and with underwhelming films like War of the Dead or The Keep, it was nice to see a fresh, hard-hitting look at a secret Nazi experiment gone horribly out of control. The possibilities were endless. The monsters (based solely off the trailer) were on par with the creatures of the Resident Evil, BioShock and Silent Hill video games. Who wouldn’t be lured? Well, after finally seeing it, it turned out that it wasn’t a bad film, but I would have loved it had it done a few things right. I did not hate it. My feelings are what you’d call bittersweet. So lets dive in.
First off, what is this movie about? In the final days of World War II, a group of Russian soldiers stumble upon a near-abandoned village, ravaged by some unseen force, only to discover a church that was used as a laboratory for something. Right off the bat we know something is wrong; we even see a cross fitted with electrical wiring, tantalizing the callback to when Victor harnessed lightning to breathe life into his monster. As the Russians dwell deeper and deeper into the underground tunnels, they come face to face with a horde of soldiers horrifically deformed by mechanical equipment. They soon discover that the deranged grandson of Victor Frankenstein is behind the carnage, and that their trusty documentarian (who follows them around filming everything) has a hidden agenda.
From here on out, there are SPOILERS.
The whole film plays out like a sales pitch for a video game. Because it’s told with found footage, we are given a ‘first person shooter’ perspective, and the various Frankenstein monsters are similar to either the demons or the mutants one would face in Doom or Resident Evil. This is the film’s best asset. The level of imagination displayed in some of these ‘monsters’ is impeccable, and makes for a truly memorable and horrific experience. To think, these things were once people (in one case a child). Each ‘monster’ has its own method of attacking. They sometimes have claws, blades, hammers, drills, and in one bizarre instance, an airplane turbine. Further research will yield some very interesting stories about what each ‘monster’ was prior to their “surgery.” In fact, they even have names. Doesn’t this sound like something that would be in a video game? Here are some of my favorite ‘monsters:’
Conceptually, the film is strong and unique. The writers take an old story, one that’s been redone countless of other times, and spins it into something new. Setting it in World War II lends an assortment of primitive and unusual machinery for Frankenstein to play around with. I admit that I am a sucker for period pieces. Instead of following around a German or American battalion, we follow Russian Communists, which I liked because they’re not the usual American heroes. One of the common criticisms of Frankenstein’s Army is the lack of character development, and sympathy towards these characters. While I cannot disapprove of someone not showing any sympathy, I can offer an argument against character development. Unless we follow these men from training, throughout the war, and up until this moment, this is story that doesn’t need character arcs. This is not Full Metal Jacket. This is the end of World War II; the characters should have completed their arc, if they had one. I enjoyed our Russian heroes, except for one but I suppose he was meant to be the film’s asshole. Even our documentarian, a bastard at first; we learn that he is so insistent on persevering because his family will be killed if he doesn’t capture Dr. Frankenstein. There is no development but it adds a sense of humanity to an otherwise generic scumbag. Even Dr. Frankenstein, a man who spent the early days of the war locked up in a concentration camp, isn’t just a generic evil doctor. You can tell that he a man who has witnessed (and consequently warped) by the viciousness of humanity. He has a set belief and a goal.
There is a lot of gore and dismemberment, and a brain-picking scene that Hannibal Lector would approve of. Karel Roden (Rasputin from Hellboy), who plays Frankenstein, brings an air of ambiguity and elegance to his deranged character. Unbelievably, there is even moments of pitch-black comedy: a legless Frankenstein creation aimlessly crawls on the floor with nobody batting an eye, and a severed head stitched onto a teddy bear to name a few. All of these aspects nearly compensate for the only major downside to this film. I believe if it weren’t for this criticism, I would consider Frankenstein’s Army to be the best horror movie of 2013, slightly above Maniac.
I could nit-pick this film but I won’t because it would be irrelevant and pointless. The biggest problem I have with Frankenstein’s Army is how it was told: through found footage. Before I continue, I must explain the purpose of found footage. It is a storytelling method that is meant to give the impression that the events depicted actually happen through video/film documentation. This does not mean that the footage cannot portray something supernatural, it means that the supernatural activity occurs in our reality (ex: Chronicle, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, ect.). There needs to be some level of realism to fully convince us that the footage is legitimate. Frankenstein’s Army lacks this. I’ll explain:
The camera that our documentarian/main character handles is a Bolex or Super 8 of some kind. To suggest that such an ill-equipped Russian outfit has access to color film stock, and an on board microphone that captures perfectly crisp audio, would be ridiculous. In fact, if this was shot in black and white with poor audio, it could have been much better. The high contrast film stock would give the movie an eerie, unnerving tone, such as the case with Blair Witch Project. It would make the film scarier. While ultimately a minor complaint, the fact that the filmmakers missed the opportunity to play around with this style is the biggest tragedy. It could have played out like Planet Terror, with film grain and scratches, wobbly footage, light exposure, and perhaps a missing reel or two. Not only would it be more convincing (and fun), it would also be a clever way to disguise jump cuts, or to move from one scene to another. However, Frankenstein’s Army should not have been a found footage film, and here’s why:
The film is not shot or edited like a fount footage movie. What do I mean by this? If you ever worked with a Bolex, or any camera the involves changing film reels, uses a winding key, or having to consistently press a button to move the film across the shutter, you’ll realize just how hard and uncomfortable it is to handle. I do not believe for a second that our amateur documentarian has camera stabilizing experience, or is quick enough to film key interactions at precisely the right moment and angle. Each scene/shot is so perfectly edited that it feels like a traditionally produced film. In fact, if it weren’t for the beginning, where our hero explains the purpose of this documentary, I would have thought this was regular movie. Even when our hero switches from a wide-angle lens to a telephoto lens, it comes off as an edit rather than the actual camera turret spinning. This prompts me to ask the question: if the whole film is played out traditionally, why did it have to be found footage? I offer a film that is shot conventionally but whose tone is gritty and realistic, similar to a found footage film: Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The colors are natural, though somewhat de-saturated, the film is grainy, and the whole thing comes off as a voyeuristic experience. Then, there are moments that actually contradict the whole found footage aspect.
1) Going back to the aforementioned purpose of found footage, and how it’s meant to convince us that the events really happened, why, are the Russian troops speaking in perfect English? Why are the Germans speaking English, except for one? I could buy this if the film wasn’t found footage. In normal films, the camera is sort like God: it moves around each space fluidly and without restrictions, and translates the dialogue into a language we can understand. Valkyrie is an example of this. In actuality, Russians and Germans would not be speaking English. This shatters the reality.
2) There are moments where our documentarian is attacked, beaten and possibly stabbed by Frankenstein’s monsters, all while he maintains camera stability and crisp audio. This is not possible, especially with a heavy Bolex-esque camera. However, there are bizarre instances where stylization is implemented to give the monsters supernatural abilities; as one of the monsters lumbers towards our hero, the film cuts into this stuttering, fast-moving sequence that could never be attained by a film camera. If you accidentally change the speed of a camera, it won’t stutter. Even if the film isn’t laced properly across the quick-release plate, it will wobble, not stutter. The sequence is clearly edited. Not only are moments like this overplayed in horror movies, it, again, breaks the reality.
All of these contradictions would be acceptable if the film was just shot like a traditional movie. I feel as if the filmmakers wanted found footage because it’s in style, but without fully grasping how it works. This was a story that did not need to be told in a found footage approach. However, with all this venting, it may appear that I hate the film, but that’s not true. I really like it; I did not love it. These found footage qualms, though distracting and jarring at they were, did not hamper the otherwise psychotic, entertaining story. There is enough original material presented for the casual viewer to dismiss these reservations, just as I have. If you can ignore them, what you are left with is a truly memorable and enjoyable film. I highly recommend it.