Director Richard Raaphorst’s “Frankenstein’s Army” has had a long and arduous road to screen, and thanks to the promise of a bizarre plot and Nazi biomechanical monsters, has built up a definite sense of anticipation amongst horror fans. The film is Raaphorst’s first feature, following up on a series of popular shorts charting back to “Zombi 1” in 1995, and a career in the art department, having worked on “Beyond Re-Animator”, “Dagon” and others. Having finally emerged, the film has played at a variety of genre festivals, largely to fan approval, and lands shortly on region 2 DVD through Entertainment One.
Behind the amusingly pulpy premise of having a descendant of Frankenstein (Czech actor Karel Roden, a recognisable character actor seen in the likes of “Hellboy” and “A Lonely Place to Die”) working for the Nazis during World War II to create a monster army lies a very basic story, following a Russian reconnaissance squad tasked with heading into enemy territory to locate missing comrades. After coming across a seemingly abandoned church, they soon find themselves beset by grotesque, super-powered machine men, and their true mission is revealed – to track down the good doctor and either secure his services for the Russian motherland, or to put an end to his madness.
The first thing which really jumps out with “Frankenstein’s Army” is that, somewhat unexpectedly, it’s yet another found footage outing, with all the pros and cons that usually brings. While Raaphorst to be fair does make an attempt to make proper use of the form and to justify characters filming in the face of certain death, it certainly has its drawbacks here, chief amongst which is the decision to try and mimic an old 16mm camera, complete with shaky handheld work, clicking lenses and whirring noises. This never really convinces or comes across as believably antique, and doesn’t amount to much more than a needless distraction. This is furthered by a general lack of the kind of grounded realism needed to make found footage work, from some shoddy period details through to the fact that the Russian characters all speak English (with varying accents), whilst most of the Germans speak German, without subtitles.
Of course, this is pretty much par for the course for any found footage film, and it’s perhaps a little mean and beside the point to dwell too much upon these criticisms, as in many other ways “Frankenstein’s Army” is a real triumph and a great deal of fun. The film’s real strength undoubtedly lies in its amazing and hugely enjoyable monster design, for which Raaphorst deserves massive credit, each of the distinctive creatures being an imaginatively horrific mix of steampunk machinery, mutilated flesh and blade weaponry. Best of all, Raaphorst and SFX supervisor Rogier Samuels (who worked on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) eschew CGI in favour of practical effects, which gives the film far more impact than anything computer rendered and a real sense of nightmarish life.
The film also packs in plenty of blood and flying viscera, again using traditional makeup rather than CGI, and though never nasty or sadistic, it certainly packs in plenty of splatter through a series of creatively over the top and wildly escalating set pieces – gorehounds definitely won’t be disappointed. Since “Frankenstein’s Army” is first and foremost a creature feature unashamedly seeking cult audience approval, it’s difficult to find too much fault with its modest achievements, despite its found footage misstep.
Entertaining and enthusiastic, it marks a solid debut for Raaphorst, and hopefully suggests great and grotesque things to come from the helmer.
Richard Raaphorst (director) / Chris W. Mitchell, Richard Raaphorst, Mary Shelley, Miguel Tejada-Flores (screenplay)
CAST: Karel Roden … Viktor
Joshua Sasse … Sergei
Robert Gwilym … Novikov
Alexander Mercury … Dimitri
Luke Newberry … Sacha
Hon Ping Tang … Ivan
Andrei Zayats … Vassili
Mark Stevenson … Alexei