Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play Bioshock, then take a hefty dose of hallucinogens, and then play Call of Duty: World at War? Well, wonder no more, for Frankenstein’s Army is the answer to that very specific question.
Nazi Germany gave us a visual shorthand for evil, huge scope for horror film makers, and Fanta.
There is no Fanta in this film.
There’s a fair spurting of blood though.
The plot, which to be honest is the least of your concerns here, consists of a Russian reconnaissance team moving into Eastern Germany while being filmed by Alexander Mercury’s Dmitri for propaganda purposes. Their radio is being jammed, but then they receive a distress call from another squad, and move into an abandoned village to answer it.
Initially the film moves very slowly onwards, establishing the pattern of short skirmishes with enemy troops and trudging ever onwards towards Berlin, sketching in the characters. The team happen across a strange skeleton, but it isn’t until they reach the outskirts of the village that we get our first shock, and start seeing more macabre things more regularly. They enter the church, and discover a stitched-together body with a drill for an arm, connected by cables to a generator.
It does not go well.
Kept in the village by the distress call, they investigate further, torturing a farmer for information. This leads them down into some tunnels, where they meet more strange hybrids of men and machinery.
Rather appropriately for a story about reassembling different bodies into weird creatures, Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t know what sort of film it wants to be. Seemingly content to be a suspense-driven horror movie, albeit one made up entirely of cutscenes from computer games, it confounds your expectations by going for verisimilitude. The camera footage is initially covered in cracks, you can hear the cinecam whirr occasionally, and there is an attempt to set the film in the real, brutal world of the Eastern Front. This feels like a mistake. Of our motley assortment of soldiers only a few really get anything approaching characterisation, but not enough that we actually care about them. Really, we want to get to the bits with all the cool monsters and science-knives.
Due to the camera being someone’s point-of-view, and the continual ominous echoing reverberations in the background, it really does feel like a computer game. The reveals all feel more like things you’ve seen in first-person-shooters than, say, Outpost (another film that utilises Nazi experiments as a starting point for carnage). This does mean we get some effective jump-scares, and the occasional spatter of blood across the camera, but during action sequences it does make it quite hard to tell what is going on until the dust and intestines have settled.
When the monsters start appearing, Frankenstein’s Army livens up a bit more, and we get some more deaths, and some people turn up just so they can die. We’ve moved from horror to light splatter, with an air of black comedy pervading before we move onto body horror, then onto an insane scientist (referred to throughout as ‘The Doctor’, but let’s not read anything into that) with a gleefully silly plan. This last section feels tacked on after the film has suggested its own earlier denouement, and brings yet another change in tone. It’s director Richard Raaphorst’s first full length movie, and I suspect he’s tried to cram as many ideas as possible into it rather than stick to one or two tones.
Raaphorst’s background is in conceptual artwork, storyboards and design, so it comes as no surprise to see that he designed many of the brilliant steampunk monstrosities we see. Their design and realisation makes the movie something distinctive and novel, rising above its thin script and indecisiveness. Practically achieved, macabre, and grimly amusing, they’re enough reason to see this film by themselves. When Frankenstein’s Army cleaves nearer to the ludicrous over-the-top nature akin to House of the Dead then it’s an entertaining flick. There are possible interpretations of the experiments as a commentary on the inhumanity of Nazi eugenics, but that’s not really what the promotion of the film suggests. It suggests a barnstorming gore-strewn nightmare, and in this respect the film succeeds, but only for about thirty minutes.
It’s a shame that such inventive design work couldn’t find a better film, and while Raaphorat’s creatures are brilliant in themselves (and worthy of an extra star rating, if that’s alright with you), you can’t help but feel that they might have been handled more effectively with another creative team behind the camera and storyline.
Still, Fanta’s pretty good isn’t it?
Frankenstein’s Army played at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
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