Beginning as yet another found footage horror film, any suggestion of this representing some manner of ‘realism’ is thankfully dismissed almost immediately.
A man is filming a Russian platoon in World War 2 Germany for a Soviet propaganda film. They all speak in accented English, one character even commenting “You don’t sound Russian”. On the trail of missing comrades, the soldiers soon run into some strange sights leading them to a ruined series of buildings, containing bizarre fusions of man and machine, rusted parts grafted to flesh and bone.
… from giant clanking tank-people with crab claws to a strangely endearing medical bucket on legs …
The plot of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY isn’t exactly engaging, and definitely takes a back seat to the look and feel of the film. Thankfully on this score it has considerable merit. The initially rather pointless fact that a character is always filming eventually gains a purpose, and for the most part manages to sidestep any frustrated thoughts of “just put the camera down!”. Choosing to film it this way does reduce some of the action scenes to a first-person shooter video game, the camera moving down corridors as monsters and soldiers clash. However, this is rather effective in places: the bulk and eventual omnipresence of Frankenstein’s monsters adding to the sense of danger and claustrophobia, as they block corridors and appear on cramped walkways.
As the director (Richard Raaphorst)’s previous work includes BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR, and Peter Jackson is thanked in the credits, you’d be correct in expecting gore from this film. And it’s the good gore, feeling physical and messy, the audience reacting with happy disgust. That’s not to say it offers the relentlessly over-the-top, weightless violence of a MACHINE GIRL, however. The film is well-paced, the comically grim bloodshed doled out sparingly as the film progresses towards the inevitable grand guignol of the final section. The ludicrous humour of some of the violence stops some scenes from descending into mean-spirited and exploitative SAW territory, while not sacrificing any intended squirming on the viewer’s part.
… the sci-fi Nazi tropes force difficult moral questions that the film doesn’t attempt to answer.
Frankenstein’s patchwork creations (‘Zombots’) are great fun to look at, and some are deliberately absurd. For the most part it sidesteps the goggles, cogs and corsetry clichés of steampunk design, monsters ranging from giant clanking tank-people with crab claws to a strangely-endearing medical bucket on legs. There’s a wide variety of beasts on offer, and the visual invention means you never tire of seeing them – although they’re never actively frightening.
Sadly, the sci-fi Nazi tropes force difficult moral questions that the film doesn’t attempt to answer. It’s hard to get as viscerally fun, blackly comic a thrill as intended, given its heavy focus on getting laughs from Nazi human experiments. A vague point is almost made about how Nazis, Communists and Capitalists are all as bad as each other, but as this dubious opinion comes from ‘mad’ Dr. Frankenstein, it’d perhaps be wrong to take this as the intended message of the piece. Where filmmakers would be without that nebulous old character trait of ‘insanity’ to provide villainous motivation, is anyone’s guess.
There may also be a ‘humanity was the real monster all along’ message to the film, what with the negligible female presence inevitably on the receiving end of violence and rape threats from the Russian soldiers. But this misogyny sadly comes across as the expected behaviour of characters in such stereotypically masculine genres as war and horror. While it remains an enjoyable, if guilty, spectacle, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY leaves the viewer feeling queasy, and not perhaps for the reasons intended.