Friday, October 02, 2015
Found Footage Friday: Frankenstein's Army (2013)
Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster are experiencing quite a resurgence lately in the modern found footage film format. For instance, The Frankenstein Theory (2013) imagined Adam, the Monster, lurking in the 21st century Arctic (and still seeking a mate).
And the absolutely genius -- and mad -- Frankenstein’s Army (2013) imagines that a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein continues his ancestor’s twisted work creating life (or abominations, depending on your point of view) in World War II Europe.
I liked and enjoyed The Frankenstein Theory, though it is very much in keeping with conventional found-footage film standards. Basically, that film involves the hunting down, in our high-tech modern age, of a local legend by a film crew in an isolated environment.
Frankenstein’s Army is similar -- narratively speaking -- to that description, but is a period piece. More importantly, Frankenstein's Army is visually like no film ever conceived or executed. Director Richard Raaphurst’s movie boasts an anarchic energy in terms of both execution and visual imagery that renders it a truly disturbing and unique cinematic experience.
Meanwhile, matters of plot and character in Frankenstein’s Army are secondary to the idea of this film as an immersive, first-person experience, a first person tour of Hell on Earth.
Specifically, the film involves Russian soldiers (including a filmmaker) stumbling upon Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory facility and encountering -- one after the other -- the most horrific, imaginative, astounding monsters you can imagine.
These inventive and insane creatures are crafted with practical make-up, prosthetics and bizarre costumes -- no CGI whatsoever -- and the film wallows in messy blood and guts too.
Accordingly, Frankenstein’s Army is sickening and nasty, but it is nonetheless a film you won’t be able to look away from. The visuals are, in a word, amazing. And as weird and perverse as they clearly are, they are also grounded in solid production values and presentation. For example, the film benefits from a washed-out color canvas that suggests World War II propaganda films, and the period details are observed accurately.
Rewardingly, there’s also a thematic method to the film’s visual madness. In the closing moments of Frankenstein’s Army, Dr. Frankenstein brushes off a soldier's commentary that he’s insane for transforming human soldiers into cyborg monstrosities.
Why is he so dismissive?
Well, how can anyone accurately make the case that his madness is that awful in a world in which Nazis and Soviets are battling each other for world domination?
Why is this most individualistic mad scientist -- by any stretch -- sicker or more dangerous than those two destructive ideologies and their advocates?
The answer, simply, is that he is not. He’s small potatoes by comparison.
The Russian and German soldiers who have committed themselves (and indeed, their lives…) to murderous, genocidal regimes are thus exposed for what they are: hypocrites. What they’re doing is fine and dandy, but Frankenstein’s transplant surgeries are insane?
Thus Frankenstein’s Army reveals a world of mad monsters and bloody transplant surgeries, and notes -- somewhat caustically -- that these creations are hardly more sinister or alarming than man’s propensity to destroy himself in wars over ideology and belief systems.
Frankenstein may be mad. But he is not alone in that condition.
It’s a mad, mad, mad world.
“You’re an educated man: what do you think is happening?”
A Soviet filmmaker, Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) is embedded with a platoon of soldiers as they advance into Germany during WWII.
The group happens upon an industrial factory which is actually the laboratory of a mad scientist, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden). The mad scientist has been using live human beings and arcane machinery to create a new breed of super soldier.
In truth, Dmitri has known about Frankenstein all along, and is on a mission to recruit the scientist to the Soviet Union. The good (or mad…) Doctor has different plans, however. He decides that Dmitri should chronicle his creation of machine/man hybrid/super soldiers.
Dmitri has no choice but to agree, and watches as some of the soldiers he has befriended go under the doctor’s bloody knife…
“A man of vision is always misunderstood.”
In terms of ingenuity and sheer variety, Frankenstein’s Army is the most impressive “creature” horror movie to come down the pike since Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990).
This found footage film introduces viewers to an array of monstrous, hideous creations of remarkable breadth and depth. The most notable is, perhaps, Mosquito, a giant black specter on serrated stilts with a functioning drill for a mouth. This guy is truly fearsome in his Nazi helmet and gas-mask.
And Mosquito is just the bloody tip of the creature effects iceberg.
One of my favorite monsters in the film is Propeller-head, a biped with a plane engine housing and functional propeller blades for a head. As you can imagine, things get messy when Propeller-head is nearby.
Then there are other remarkable beings: Razor Teeth, Grinder, Hammerhead, Machete, and Dentist.
One creature -- zompod? – is just a cauldron or container on tiny human legs. He dutifully follows Dr. Frankenstein about the lab, his pot-top opening and closing. He’s kind of a malevolent horror version of R2-D2.
These creepy creations are inventive, and beautifully show-cased. They are successful boogeymen not merely because of their bizarre, steam-punk-ish appearance, but because they move about, on-set so convincingly. As I’ve written before, I can stomach CGI in science fiction films when the technology is utilized to create landscapes or alien vistas.
But the horror genre is about flesh and blood, and CGI is too clean, too unreal, too lacking in gravity, to carry the right visual impact. Frankensttein’s Army is grounded in reality…crazy, sick, perverse reality, and I love the visceral, organic nature of the visualizations.
There’s a terrific, sustained shot late in the film wherein Dmitri runs deeper and deeper into the blighted industrial laboratory facility. He turns one corner, is confronted by a monster, turns another corner and encounters another monster, and so on. This composition continues at impressive length, and generates tension at the same time that it introduces the colorful Frankenstein’s beasts. The immediacy of the first person camera is coupled with the shock of real, monstrous creatures coming out of the woodwork and the effect is electric.
Frankenstein’s Army settles down in a chamber of horrors during the final, extended scene after a lot of running around and violent death scenes. Frankenstein takes center stage himself, and the audience gets a close-up look at his insanity. At one point, for instance he attempts to meld the frontal lobes of a Nazi and a Communist, in an attempt to bridge their different philosophies.
On one hand, this is clearly insane.
On the other hand, Frankenstein’s approach of physically joining opposing view-points in one brai is an acknowledgment that humans have a difficult time understanding people who are different from them. Frankenstein attempts to forge peace by bringing the two opposing philosophies together in one organ. His experiment is an utter failure -- and nuts, of course -- and yet at least he has peace in mind…somewhere.
It’s difficult to say the same thing for the other characters. Both the Nazis and the Soviets covet Dr. Frankenstein because he can help them destroy an enemy, not forge peace between people. And the soldiers -- who on first blush may seem like innocent victims of a mad doctor -- have committed their very mortality to destroying other human beings. In this light, and given the atrocities of World War II, it is difficult to make the claim that Frankenstein is any madder than the Nazis or the Soviets. The life that Frankenstein creates is twisted and perverse, but he sees it (importantly) as work that will help and improve humanity. His motives are good, but his logic and reasoning are terrible.
The other characters in the film are largely delineated in terms of how they can use people for their own ends, whether pro-social or not. For example, Dmitri betrays his fellow soldiers and is on a secret mission for the Kremlin. His mission is to recruit Frankenstein, or a loved one who is being held hostage will die. But again, Dmitri is placing someone he knows (and presumably agrees with, philosophically) over the lives of others. How is that any better than Frankenstein’s crazy plan for world peace?
I don’t approve of Frankenstein or his twisted experiments and ambitions. My point is merely that in a world of insane people, he hardly seems like the worst offender. A catalog of atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin demonstrates that such madness exists in reality, and can be far worse than the creation of monsters.
Frankenstein’s Army impresses structurally because it works, essentially, as a tour guide of the most hellish place on Earth. Armies clash. People die. And then there’s Frankenstein’s experiments. The first part of the film is all action, and the last part is a close-up look at one man’s particular brand of madness. Because of the backdrop of world war, it is impossible to see Frankenstein in a vacuum. He is not an aberration; he is fully part of a world in which technology and ideology are being used to kill people by the millions.
The negative reviews for Frankenstein’s Army focus largely on the lack of a developed narrative and fully-dimensional characters. I understand those complaints, but Frankenstein’s Army is a visual masterpiece that informs us about our world (or how our world looked, mid-20th century).
For its uniqueness and creativity, for its commentary on real madness (world war), and for its amazing monsters, Frankenstein’s Army deserves attention, and the love of genre fans seeking something that is both old-school and revolutionary at the same time.