Tuesday, September 17, 2013
The blog's been on a bit of a hiatus while I wrapped up some meatspace stuff, but we're now rolling again. To kick things off, I've got a little change of pace - my good friend and fellow @Gamecritics staffer Mike Bracken was kind enough to review a Horror film DVD that turned up in my mailbox:
Frankenstein's Army, from director Richard Raaphorst.
MB: Like Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster has become one of horror’s most iconic monsters. Mary Shelley’s creature has starred in a massive number of films over the years (although for the past few decades, he’s taken a back seat to zombies and more modern slashers) but it’s hard to imagine Shelley ever conceiving how Richard Raaphorst would take her greatest literary creation and re-envision it in Frankenstein’s Army.
Frankenstein’s Army is a bit of a hybrid; a found-footage alternate history period piece that joins films like Outpost in the burgeoning World War II horror subgenre. Making horror films during the greatest war the world has ever known makes a lot of sense – war is Hell, after all, and the Nazis were into enough crazy shit in reality that almost anything a screenwriter comes up with seems plausible on its face. So, when Raaphorst opens with a small contingent of Russian soldiers encountering mechanically-altered re-animated corpses while traveling across the German countryside in search of a battalion in distress, I find myself thinking “yeah, well, that’s not as crazy as the whole Nazi Bell thing…”
Anyway, soon our ragtag assortment of war film cliches (the gruff commanding officer, the scared greenhorns, the psycho who wants to commit every war atrocity in the history of humankind against the enemies – and maybe his allies if they’re not down with it) find themselves locked in a life or death struggle against an army of reanimated soldiers who’ve been modified with all sorts of crazy mechanized attachments in order to make them even more efficient killing machines. This is the entire reason why Frankenstein’s Army exists.
Raaphorst’s film uses the found-footage angle (the group of soldiers has a filmmaker amongst their number) to help conceal its tiny budget. The indie nature of the feature is both a positive and a negative – positive in that it called for a lot of ingenuity on the crew’s part, and necessitated making the monsters with real practical FX work instead of relying on the crutch of CG. Of course, the downside is that the small budget also means the film skimps a bit on the kind of spectacle viewers anticipate when hearing a title like Frankenstein’s Army. It’s not really an army – it’s more like a small unit.
The found-footage angle actually works to the film’s benefit most of the time. The quick cuts and grainy visuals (which are in color – unlikely historically, but a necessary concession for modern viewers) help create a documentary feel. The way many sequences are composed allows the audience to spot the dangerous things lurking in the background before the potential victims do, increasing the tension of the experience significantly.
The downside is that the handheld camera work is very frenetic during the action scenes, making it easy for the audience to get lost in the space of a sequence. This allows for some great jump scares as our intrepid cameraman will whirl his device right into the slavering mechanical jaws of some undead monstrosity pretty regularly, but the price is that the logistics of the action often become hard to decipher.
If this new Frankenstein’s creations are the true stars of the film, then the blood and guts in the special effects are probably a close second. Most viewers won’t care about any of these characters, but there is a certain amount glee to be found in watching these monsters shred through the crew. Heads are crushed, brains removed, skulls pried open, and intestines removed from still-living bodies with frightening regularity. Again, budget constraints required good old fashioned practical FX work here – which is always welcome with this gorehound.
Ultimately, Frankenstein’s Army appears destined for cult status – not a bonafide cult classic, but a film that will certainly find fans and admirers. Raaphorst and his team milk maximum effect out of a miniscule budget, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Frankenstein’s Army is really just a high concept pitch that got turned into a feature because the idea was so awesome that they couldn’t pass it up even if they weren’t sure how to make it work. And the idea is awesome – Frankenstein’s creatures are fantastic in their execution, a sort of WWII riff on Giger’s bio-mechanics that will definitely please monster freaks. The problem is that nothing else in the film is nearly as cool as the beasts – which is unfortunate.
In some ways, Frankenstein’s Army feels perfectly suited for a videogame adaptation – a realm where the relatively threadbare story and cardboard characters wouldn’t be such a detriment. There’s fun to be had here, for sure – but it’s hard to look at Frankenstein’s Army on the screen and not marvel at what might have been.
Mega thanks to the @Horrorgeek for the review, and look for Coffeecola to return to its usual game-oriented programming next time!