Review: Frankenstein’s Army

All I ever ask for in a film is to try and do something different. Be original. The older the story, the more oft it is told, the more original you should try and be. If the story has endless possibilities, why not explore them, because sooner or later that original story gets played out. Frankenstein is such a story. It lends itself to endless reinterpretation and cross-over due to its themes and location. Many films explored this before with varying degrees of success, but it’s been some time since we’ve gotten something so twisted and daring that it gives new life to the myths. That film has come in the form of Frankenstein’s Army.

The first images we see are as powerful as any Spielberg film. Something about the Swastika is unnerving (unless it’s attached to a sexy blonde with a riding crop). WWII, is the most frightening war in our history and this film does not sugar coat that aspect of the film.  

We see the horror unfold through the eyes of Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a young soldier who must make a propaganda film to ensure the safety of his captured parents. He joins a squad of Russian troops who are sent in to find a previously missing squad and arrive at a local village. Mind you, our protagonists are products of war that run around like destructive children. They are not a relief for the villagers, but another scourge on their lives. The squad leader, Novikov (Robert Gwilym ) goes so far as to cover up the camera during an unsettling raid on villagers.

Eventually they come across a nightmarish pack of human automations. They destroy what they can and manage to make it out alive. Back topside, they find a family of survivors, a man, a young boy, and a nurse named Eva (Cristina Catalina).  Things continue to escalate until their Captain is killed, and they find themselves trapped in the underground lab of a mad Doctor who is creating these creatures for the Nazi Regime. This premise begs the classic question, “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”

Frankenstein’s Army is a truly special film. It possesses the courage of true conviction and that, I find, is a very rare thing. It dares to take you some place that you have never been but would likely return to if given the opportunity.

The Dr. Frankenstein of the title is Viktor Frankenstein, the legendary Doctor’s Grandson, played with perfection by Karel Roden (Hellboy). He is a man at work who truly believes in what he is doing and at one point gives a speech that is grounded and subdued, but surprisingly effective. It takes a while to meet him, but every second of him on screen is a command performance, a peek into the mind of someone who believes in his work. There are no great plans of world domination by him; so much as a man who is using his talents for what he feels is the greater good. That is what is so unsettling. People don’t do things to be “evil”. They do them because they believe they are right. Frankenstein believes he is doing the “right” thing.

The Russian troops have more screen time but are less developed as a whole. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t stand out performances, because there definitely are. The most level headed (if you can call him that), is Sergei (Joshua Sasse), who takes over after the Captain’s death.  He reminds me of Michael Fassbender and his performance has weight and a sense of star power.

His performance is the one we watch unfold before us and though his actions won’t necessarily win our heart, they do win our mind. His counterpart is Vassili (Andrei Zayats), a man I liken to Kevin Dillon’s Platoon character, Bunny, the most atrocious character I have ever witnessed in a war film. His actions and attitude are, at least for me, unwatchable and reprehensible.

They are the standouts of the squad, though Luke Newberry’s Sasha and Mark Stevenson’s Alexei do stir up compassion in their performances. These men are not the usual band of “good guys”, they are amoral and heartless men who stumble upon a greater evil. They kill women, children, and animals, without hesitation. Some of this is truly hard to watch and for that I applaud director Richard Raaphorst. He takes his movie seriously and wants you to do the same. He doesn’t shy away from the commonality of disgusting war time behavior, giving the characters a sense of realism and grounding in some sort of believable history.

Most of you know that I don’t like “Found Footage” films. Though there are exceptions of course, I generally find it a lazy tool of a lazy mind and a crutch for film makers with no money or a lack of creativity. That being said, when it’s done right, i.e. Cannibal Holocaust, Blair Witch or V/H/S, it is remarkably satisfying. This is a film that does it right. It’s clean for a film shot on 16mm in the 1940’s but hey, once you accept that Dr. Frankenstein is creating half men, half machine soldiers for the Nazis, you kind of have to accept everything that goes along with it. It’s a movie for Christ sakes.

The creatures themselves are fantastic and may be the most original creations ever to be put on screen. These human/machine hybrids or ZOMBOTS as they are called, absolutely steal the show. They are showcased and for good reason. Each is meticulously detailed and their design each tells a story all its own. If anything ever needed an action figure line, it’s this film.

These creations are a nightmare brought to life. Some are frightening like Rapphorst’s crowning achievement, Mosquito Man and others are deeply disturbing, like Eva Zombot (a beautiful reinterpretation of the Bride of Frankenstein).  Their images will stay with you, I guarantee it.

Frankenstein’s Army has so much to offer that you forget that this is actually Richard Raaphorst first feature film, being itself a Frankenstein like creation born from the ashes of Worst Case Scenario. In case you never heard of that film, it told the story of a group of friends that flee to an Island after Germany loses the World Cup to The Netherlands. In response, the Nazis unleash a Nazi Zombie horde. Problem is, the island is filled with zombies as well. The film had many financial troubles and was cancelled after five years of work, and Raaphorst quickly began work on this film.

Barring the first three Universal films, whose perfection goes without saying, it is a remarkable achievement. I hold the Euro horror of the 1970’s in high regard because of their exploration of the possibilities and this one deserves a place in the upper echelon of Frankenstein history along with other variations on the theme like the excellent Hammer Films sequels as well as Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, and Lady Frankenstein.  

This film plays well and though you may not get to see it in the theater, I assure you that the scares are effective on your TV.  The first underground sequence alone plays like a virtual horror park maze and really puts you in the middle of the horror, causing your heart to race along with the characters. This film deserves your attention as not just a horror fan, but a cinema fan. It is a testament of one man’s love and need to get his vision out to the world. These are the ideas that need our support as fans because if we don’t support original ideas then yes, there will be fewer produced with any kind of a budget worth our attention. A film that delivers on its promises and in the end, that’s all we want.

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