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Review: Found Footage Horror ‘Frankenstein’s Army’

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by Diana Drumm
July 25, 2013 7:02 PM
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What can be written about “Frankenstein’s Army”? Don’t see it. You may say, "But it looks so interesting with its WWII-era steam-punk and maybe it’s so bad that it’s good." Just don’t. It may scream, “Come see me!” to horror and genre fans, but please don’t or if you must, at least make sure you have a clear path to the exit and/or ear plugs.

The premise is that this film is made from found-footage documenting a Soviet battalion uncovering Frankenstein’s army. See, doesn’t that sound like it could be great? Like Roger-Corman-cheese-meets-“The-Blair-Witch-Project”-with-a-touch-of-Nazis kind of great? Don’t you want to go to a midnight screening or wait to see it on VOD (while stuffing your face with popcorn in the privacy of your home)? Don’t. There are so many things wrong with this movie. Some may think those things pieced together could become an intriguing creature a la Frankenstein’s monster himself, unfortunately “Frankenstein’s Army” lacks the depth of Wollstonecraft, the 1930s iconography of Whale and Karloff, the humor of “Young Frankenstein” and nostalgia of “Frankenweenie,” leaving a limp and lifeless picture that should be left at peace.

For a found-footage film, the quality of said footage (meant to be 1940s 16 mm, I assume) is startlingly crisp and modern. They could have gone “The Good German” route and at least made it look fitting, but no, that would ruin the “special effects.” This may read like an issue for only the finicky, but using the “documentary” angle also somehow gives the filmmakers supposed credence to waste some of said footage by showing the “subjects” shouting at the cameraman a few too many times – this is where the ear plugs come in handy. We get it! They’re being filmed and we’re looking in from the cameraman’s POV. We get that Soviet soldiers don’t want to be filmed and would not like the man filming them. Unfortunately, we are paying attention and that’s what makes the whole experience even worse. The constant reminders and blatant expository dialogue (aka “telling not showing” syndrome – rather than the age-old “showing not telling” rule of narrative) makes “Frankenstein’s Army” feel like a really lame video game rather than a film.

Even the characters’ motives seem tired and explained too much in words rather than actions or emotions. For the cameraman to bring everyone to Frankenstein’s lair, it can’t be just because he’s following orders or is a real SOB, instead his motivation is the now-cliché threat “We’ll kill your relatives” from the Soviet higher-ups and is treated as though it is some revelation that Communist Russia would go to such extremes – this has been referenced a countless number of times for decades (check out “Comrade X” starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr). Even the squabble between the Polish and Russian squadron members over seniority within the ranks feels like the actors are merely reading lines as the screenwriters were thinking, “See, look, Polish and Russian soldiers didn’t get along. We’re commenting on national identity issues in WWII army life.” If you want great Communist satire and/or commentary (though you wouldn’t particularly if you wanted to see this film, which shows exactly how convoluted the “plot” is), rent “Children of the Revolution” and “Goodbye Lenin!

Now on to the monsters… Yes, there are monsters and a Dr. Frankenstein—the discovery of both much less interesting than you can imagine. (SPOILER ALERT) So the soldiers finally get to an abandoned building where they stumble upon creatures/monsters that look like a Broadway production of "The Lion King" by way of “The Crow” and includes a female creation that resembled what Madonna would have looked like in “The Matrix” or “The Fifth Element,” leaving this viewer yearning for Madeleine Kahn or Elsa Lanchester to step in and yank her and the rest off of the screen. The monsters attack very slowly and the whole ordeal feels like a theme park ride video, with the cameraman running into these monsters an unbelievable amount of times without losing his head or at least one limb, to the chagrin of many. The camera and cameraman survive too much and with too little damage for there to be any true terror.

The whole thing is made all the more farcical when we are finally properly introduced to the film’s Dr. Frankenstein, again by the soldiers stumbling in. His workspace includes a painting of his illustrious grandfather and a woman’s head sewed to a teddy bear’s body that the credits reveal to be that of Frankenstein’s mother. Frankenstein goes on to regale us with his perverse experiments, sounding like a mash-up of Wikipedia entries on various early 20th-century European serial killers – experimenting on animals and some pedestrian Freudian psychology. Although it is never fully explained why his monsters look mostly like demented Tin Man/Jason Voorhees hybrids, but that’s where the “found footage” comes in handy as an excuse. This, combined with the vague anti-Stalinist sentiments, makes the whole film feel like a 12 year-old boy falling asleep during history and psychology class and later trying to make up for it in filmmaking and “arts and crafts.” The gore was laughable and the script was blood curdling. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Without going into too much more detail, suffice it to say that the film was a disappointment to a horror geek who stumbled in for what looked like it could have been a nice, bloody midnight treat. [D]

This is a reprint of our review from the Tribeca Film Festival.

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