“FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY” (Tribeca Movie Review)
Fans old enough to have unsuspectingly walked into NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE during their original runs have described feeling like they were in the hands of madmen, directors who had gone off the deep end and were taking the audience with them. I won’t make claims to future similar classic status for FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY just yet, but parts of it gave me a similar lunatics-have-overtaken-the-asylum sensation.
That’s a good sensation to have in a genre that establishes and then falls back on new conventions with cyclical regularity, particularly with a movie that itself is part of an entrenched trend: the documentary-style fright film. Just on that level, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY (making its North American premiere at the current Tribeca Film Festival) is an odd bird: The setting, Germany at the close of WWII, allows the familiar handheld aesthetic to achieve a fresh resonance, as the images echo newsreel footage of wars and related atrocities past—which could be considered among the first vérité horrors. Yet conversely, elements of director/co-writer Richard Raaphorst’s approach subvert the sense of authentic found footage: there’s doomy musical scoring throughout, and the Russian and German characters all speak heavily accented English.
The main characters are a squad of Soviet soldiers traversing the German countryside under Sergeant Nobikov (Robert Gwilym). One of them, Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), has been tasked with making a propaganda film, and we watch through his lens as he first stages appropriate moments for his camera, then documents both the brutality they inflict on Germans they come across and the even worse horrors that subsequently befall them. After coming across a ghastly multiple death scene outside a church, they discover evidence of some kind of strange experiments inside—evidence that’s alive, kicking, twitching and soon killing.
“Only the Nazis could think of this,” one of the soldiers says, but of course the bizarre fusions of human bodies and lethal mechanical devices weren’t the Third Reich’s idea. Viktor Frankenstein (HELLBOY’s Karel Roden), descendant of the original notorious scientist, has been carrying on the family tradition, setting up an assembly line of bizarre hybrids through which Raaphorst, also the film’s creature designer, expresses the outer limits of his deranged imagination. As brought to life by FX supervisor Rogier Samuels and his Unreal team, the “zombots,” as they’re affectionately monikered in the credits, are a most impressive array of practically created monsters. Some are fearsome and frightening, while others are grisly walking sight gags; my favorite is “Mosquito” (Klemens Patijn), which walks around on stiltlike blade-limbs and sports a long drill-proboscis that makes short work of human heads and torsos. Another highlight—of which all I’ll say is that it involves a teddy bear—is both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.
Once these beasts come to the fore in the movie’s second half, FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY roars to true life. The trek on the way to the doctor’s mad lab is modestly engaging, with stabs (occasionally literal) at character development, though the military men serve largely and simply as witnesses through which Raaphorst builds a sense of encroaching horror. That explodes into all-out carnage after they enter Frankenstein’s domain; the zombots start popping out of doors and halls as in some sort of deranged funhouse, bodies are violated and brains slop out of skulls. The first-person camera lends a particular immediacy to the insanity (particularly during an impressive, many-minutes-long take during the climax), and once it begins, there’s simply no letup; all a viewer can do is hang on and wonder what berserk turn the action is going to take next.
Bark Beekman’s cinematography and Jasper Verhorevoort’s editing set the proper mood and pace, but perhaps the most noteworthy contributor is production designer Jindrich Koci. Frankenstein’s domain truly looks like something that might be cobbled together by a demented doctor (played with an appropriate sense of mania by Roden) working with WWII-era materials and technology, and as the film screeches and butchers its way through the final act, you really do feel like you’re trapped in a world gone nuts with the dwindling number of survivors. I mean it in a good way when I say that you don’t stop watching FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY once the end credits roll; you escape it.