You might be hearing about some glaring historical and technical inaccuracies in the new found-footage horror film Frankenstein’s Army. Depending on how literal-minded you are, these plausibility potholes might impede your ability to enjoy the film on its own terms. Let’s get them out of the way up front:
* 16mm wind-up film cameras could not and cannot record synchronized sound (nor can they be accurately synchronized to a separately recorded sound track);
* 16mm wind-up film cameras in World War II could not shoot 16x9. Though various widescreen formats were experimented with as early as 1897, it is a near-certainty that a World War II-era news camera would be shooting at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio;
* In the rare instances color film was used during World War II, it had a distinctive look quite unlike the muted color palette of contemporary digital cinematography;
* During World War II, Russian soldiers tended to not speak English to each other when no one else was around;
* Dr. Frankenstein was and is a wholly fictional character.
Now, if any of these details will strain your suspension of disbelief while watching a film in which the descendent of Frankenstein builds an army of mechanically-enhanced zombies for the Nazis, you might as well tap out now and go directly to horror fan jail. (Do not pass go; do not watch Goodbye Uncle Tom.) And while it’s damn disappointing that the filmmakers didn’t go balls to the wall and retain the look of old Kodak Plus-X stock the way they seemed to in the early promotional clips, one can understand the business decision to release their 2013 horror film in color and in a standard widescreen format. No, the real shame is that director Richard Raaphorst’s attempt to fuse together the found-footage format with grindhouse-era Nazisploitation and '80s-style practical gore has its share of (re)animated moments, but struggles to become more than the sum of its parts.
Though embracing a current – and over-used – trend, horror fans will be pleased to discover that Frankenstein’s Army has its heart in an earlier era. Mind you, Nazisploitation was probably a lot easier to pull off in the less-enlightened 1970s, but that doesn’t stop Raaphorst and crew from giving it a whirl. Grisly service is paid to the unpleasantness of vintage exploitation flicks: nuns are massacred, bunnies slaughtered, children sent to unimaginable fates. And much like classic '70s exploitation, Frankenstein’s Army sounds bigger in scope than it actually is, presented as a Russian cameraman’s filmed account of a ragtag (and budget-sized) group of Russian soldiers on a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory.
What the company doesn’t know is that their encounter with the titular monsters has been pre-ordained, a top-secret mission known to only one of their numbers. The unit suspects right away that something is amiss, as they stumble upon not-quite-human skeletons and not-quite-dead soldiers on their way to an abandoned village. Here they discover a nightmarish laboratory in which fallen soldiers are being fused with machinery to create unstoppable killing machines for the Third Reich. The film soon adopts the look and POV of your garden variety horror-themed first-person-shooter videogame, before things get gleefully (and alas, briefly) bonkers in the movie’s final twenty minutes.
The cast is game, with Andrei Zayats standing out as a Bruce Glover-esque psycho who really enjoys putting injured comrades and innocents out of their misery, but the script doesn’t spend much time effectively fleshing out these stock characters. That would be fine for a slasher film, but the team isn’t just cannon fodder; there's a dynamic in place which begs comparisons to classic John Carpenter and George A. Romero scenarios, and some of the characters encounter fates which feel as if they should resonate harder than they do.
The setup might sound like straight-up '70s horror, but the execution is more akin to the gory heyday of the '80s. Converting a church into a mad scientist’s lab is a nice touch; it’s something you’d expect to see in a Lovecraft adaptation from the Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna camp. And while there’s the expected amount of digital blood baptizing everything, there’s also more than enough practical grue to satisfy old-school gorehounds. In fact, there's so much genre affection and legitimate creativity on hand that it begins to generate a frustrated hostility in the viewer toward the found-footage element. Because although the film refuses to be too reined in by the rigid restrictions of the format, Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t forge any real new territory with it either, leaning on the device in all the expected ways to create instant chaos and/or confusion as needed. The frenetic handheld camerawork, alas, also tends to obfuscate what appear to be some really inventive monsters – a collection of goose-stepping, steampunk Cenobite types, the design of which deserves its own overpriced coffee table book, or at least a nice gallery on the film's official website.
And that’s the problem with Frankenstein’s Army: it’s a movie that often feels inferior to the intriguing effects work, viral pieces and ancillary content built to promote it. After two-plus years of crazy promotional efforts, perhaps the movie couldn't possibly live up to its own hype. Or maybe this is just the 21st century equivalent of the classic exploitation bait-and-switch, in which a film’s marketing materials make promises on which the actual movie was never going to deliver.