The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
Frankenstein’s Army is a masterpiece of truth in advertising. Like Snakes on a Plane or Sorority House Massacre II, i knew almost exactly what to expect from it after reading the title. It begins with a crackle-popping introduction from Dimitri, a documentary filmmaker who’s embedded with a small Russian infantry unit in eastern Germany near the end of WWII. This also sets the film up to be a found footage flick, and in all honesty I nearly turned it off after five minutes.
With a few notable exceptions and a few frustratingly close tries, like Trollhunter, most found footage these days is miserable. Horror has always been a breeding ground for both inspired directors and total shit-kickers, and found footage now feels like a crutch for hacks. How many times can you hide incompetent lighting, acting, writing and cinematography with a jittery “but this footage is REAL” conceit?
Anyway, I gave this one a pass. The first few minutes of cinematography fit the setup (Russian student filmmaker documents the glories of Russian conquest) just fine. It’s purposely rough without getting into queasy-cam territory, with a few artsy nature cuts and plenty of Russian propaganda. We even get images of the six-man crew excelling in battle before watching as they methodically pick through lifeless Nazi corpses. The squad is nothing more than a collection of thinly veiled war stereotypes — gruff older sergeant, unpredictable young wild card, Buddha-like machine gunner, jumpy little pipsqueak, some others who die — but those post-battle scenes viewed eerily similar to footage from Vietnam. If writer-director Richard Raaphorst is making an analogy, it’s disturbing that he also chose to include a grim scene of senseless pillaging in a quiet German village.
But this is a horror film (and a found footage one at that) so analysis will have to wait. After a bit of characterizing dialogue — I couldn’t tell if these actors were Eastern Europeans trying to tone down their accents or other nationalities trying to mimic Russian, to varying degrees of success — the squad arrives at an old church. It was their objective all along: Dimitri joined the company just in time for a search and rescue mission to remote Germany, where the squad hasn’t been able to make contact with anyone at the home base. They make camp for the night, discover an abomination in the chapel, watch as Sarge gets his guts ripped out, squabble with one another over rank, and then we’re off to the gates.
From here, the plot is pretty inconsequential. Again, truth in advertising: You just know that Frankenstein will appear, and you just know he’ll have some kind of devious hell-things to unleash on the Russians. You also know they’ll probably be wearing swastikas, so yeah.
And boy, are there ever hell-things. The company gets separate and then hunted in a labyrinth beneath the church, all before learning that Dimitri has been carrying a jamming device the entire time. Say what?!! Bad juju, comrade, even if you were doing it for the Motherland.
Needless to say, this bit of trickery gets the filmmaker’s ass thrown straight down a narrow corridor where, earlier, we saw one of the Russian get eaten by Frankenstein’s soldiers. Thankfully, they thought to abandon Dimitri with his tapes and cameras — perfect for a found-footage tour Nazi-era Frankenstein’s monster lab. Sweet.
Where I found it
On Netflix, as expected. Weirdly enough I’d never seen this one pop up before, and usually Netflix bombards me with B-movies. (Like has anyone seen Last Shift?) I always wonder what other Netflix queues look like.
Why it caught my eye
Not sure, really, aside from a brainless plot (sometimes a plus) and a runtime under 90 minutes. For whatever reason, 84 minutes seems so much more doable than a full 90 at 10:30 p.m.
The monsters. I mean, I didn’t expect Frankenstein’s church basement to be filled with a mob of shuffling, moaning Lurches. I knew they’d be all Nazi steampunk and deadly Edward Scissorhands — the Netflix promo has some soulless abomination wearing a gas mask and swastika helmet — but I wasn’t sure how well that would translate to real life. Or, more accurately, how that would translate to found footage.
Director Raaphorst does a damn good job of showing us living, breathing monstrosities while using a shaky-cam to cover his budget constraints. You can tell a few of Frankenstein’s baddies are well-trained dancers or movement actors in very sharp suits, but that’s the thing — they’re well-trained. I personally prefer to watch a film with physical stunt work instead of CGI slight-of-hand, and this one hides its seams just fine with respectable performances from everyone in latex, iron and Nazi regalia.
Well, there’s that whole thing with a by-the-numbers plot, stereotypical characters and goddamn found footage cinematography (even though it’s better than most).
Really, there wasn’t much I didn’t like about this film. It’s just not very memorable, and I think that’s because it fails to do more with several powerful images. At one point, there’s a pile of half-burned nuns, which calls into question any greater, grander questions the director might have about the senselessness of war. It fits the general theme, sure, but it’s a bit too shocking, a bit too haphazard and a bit too much, even for a film titled Frankenstein’s Army.
It’s on Netflix, it’s free and it’s less than 90 minutes. Plus, it does one hell of a job delivering on its promise. If you’re looking for an army of Frankensteined Nazi monsters, look no further.