Oh, found footage, how you vex me. Are you horror’s salvation? Or its bane? Depends on who you talk to, I suppose. Or rather, what movie you’re watching. Ever since early FF mainstays like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project turned heads, classic found footage selections that sought to put the audience in the role of unwitting victim, filmmakers have scoured the medium for a fresh spin. Considering how many found footage films I have seen in my line of work, many more have failed by that measure than have succeeded. So if one were to assume that failure in the subgenre stems from drab monotony, maybe the key is to just go balls-out nuts. Throw in some Nazis, monsters, and a ridiculous amount of blood, guts, severed limbs, and wildly gyrating camera work, and see what shakes out. A Frankenstein Monster of ideas, if you will. On that note, and from that motley collection of assembled horror tropes, comes Dark Sky Films’ latest horror effort, Frankenstein’s Army.
Director Richard Raaphorst’s debut, Frankenstein’s Army follows a squad of Russian soldiers in the East German wilderness ostensibly on a rescue mission of sorts. Seems that a German prison camp is hidden somewhere in a nearby forest and Russian hostages need rescuing. The usage of found footage is explained away due to video of the mission’s certain success being used in propaganda films back home in Moscow. As you would expect, however, things begin to go wrong. As the squad pushes deeper into the frontier, they begin coming across bizarre discarded weapons and dead soldiers fused with various moving metal parts. Ultimately, they are confronted by terrible steampunk man-monsters, all outfitted with Nazi regalia. As the Russians are eliminated one-by-one, the remaining Soviets stumble upon the source of the creatures and the secret behind Hitler’s last desperate gamble to win the war.
It is a difficult venture for a found footage horror to capably enrapture an audience on a small budget, and with a first-time director at the reins to boot, and I must report that Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t quite pull it off. The coup de grace of the film is clearly its monster design and Raaphorst rushes a bit too wildly towards the reveal to make it a satisfying one. The Russians are interchangeable, only a few standing out in any way whatsoever (the tired captain, the wild-eyed maniac, the gibbering scaredy-pants, et al). By the time the soldiers find themselves in a room with crudely lumbering armor-plated man-bots with buzzsaws for hands and the blood starts flowing, the film ultimately devolves into your standard shake-o-vision found footage movie, where the camera conveniently steadies itself in time to see a particularly gruesome disemboweling or what-have-you before it shimmies its way uncertainly down another dark corridor.
Raaphorst’s inexperience also reveals itself in his staging of the multiple monster attacks, all of which repeatedly and ineffectually lunge at the cameraman like so many Doom outtakes. A strange subplot involving the cameraman’s ulterior motives pays off fairly well but is clumsily set up by the script via the other members of the squad repeatedly and angrily telling the cameraman to move or get down or hurry up or just outright insulting him over and over and over again. The first third of this film follows this pattern to the letter and becomes tedious long before the script finally abandons the idea that somebody must constantly be telling the guy with the camera to hurry up. The film’s fairly brisk 84 minute run time would have been served better by a tighter script than this kind of filler-in-lieu-of-character-development.
That’s not to say that Frankenstein’s Army is a disaster. After all, this is a movie about steampunk Nazi monsters in WWII so a little bit of a break is probably in order. As I said before, the hook is gore, disembodied limbs, and monster design. And the film has all of that in spades. Whether the actual design of the monsters would be practical for use in an “army” is arguable, but what isn’t is that they look spectacularly bug-nuts insane. Despite my misgivings about the movie in general, some of the Russians get offed in hilariously brutal fashion and the movie eventually does build towards a strange but satisfying ending. So if you’re on the search for the next transcendent found footage standout, you probably won’t discover it here. But if you find that the usual found footage routine still goes down nice and smooth, and you just want some blood and guts and a pile of dead nuns on a burning pyre, you’ve come to the right place.