Dark Sky Films // 2013 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // September 10th, 2013
War is hell. This place is worse.
Man, am I conflicted about Frankenstein's Army, the independent horror film that received a limited theatrical and VOD release earlier this year and which is now being released on Blu-ray courtesy of genre stalwarts Dark Sky Films. On the one hand, the movie contains moments of true invention and brutal effectiveness. On the other, some of the qualities that make it unique are the same things that don't really work about it. Ultimately, I don't think the movie works, but it's curiously fascinating in the ways that it falls short.
Near the end of WWII, a team of Russian soldiers (followed by a documentary crew) go behind enemy lines for a mission in Nazi territory. They find themselves trapped underground being chased down by bizarre monsters -- hybrid creatures made of part man, part machine (like one with a propellor for a head). It turns out they're the creation of Viktor Frankenstein's grandson (Karel Roden, Hellboy), who is continuing his granddad's experiments in the hopes of creating an army of monsters with which he can rule.
Frankenstein's Army is fairly thin as setups go, but the plot is basically just an excuse to trap a bunch of actors in rented Russian army uniforms inside some dark hallways and have them chased and killed by monsters. It's a horror movie, so that's not such a bad thing. Unfortunately, the characters are even more shallow than the story -- I couldn't tell you one thing about any of them. Writers Chris W. Mitchell and Miguel Tejada-Flores (working from an idea by director Richard Raaphorst) try to create a couple of basic sketches of movie military archetypes, but the film can't really be bothered to flesh anyone out in the slightest. What results is a group of guys who look alike, display little to know individual personality, and are killed off indiscriminately. As a result, it's a bit hard to invest in anything that happens.
The biggest mixed bag about the movie is that it's told as a "found footage" film, with one of the soldiers recording everything in the first person on a 16mm camera. Disregard the number of questions that choice raises; it's clear director Richard Raaphorst isn't all that interested in being faithful to that particular aesthetic (since the film in color and looks nothing like 16mm, save for a few scratches and splices created with computer software). It's a tired gimmick in the horror genre, made even worse by the fact that it doesn't really fit with this kind of story. And, yet, put off as I was by the format, there's no denying it lends power to the film. Frankenstein's Army is a claustrophobic movie as it is, taking place in underground bunkers and maze-like tunnels; restricting the audience's POV to just what can be seen through a single lens is even more nerve-wracking than a traditionally omniscient narrative approach. How can I condemn this approach when it works so much of the time? But how can I champion its effectiveness when it so often hinders the story being told?
Though it's clearly a low-budget effort -- the special effects can be somewhat dubious -- there's a hand-made quality to the whole thing that gives it a certain charm, and the filmmakers are clever in the ways they disguise their limitations. The monsters are mostly neat; they have an overly "designed" quality to them, as though it's obvious that someone came up with a gimmick, made a sketch and then tried to realize that sketch as closely as possible. Normally I'd hold that against a movie, but it makes sense in this context -- after all, that's exactly what Frankenstein has done.
Dark Sky's Frankenstein's Army (Blu-ray) is also a mixed bag, offering a solid A/V presentation but falling way short in the extras department. The 1.78:1/1080p HD image has that clean, shot-on-digital look, but it's far too clean given the whole 16mm conceit the film adopts. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fantastic, however, really creating a sense of chaos and taking full advantage of the rear and surround channels as monsters pop up behind you, soldiers yell and fire their guns in the distance and everything feels generally disorienting. The only bonus features included are a standard "making of" featurette that runs about a half hour (and offers a good glimpse into how some of the effects were put together), the movie's original theatrical trailer and a collection of "Creature Spots," which are short promos that highlight some of the different monstrous creations.
I'm genuinely torn on Frankenstein's Army. It has several good ideas and some really cool creature design, while being both refreshingly inventive and disappointingly derivative. The movie commits to its premise, though I can't be sure if that's because the filmmakers really believed in it, or because it's all they were capable of pulling off. It can be intense and scary, but it can also be monotonous and thin. The monsters are neat. The characters are not. It's a showcase for cool designs, some good low-budget special effects creations and a lot of claustrophobia, but it never comes together as a film. Like one of its eventual creations, it's a movie of two brains.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Creature Spots
* Official Site
* Facebook Page