After reviewing the nigh unwatchable War of the Dead, you'd think me a fool to want to watch another World War II movie where a small squad of soldiers faces off with a zombie horde, right? Richard Raaphorst's Frankenstein's Army taps a legendary literary character and the trailer is teeming with creative creature designs, but was it enough to make it tolerable?
There are a few things this flick does better than others of its ilk. The found-footage style in which it's filmed lends a claustrophobic feel to the events, never quite giving you the view you want of the oddities lurking in the shadows and keeping viewers on their toes. It does enough with the story and character development to give us an idea who's who in a cast of stereotypical Russian names -- methodical doctor Viktor (Karel Roden), cool-as-a-cucumber radio operator Sergei (Joshua Sasse), loose cannon might-makes-right Vassili (Andrei Zayats), grizzled veteran and commander Novikov (Robert Gwilym), determined sniper Alexei (Mark Stevenson), skittish and flaky youngster Sacha (Luke Newberry), calculating and scheming Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), the protector Ivan (Hon Ping Tang), etc.). I even felt sort of bad when they started getting picked off by the monsters, some in rather creative ways. The progression of events is well paced, too, never revealing too much or bogging down, moving along and giving you just enough to keep you curious.
Our Russian protagonists are moving into eastern Germany toward the end of the war and pick up a distress signal from another squad who apparently is in trouble and needs help. They follow the broadcast coordinates to a small and largely empty mining town (filmed in an actual abandoned mining town turned museum just outside of Prague), and while searching the town for the source of the broadcast and their brethren, they encounter a strange, mutilated, stitched together asexual body on the floor of a factory, its head plugged into the building's power grid. Elsewhere in the facility, a couple of the soldiers manage to get a generator running and bring the power back online. That's when things start to go badly for everybody.
The creatures (affectionately referred to as Zombots) are the remains of fallen Russian and Nazi soldiers, pieced back together with some mechanical enhancements, designed to turn the tide in the war for the highest bidder. We eventually meet Dr. Frankenstein -- the grandson of the more well known doctor -- and learn that he's simply carrying on his family's work with resurrection and augmentation. Apparently along the way, he thought it would be useful to attach a woman's head to the body of a teddy bear and reanimate her. Yeah. Others include Burnt Match Man, Hammerhead, Mosquito Man, Propellerhead, Razor Teeth...the designs are certainly unique and kept me squinting at the jumpy first-person cinematography to get a better look, and everything is done (as you find out in the half-hour making-of featurette) with prosthetics, costumes, and set decor. This always gives a movie a more gritty, palpable feel over gobs of computer generated imagery.
The first two-thirds of the movie reminded me a bit of Aliens -- a military detachment arrives at a site to do what they think its a routine extraction, inadvertently wanders into a the wrong part of town, and starts getting slaughtered by horrors unlike anything they've ever seen before. The last third of the movie is more academic, following the captive cameraman into Frankenstein's workshop to build a record of his methods and the work he's been doing. There are a few bits that will likely make more squeamish viewers squirm, but nothing too unsettling. By and large, a lot of the violence happens off-camera, is implied, or only shown as blood and guts spatter here and there.
In addition to the aforementioned making-of featurette that covers story development, location scouting, creating the monsters and effects, and capturing shots, other less satisfying bonuses include a trailer and some 15-second glimpses at scenes with the different creature designs. The extras aren't going to convince anyone who's on the fence about picking up the disc, but if you're already interested in the concept and creativity Raaphorst brought to the table, getting to see how they put it all together and their enthusiasm for the project makes it feel more special than simply reading a plot synopsis might imply.
Overall I enjoyed Frankenstein's Army. The pacing is well executed, characters just memorable enough for this type of movie, creature designs and implementations clever and confounding, and the horror elements ramp up nicely from sublime to overt. If anything I've said about the movie up to this point sounds even remotely interesting, watch it. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.