Frankenstein's Army (US - BD RA)
Gabe went in for a tonsillectomy and came out with gas-powered drill fingers...
In the dying days of World War II, a battalion of Russian soldiers find themselves lost in enemy territory in eastern Germany. One soldier (Alexander Mercury) has been ordered to make a propaganda film as the squadron makes its way across the wintry landscape, and what follows is a thrilling mix of found-footage shocks and classic horror. Stumbling upon a village decimated by an unseen terror, the Russians are lured into the secret lab of deranged scientist Viktor (Karel Roden). Viktor has unearthed the journals of the legendary Dr. Victor Frankenstein and has used them to assemble an army of supersoldiers stitched together from the body parts of fallen Germans - a desperate Hitler's last ghastly ploy to escape defeat. Leaderless and faced with dissension in their dwindling ranks, the Russians must find the courage to face down this fearsome new brigade of flesh-and-metal ‘zombots’ – or die trying. (From Dark Sky’s official synopsis)
At its base, Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army (a title that notably did not have an apostrophe on its original trailer) is a high-concept, low budget horror flick that stands apart in a busy field, because its concept seems so inevitable I can’t believe no one made it already. There have been plenty of movies about Nazi zombies (Kevin Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves, Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies, and Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake) and even some that feature said Nazi zombies fighting Allied soldiers (Rob Green’s The Bunker and Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch), but no one has taken the idea of a Nazi zombie to its logical conclusion – Nazi zombies fitted with deadly WWII-era machinery by the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. Okay, so maybe the whole Frankenstein meets Third Reich thing has been done in comic books and pulp novels, but none of those ever featured a guy with a propeller strapped to his face (I think). Raaphorst gets a little too wrapped in the cool concept, especially during the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ final act, and Frankenstein’s Army comes out feeling more like a pop art exhibition than a real movie. This isn’t really a mistake, though, because, before taking this first foray into feature filmmaking, Raaphorst made a living as a ‘conceptual artist’ and ‘visualiser’ for genre movies, like Brian Yuzna’s Faust and Stuart Gordon’s Dagon. On this level, the film mostly works – the zombots are neat and the violence is delightfully gory (like the Evil Dead remake, I can’t believe this got away with an R-rating). The sillier the designs got, the more fun I had.
The experience is continuously hampered by the movie’s needless found-footage filming style. This over-used gimmick rarely serves the concept and turns the more action-packed sequences into visual mud. The final act, where Viktor leads the cameraman through his circus of horrors, does eventually justify the presence of a documentarian, though I can’t say that the film wouldn’t have worked just as well without the actors speaking directly to screen. Raaphorst does succeed in creating and maintaining a faux-reality with editing tricks and seemingly incidental alterations, like faked lens changes, but this doesn’t always translate to potent scares or the prevailing sense of dread found in the best found-footage features. The gimmick does put extra emphasis on the camera’s subjective POV, making some of the action scenes feel very videogame-like. I assume this is not a mistake, especially not in the later scenes, where the audience becomes a participant via subjective camera work, and because so many of the creature designs remind me of the kind of monsters you’d run across in a Silent Hill or Resident Evil[I] game. Not to even mention all of the stuff [I]Frankenstein’s Army has in common with the old PC classic, Wolfenstein. This approach is kind of clever (even if Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] already did the whole found-footage-evoking-videogames thing years ago), but it is also frustrating, because it’s not an interactive experience.
The script was co-written by Raaphorst, Miguel Tejada-Flores, who worked with Raaphorst on several horror movies, and Chris W. Mitchell, who also co-wrote a Holocaust melodrama called Suskind (so, I guess he was brought on for research purposes?). There really isn’t much narrative here, more like a videogame-esque scenario (including a kind of cut scene/action scene structure) spiked by a couple of twisty character revelations, but there are some well-defined characterizations and these help delineate what could’ve been a completely indiscernible cast. Unfortunately, the characters are painted mostly as mean-spirited people you wouldn’t want to root for anyway. The cast is fine and mostly convincing as period soldiers (despite speaking English…), but Karel Roden is acting on a whole different level. His brief scenery-chewing performance elevates the already amusing third act to near greatness.
Despite taking place in an era where handheld battlefield cameras would’ve probably been 8mm, 16mm tops (the filmmakers even include images of 8mm cameras being handed around and the clicking sound of film moving through a magazine), Frankenstein’s Army was actually shot on Arri Alexa digital HD. Raaphorst and cinematographer Bart Beekman take pains to make the digital images look rough, including artificial scratches, lens changes, and burn-outs, but they don’t really mimic the grain appearance of smaller format film. For the most part, this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer looks like any other digital feature. Details are sometimes obscured by the stylistic choices and rapid camera movement, but, overall, textures and patterns are quite sharp from front to back without any major halo effects (again, entirely unlike 8mm or 16mm film). The dynamic ranges and contrast levels are set pretty low in an effort to create a sort of hazy look. This includes a mostly de-saturated palette. During daylight scenes, the colours appear relatively natural, as if they’re being limited by the overcast look (the flesh tones and forest greens appear accurate), then, during darker scenes, the palette is sometimes limited to a soft orange, teal, and green. This leaves the blacks a bit weak, but the hue separations are tight and the bloody red highlights are poppy. It’s difficult to judge the transfer’s artefacts, since so many of them are intended, but I believe the occasional cross-colouration and blocking issues are unintentional.
This disc features both a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and a lossless, PCM 2.0 track. For this review, I listened to the DTS-HD track. This is an interesting track, because, at times, the sound designers are mixing their artificial ‘aged’ sounds (muddied dialogue, muffled incidental sound, the aforementioned click of the camera magazine, et cetera) with aggressive, state of the art, surround sound-enhanced effects. The basic ‘aural palette’ is made up of the chopped-up dialogue and incidentals, which are housed in the center channel, the artificial sounds of dated recording equipment, and a sort of ambient haze that stands in for a traditional score (this includes electronic windy sounds and deep, rumbling bass). As the film progresses, more immersive sound is introduced, including subtle/creepy off-screen noise and the more active sounds of combat and zombot machinery. Once all hell has broken loose and our heroes are facing off against these nearly unstoppable killing machines, this track is awash in so much punchy noise that it stands up against much larger budget productions. The only real problem is that the loudest scenes don’t have any real range – they’re just sort of a wave of noise. Still, the uncompressed volume levels are very impressive.
The extras begin with an EPK-style making-of featurette (32:10, HD) that mixes fly-on-the-wall set footage with cast & crew interviews. It covers the basics of the concept, production/creature design, location scouting, shooting a promo, gore/make-up effects, and editing. Interviews include Raaphorst, Beekman, production designer Jindrich Koci, co-producer with XYZ Films Todd Brown, Unreal FX team members Xander Forterie and Roger Samuels, stunt performer Klemens Patijn, and actors Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang, Andrei Zayats, and Karel Roden. The extras also include five creature-related teasers (Burnt-Match Man, Mosquito Man, Propellerhead, Teddy Bear Woman, and Razor Teeth), a trailer, and trailers for other Dark Sky releases.
Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t really work as a ‘real movie,’ but it is an awfully fun experience, assuming you’re willing to take it on its limited terms. I think it might have been great if it wasn’t for the whole found-footage thing. Those willing to accept that it makes a better trailer than a movie are in for a decent HD transfer, an outstanding DTS-HD MA soundtrack (neither of which are particularly convincing as far as the whole ‘filmed on 8mm during WWII’ gimmick goes), and a decent behind-the-scenes featurette with this Dark Sky Blu-ray release.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 10th September 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English/German, PCM 2.0 English/German
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Making-Of Featurette, Creature Spots, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Raaphorst
Cast: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang, Andrei Zayats
Genre: Action, Horror and War
Length: 82 minutes
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