Frankenstein's Army (2013)
What It's About: Frankenstein's Army is the closest thing to a Wolfenstein movie we'll probably ever see. And if we do ever get one, this will probably still be the better movie. A team of Russian soldiers on a reconnaissance mission in Germany venture further behind enemy lines to rescue a group of POWs being held in a small town. This part of the movie is that thing that always happens in horror movies -- the sort of twenty-minute grace period where we get to know the characters and realize that they're kind of a bunch of dicks, so we needn't feel that bad when they all inevitably end up slaughtered in gruesome fashion. The soldiers spend some time harassing the locals, film some footage for the propaganda movie they're supposed to be making and finally march into town to find the whole place deserted. There's a pile of dead nuns, a bunch of weird machinery and -- OH CRAP, SON, it turns out the Nazis are making cyborg Frankenstein soldiers! And everybody gets killed. That's basically it, and if you're watching a movie called Frankenstein's Army, that is also pretty much what you're here to see anyway, so that's fine.
Why You Should Watch It: The last two movies I reviewed have been at least a bit cerebral, so I thought I'd review one that was just about the polar opposite of cerebral this week. This is a B-movie, make no mistake. It's a goofy, gory, sort of intentionally schlocky 1980s-style mad-science movie in the vein of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond, and while it's more or less a straight horror movie, it also has tongue at least somewhat in cheek. It's never boring, because some new crazy steampunk Frankenstein shows up every ten minutes or so. There are Frankensteins with drill faces, swords for hands, airplane heads, diving helmet heads, head-crushing heads, seriously any kind of head you can think of, and one that looks kind of like a jukebox holding up a swastika. They heil Hitler, they growl and scream, they actually run after you waving their arms in the air -- when was the last time you saw a movie monster do that? The characters are pretty one-dimensional. Sergei the leader is the least assholish of the bunch, so he's the main character; Vassili is the psycho guy who wants to rape and kill everything; Sacha is the new kid; Dmitri is the cameraman with a secret; and secondary characters generally get killed off about ten minutes after they're introduced.
I like this movie for a few reasons. It's a silly monster-mash, but it's also, particularly toward the end, kind of disturbing in a 1970s Nazi-sploitation movie sort of way, where you feel kind of gross after you're done watching. I actually really like Frankenstein himself a lot, here -- Viktor Frankenstein is played by Karel Roden, who you might (or might not, I guess) remember as Rasputin in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy, and he's one of the few movie mad scientists I've seen in recent years who actually fits the bill. "Mad scientist," in movie-speak, tends to be synonymous with "unethical scientist," and if anything, they also tend to be cold and detached rather than mad, because everyone in Hollywood knows that being emotional and passionate is better than being smart, and if you're smart, chances are you're also nasty and devoid of basic human morals. Roden's Frankenstein is completely manic, puttering around his laboratory, throwing severed body parts over his shoulder, joking with his creations and his victims alike because he's really a pretty happy guy. He's the sort of mad scientist who will, for example, cut out half of a living Communist's brain and replace it with half of a Nazi brain in an effort to make the two sides understand each other so they can stop fighting. And when it doesn't work, he's the sort of scientist who totally loses interest in the experiment and moves onto something else at the drop of a hat. He's ridiculously energetic, he enjoys his work, and, in a pulpy setting like this, where making a super-soldier consists of replacing a dead guy's head with a propeller and shocking him with electricity, he's also ostensibly a genius.
The movie's also a testament to the power of imagination. Okay, that sounds corny, but it's true. Frankenstein's Army was made on a very low budget, the monster designs are inventive and the effects are fantastic. Not to mention almost entirely practical, which seems to be a dying art in the age of Bay and Lucas stuffing as much shit as possible into a shot and then filling the rest in later with CGI. The best practical effects are still recognizable as practical effects, but one cannot ignore the artistry behind them. I remember an interview with the cast of Joe Cornish's sci-fi action comedy Attack the Block where they said that the monsters were part man-in-a-suit and part animatronic, and their reactions in each scene were far more convincing as a result; the thing that was supposed to be scaring them was right there in front of them. In an effects-based movie, practical effects help draw the scene together and keep it cohesive. Frankenstein's Army is a throwback in that sense -- a tribute to the years where, if you wanted to show an exploding zombie head, you soaked some cauliflower in red dye, put it inside a cast of someone's head and then took a sledgehammer to it. It's a hell of a lot of fun, if you've got the stomach for it.
(An afterthought: If there's one thing I don't like about this, it's that the found-footage format is forced. It adds nothing to the movie, and color film was seriously expensive back then, so they probably wouldn't have sent a bunch of soldiers into a potential combat situation with it. They could just as easily have dropped that aspect of it without any detrimental effect.)
Available On: Netflix.