When trying to recommend Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army to others, it’s almost necessary to use words that may make modern-age moviegoers wary. It’s a found-footage-style indie horror where zombified monsters are being created by a Nazi mad scientist. This is not a description likely to be repeated at any prestigious awards ceremony at the beginning of 2014, but I have no doubt this flick will have amassed an enormous audience by that time. Mark my words, however: this is the best found-footage-style indie horror where zombified monsters are being created by a Nazi mad scientist. I’m certain I won’t have a better time with a horror film this year. Sorry, James Wan.
For his first feature, Dutch director Raaphorst takes viewers back to the final days of World War II, as a small Russian military squad crosses into enemy territory, picking off the few Nazi stragglers still left fighting. Following them with camera in tow is Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a non-soldier tasked with documenting the unit’s final mission for posterity’s sake. Mother Russia will be so proud! The soldiers themselves are luckily distinctive enough to avoid becoming mere horror movie pawns, though they can easily be described in few words. Novikov (Robert Gwilym) is the gruff-and-ready commander. Sergei (Joshua Sasse) is his more level-headed second-in-command. Vassili (Andrei Zayats) is the gun-happy, testosterone-laden bully. Ivan (Hon Ping Tang) is just as testosterone-laden, but with more discipline. The mousy Sacha (Luke Newberry) has a bravery that belies his wide-eyed staring. And finally there’s Alexei (Mark Stevenson), who is admittedly the most generic one of the bunch.
The set-up is brisk and doesn’t get bogged down with either plot mechanics or drawn-out character beats, as everyone involved seems to be aware that this is essentially a slasher movie turned on its head. When the group receives a radio transmission that Russians are in need of assistance in a seemingly empty nearby village, you know the shit will soon be hitting the fan. (Not necessarily the monster with a giant fan for a torso, though.)
What becomes quickly obvious is that Frankenstein’s Army is the greatest video-game movie that wasn’t actually based on a video-game. Given the documentary approach, the first-person view is more focused than the shaky-cam aesthetic plaguing horror these days. Even though thoughts of, “Why is he still carrying that damned camera?” are definitely present, there is some explanation behind it, and it’s increasingly apparent that Raaphorst put more thought into this project than one might imagine.
Now, it may sound like my stance on the film thus far is in defense of its more generic aspects, but my words only serve to point out that this isn’t your average scary movie. The horrors of the village are evident before they reach it, and they’re in the midst of Nazi atrocities 20 minutes into things, so there is very little time for pondering. As naturally disturbing as abandoned buildings in a war-torn village are, the fear factor is raised dramatically with the presence of a stitched-together, weapon-handed man who is powered by electricity.
And before you can think to yourself, “Why was this guy tethered to the ground?” the men are soon overrun by hulking monstrosities that combine the bi-pedal travel of man with the weaponized extremities and appendages of Battle Bots and life-size kitchen appliances. These steampunk cyborgs are essentially reanimated corpses gone industrial, so their deadliness is not equaled by intelligence, which makes killing them and getting away from them easier than normal. And yes, there are moments where you might find yourself crying out, “Bullshit,” when characters aren’t immediately ripped to shreds, but these are the moments where pretending it’s a video-game help out entirely.
Seriously, it all seems like the final level of the greatest horror game ever. The feeling of giddy dread is present from the film’s earliest minutes, and it doesn’t let up until the credits begin to roll. The frequent jump scares are integral to the story and never superfluous. If there is something making noise, you can be sure it isn’t just a cat jumping off of a counter; it’s a huge fucking pith helmet-wearing monster with massive shears for hands, and he’s coming right at you!
By the time the film finally introduces Viktor (Karel Roden), the insanely ambitious creator of all of these atrocities, we’re almost numbed to his creations, but there is much more startling horror yet to happen. Roden is an attention-grabber every second he’s on the screen, and the subtle shift in narrative makes sense and is entirely welcome. No one wants to see only the artist’s work without meeting the artist, and boy does Viktor take his “art” seriously. I think if I say anything more, he might affix a metal plate over my mouth.
Frankenstein’s Army just hit VOD this past weekend, so you don’t have to wait even a second after reading this review to put it on. There are other Frankenstein projects currently in production with bigger budgets and A-list actors, but I can guarantee that none of them will be as refreshingly original and exciting as this flick is. While it’s usually a requisite to add “for this kind of movie” to the end of any compliments given to horror films, I’ll simply say that Frankenstein’s Army was a fantastic time in the dark. It made the Nazis scary again.