JULY 31, 2013
I talked to one of the FX guys behind Frankenstein's Army at last year's Comic Con, and got positively giddy about the movie's premise - a group of soldiers discover a bunker overrun with Nazi "Zombots" created by none other than Frankenstein himself. He showed me a few of the creatures, talked about a few others, gushed over Karel Roden as Frankenstein... but never once mentioned that the film, set in WWII, was a goddamn found footage movie. Even then, in 2012, I would have rolled my eyes a bit at the thought of yet another mock doc, but over a year later, having finally seen the film, it just really made me sad.
Obviously director (and a zillion other credits, including both "idea by" and "story by", which has to be a first) Richard Raaphorst couldn't have known how badly overrun the sub-genre would be by the time his movie saw release (it was shot in early 2012), but it WAS his responsibility to justify the approach within his narrative, and that is where he misses the mark. Even if you ignore the myriad anachronisms (sync sound on a color film camera that shoots 16:9 footage?) and laughable mistakes (the camera guy says he just loaded his last roll of film with 25 minutes of the movie left to go - and he also somehow loaded it while covered in blood and frightened out of his mind), there is never a point in the movie where I understood why it HAD to be presented in the first person format. Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, Cloverfield... all of these films provided the excuse and maintained the necessary "meet me halfway" balance with the audience - ALL of em have their "Why are they filming?" parts and some suspension of disbelief with regards to battery power and tape, but this has NOTHING. Our guy mentions needing to document the trip in case their target isn't able to be captured alive, but why film so many of his fellow soldiers' conversations that he doesn't take part in, or stand in the middle of a battlefield (!) to film a shootout with an enemy troop? Why does he always helpfully pan back and forth between a monster and his comrades that are shooting at it (again, sometimes standing directly between them)?
And that's the biggest problem - the single camera (well, sort of - they also frequently cut to a different angle with no lapse in time) keeps the action at bay, and thus reduces the time we get to spend with the movie's incredible creatures. I didn't care much for the film, but I almost hope it's a huge hit just so they can justify an action figure line, as each creature is something I'd love to have on a shelf. As I described them in that Comic Con piece, they look like Bioshock's monsters mixed with something Clive Barker might come up with, and I was impressed at how they all had their own unique look, even though we didn't get to see them all that much. There are a couple of extended fight scenes (such as the one with Propeller-Head), but for the most part our camera guy will stumble across one of them while running around the bunker's hallways, focus on him for a second or two, and then turn and run the other way before we could even really tell what their "power" was. It started to feel more like a maze at Universal Horror Nights or something, where you'll find a room/monster that you wanted to just soak in and enjoy the design, but couldn't because you were being ushered through as quickly as possible. It's a good thing our sociopathic protagonist is a savant at running backwards through dark, unfamiliar areas, or else we would see them even less than we do. And they're all practical creations, best as I can tell, so it's not like they had to hide bad CGI or limit their rendering time or something - film the movie normally and show em off!
But if you do your best to ignore the found footage aspect, it's not too bad. Even in their limited screentime, the monsters still help make it one of the more visually interesting horror films in quite a while, and it's nice to see a WWII set horror film about a discovered bunker that wasn't based around psychological trauma or a supernatural presence. The cast is compact enough to keep everyone straight even with their limited character development (having trouble telling the soldiers apart is almost always a problem for me with these things), and it's certainly one of the faster paced entries in the war/horror genre (again, so many of them are based on psychologically-tinged elements, which translates to a slow burn affair). And Roden IS indeed a delight as Frankenstein, clearly having a ball spouting mad scientist nonsense and digging into brains and what not as he worked on new creations.
I also appreciated, on an admittedly weird level, that they didn't shy away from making our protagonists into assholes. One soldier kills a bunny for no reason, another orders a child to be used as bait (doesn't end well), and they laugh when a captured enemy soldier is killed. Usually I detest this sort of thing, but in a found footage movie (especially one where I'm basically only watching for the production design) I know everyone's gonna die anyway, so they might as well go for broke. And one guy who had a bit of a Michael Fassbender thing going on largely refrained from doing anything too dickish, so there's still someone to root for, sort of. It's not much of a surprise that there's a traitor among them, though then we're treated to yet another giant "guess we gotta go with it" moment, where the traitor explains why he needs to be kept alive, even protected by the others, or else the movie would end.
Look, I've certainly seen worse, is what I'm saying. I was constantly at odds with wanting to love the movie for its creatures and aesthetic, and getting angrier that it was yet another found footage movie where the filmmakers clearly had no interest in even trying to follow the "rules" of the format. Much like 3D, it's a tool that can be used very effectively, and its unfortunately fallen into the hands of those who just want to cash in on a trend without realizing that they're the ones that will ultimately kill it (again). Kind of a shame, but unlike the Amber Alerts or Absences of the world, at least this won't make you want to swear off the format forever.
What say you?