Army of Frankensteins (2013)

NOVEMBER 11, 2016


On any other week, Army of Frankensteins would have been the worst part of it, hands down. But... well, you know. However, it's actually somewhat MORE damning of the film that I wasn't able to find much to enjoy about it, since it involved time travel, a device a lot of us wish we could have right now. If the movie was competent on any level that mattered, it might have worked as a bit of a pick-me-up or something, but the unconvincing effects, worse actors, incoherent plot, and (most insulting) punishing length just added to the misery more than anything else. Yes, I do wish I had a time machine myself, but whether I'd use it to stop Hitler 2.0 or merely convince these folks not to make such an ambitious film when they only had 12 cents to make it, I'm not sure. Could I do both?

Indeed, the budgetary restraints were probably their biggest downfall. The narrative is appropriately "stitched together" from a variety of films, primarily Army of Darkness (grocery store clerk goes back in time and gets involved in a major battle, using some of his futuristic technology to help the good guys), Back to the Future (the same guy accidentally causes strife between his will-be great-great-grandparents and has to reunite them to ensure his existence), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (revisionist horror gibberish playing a part in Lincoln's death) and, well, Time Chasers, the movie that was so savagely lampooned on MST3k that its filmmakers actually felt depressed about it. Like that movie, our time traveling hero gets involved in a Civil War, with soldiers and equipment belonging to a reenactment troop that probably could have used a bigger budget themselves. Honestly, I'm sure these filmmakers weren't intending to homage that piece of junk, but I was certainly thinking about that one more than any of those other, superior movies. Then they throw in zombies and a pointless subplot about the hero and his girlfriend BOTH being sexually harassed in the present day bookends (he by his landlord, her by her boss). It's like they had four scripts and opted to shoot scenes from them all until the money ran out. Then shot for another few days anyway.

The other big problem is that the movie is tone deaf - I never could quite decide if it was supposed to be funny or not. I certainly didn't laugh much (John Wilkes Booth inexplicably slapping Mary Todd on the butt as she headed out of their balcony to rush to Lincoln's aid made me chuckle for the irony, given that the Presidency itself was just killed by a man who proudly admits to such behavior), and the 110 minute length and plot revolving around Lincoln and the Civil War (so, in turn, a bit of slavery) doesn't exactly scream high comedy. If they were going for laughs and it simply didn't amuse ME PERSONALLY, that'd be one thing, but the majority of the actors weren't really mugging or playing up their bad dialogue, so I have to assume it was, at best, meant to be FUN, not funny. However, that approach only works if we're still supposed to be taking the story and its stakes seriously (think Amblin movies), which is impossible here since it revolves around a time travel concept that comes out of nowhere.

It also involves the title characters, and believe me - the use of "Frankensteins" when it's an army of the Monsters is the least of the movie's problems. The makeup is actually pretty good, but the rest of the execution for the big lug is a crippling flaw. For starters, he grunts exactly like Phil Hartman playing the Monster on SNL (where are Tarzan and Tonto?), effectively killing any chance of him being scary in the slightest (if anything it's the movie's best clue that it's supposed to be a comedy). Worse, it may be an "Army" but it's only one guy playing him, and these folks don't have access to those great Matrix computers that allowed Keanu to fight a hundred Hugo Weavings at once. So you see a row of digital clones of the guy, and most of the time they don't even bother to have the actor do six or ten or twelve takes of his actions, so they all act more or less in unison as well (they at least stagger the start time of their canned "animation" a bit so they're not 100% in sync, but it's not enough of a difference to avoid giving away that they're copy/pasting clones of one clip around the screen). They TRY to explain this away by working in a device where there's only one real Frankenstein and the others are copies (and will all die if the main one dies, or feel the same injury, or whatever), so it would make sense that they all act/move exactly the same, but all it does is call attention to a shitty effect.

Curiously, bad green-screen work rears its ugly head even in shots without Frankensteins. The last 15 minutes take place in Washington DC (as opposed to on the battlefield in Virginia) as the heroes try to stop Lincoln's assassination, and the non-Monster actors look like they've been virtually placed over plain stone walls and the like, for whatever reason. I know they shot the movie in Oklahoma and not Virginia/DC, but I can't imagine there isn't a single building in these Oklahoman cities that would have worked for these brief shots. After all, the backgrounds are too dark and/or close up to contain any period detail of note, and even if they weren't I assume by this point no one would care if they could see Priuses driving around behind the actors, as long as the movie just got itself over with, so the fact that they didn't just have the actors stand in front of whatever exterior wall was closest at the time is beyond me. Maybe they were going for a Sky Captain/Sin City kind of deal, but for that to work they have to commit to it for the whole movie, not just random scenes. As for the digital blood - well, like the "Frankensteins" thing, I wish that was something that was actually an issue (though they could at least work on the CGI actions - when Frankenstein pulls a guy's head off it looks like it couldn't have been attached in the first place).

There is also a scene in a hot air balloon, so if you're a student of Ebert's list of movie rules, you already got everything you need to know about this thing.

Ultimately, I admire the ambition, but when you're asking for nearly two hours of my time (instead of 80), constantly reminding me of better movies, and doing almost nothing effectively, I can't get excited about it any more than I can my toddler drawing a fairly decent circle, albeit on the wall with a Sharpie. One of the best things a filmmaker do is play within his/her limitations (both budgetary and creative, though the latter obviously takes a little soul-searching to find), because it allows the audience to quickly settle into the world you're presenting. Biting off more than you can chew (and then some - there is really no need for any of the Lincoln stuff at all. Even Time Chasers knew that much) is, 99 times out of 100, a surefire way of letting the audience down, and hard. The team is already in post on a 2nd feature, a giant monster movie called Gremlin (Amblin again!), so hopefully they got enough constructive criticism on their first film to improve on this one. It's never fun to pick on an indie (especially one that doesn't settle for doing the same shit as everyone else), but like I've said a million times - at the end of the day the consumer has to pay the same price for these movies as they do the big budget ones, and thus it's the filmmaker's job to make sure we're getting our money's worth regardless of how much they spent to earn it. The $7,000 Primer is just as valid a time travel movie as the $30m Twelve Monkeys - by the same rule, Army of Frankensteins should engage and entertain just as well as the movies it's cribbing from.

What say you?


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