Looking to get a fake Stalin-era propaganda anthem stuck in your head forever? The FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY menu, opening and end credits are here to help! This low budget, high on practical effects English language Dutch-American-Czech production tells a simple story about a group of Soviet soldiers who encounter a Nazi scientist’s enclave of steampunk zombie cyborg monsters. And that’s about it.
Tbfh (to be frankly honest) I don’t really get this fascination with adding Nazis to zombies or aliens or mad scientists or whatever. I’m not against it, I just can’t really relate to the people that get so excited for IRON SKY or DEAD SNOW or whatever. I think maybe genre + swastika is shorthand for ’40s pulp aesthetic. And it seems like it’s usually these low budget grassroots people dealing with period detail and style that they can’t really pull off convincingly. This one does better than many I think, even if it has HELLBOY’s Karl Roden in it to remind you how not-fresh the Nazi/Russian/mad science triangle is.
The problem – and this is a major one to me – is that it’s done found footage style. One character is filming it all for propaganda footage or something. They do avoid that usual problem of using found footage as an excuse to never show anything. No, this is all about showing stuff, and I really respect that. But more than any found footage movie I’ve seen it’s a constant distraction because it just doesn’t even remotely make sense. I can forgive the unjustified in-camera edits, and maybe the endless camera running without accounting for all the times they would’ve had to change the film. But I just could never shake the difficulty of accepting this as real footage filmed during World War II. It doesn’t look like that era to us because there’s no film like this from that era.
They show the small hand crank camera it’s supposedly filmed with, and a character points out that he’s never seen a camera with a microphone for recording sound. That old loophole that if you point out it doesn’t make sense then that means technically it does make sense so fuck you we win shut up leave me alone. The force field of self awareness.
But man, it looks so clear, so non-flickery. And there are a whole bunch of quiet scenes! No camera rattling away. I wondered if they would claim the futuristic camera was created by the Dr. Frankenstein that created this army, but he’d never be able to make it either because all his shit clanks and putters and ticks.
And the sad thing is it looks really good. If they shot it traditionally, or even in similar long takes but non-subjectively, it would seem like a real movie. And I’d have no problem with other artistic license like Russian soldiers speaking English. Pretending to be actual footage makes legitimate storytelling techniques into blatant cheats.
What they’ve made is not so much a movie as a Halloween horror maze. And by those standards it is very impressive. It’s mostly a walk through a place seeing different monsters pop out. Guys with white eyes (sometimes that explode), guys with drills and hammers and things for hands, stitched up ladies, a guy with a bear trap for a head that slams shut on another guy’s head, big lumbering guys that push around mine carts full of body parts or force feed soup to guests. There’s a guy with a propeller for a face. There’s a guy that looks like Gestapo Edward Scissorhands. There’s a guy with a snout and stilts like a giant mosquito. They have hooks and claws and army helmets and diving equipment and motor chests and landmine heads. The end credits list a ridiculous number of monsters and “zombots,” I wish I counted how many ’cause they’re not on IMDb.
My favorite one looked like a potbelly stove with legs. You don’t even notice him until the mad scientist suddenly yells “HANS!” and he comes running like an excitable dog when somebody’s at the front door. If he didn’t have a big ol’ swastika painted on him he’d be adorable. He’s like a Nazi R2-D2.
Alot of them are less friendly. They suddenly jump out and chase like the pyramid-headed individual in SILENT HILL. But this doesn’t have nearly the atmosphere or eery dreaminess of that one. It’s missing some of the qualities I enjoy in a horror movie, but at least has much more than what is customary in a found footage picture. In the effects and costumes and stuff there is a high concentration of elbow grease, if not in the script. (By the way you guys this shares one writer with REVENGE OF THE NERDS.) More than any I’ve seen it’s like a series of magic tricks, things they really had to plan and practice and set up and time well. It seems like a pain in the ass to do instead of the usual insultingly simple. And purists will appreciate that there’s very little that’s digital. I think only one effect that I remember.
So there you go. Trick or treat I guess.