Director Richard Raaphorst gained a lot of attention with his trailer for Worst Case Scenario, a Nazi zombie movie he was developing as far back as 2005. After years of struggling to find financing for that project to no avail, Worst Case Scenario was officially shelved in 2009. Which, coincidentally, was the same year Tommy Wirkola’s Nazi zombie comedy/horror film Dead Snow was released: after the exciting trailers, Worst Case Scenario appeared to be a particularly heartbreaking case of “wrong place, wrong time.” After some quiet on the development front, horror fans were excited to hear about Raaphorst’s new project, Frankenstein’s Army. Now, years after the cancellation of Worst Case Scenario and the better part of a decade since Raaphorst first started making waves in the horror scene, his debut feature is finally here. Now the question is whether or not it lives up to the lofty expectations set by his previous work.
Near the end of World War II, a Russian army unit with an embedded cameraman finds themselves lost deep in enemy territory. As they push forward, they happen upon a radio broadcast from another Russian soldier pinned down by the Germans. They find the coordinates from the broadcast, only to find a mostly-deserted village with no other Russian military in sight. They soon find that there is a large network of tunnels under the village, and when they go down to investigate, they discover the tunnels are populated with bizarre creatures in Nazi uniforms. These patchwork monsters are everywhere, and when the soldiers manage to find some German civilians, the only answer they can get about the creatures is that “he keeps creating more.” The Russians push into the tunnels further and further, their numbers dwindling with each incursion with the monsters, until the cameraman eventually finds himself alone with the mad scientist behind it all.
Surprisingly, Frankenstein’s Army is presented as a “found footage” film, supposedly made up of the footage that the cameraman shot. Granted, this might not bother most viewers, but for film format nerds the first major problem with Frankenstein’s Army is the fact that the cameraman is shooting with either an 8mm or 16mm handheld camera, but the image is color, high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen with 5.1 surround sound. Occasional scratches and “light leaks” aside, there is nothing done to convince the audience that this is actual footage found from a 40s-era film camera. This is a serious problem on two fronts: first, it’s a distraction in and of itself, and secondly, giving the film a beaten, aged look would have gone a long way toward covering up its low-budget nature. Once the soldiers encounter the monsters, the high-def video makes everything look much too “real.” It looks like people in costumes running around in a (pretty cool) location rather than footage of intense, claustrophobic fights with monsters. We get a good long look at most of the creatures, which is both good and bad. Good in that the character design (one of the major reasons Worst Case Scenario drew so much attention) is really interesting and unique, but bad in that we’re just looking at nice-looking, crisp digital video of people in monster outfits.
The well-designed monsters still get off better than the Russian soldiers, however, who barely get a single character trait each before getting bumped off by either German fire or a monster’s scythe-hand. There’s the gruff commander, the self-important cameraman, the guy who looks like he’s fourteen years old, and then a bunch of other gruff canon fodder who don’t make much of an impression. The pacing of the film is also pretty brutal, with the first monster showing up well past the 20-minute mark. Up until then, the audience just watches the faceless Russian soldiers trudging through forests and getting in occasional firefights with the Germans. Again, making the film look like it was actually shot with WWII-era handheld combat cameras would have really helped in selling the firefight scenes, which mostly look like a bunch of guys trying really hard to make it look like they’re in a firefight where we don’t see the other side at all. Shooting on digital video makes sense from a business standpoint, but other films have proven that it’s possible to convincingly replicate the look and feel of film stock, and leaving Frankenstein’s Army mostly intact in its sharp digital look gives the audience a long look at the seams not just in the monster costumes, but everywhere.
Dark Sky Films released Frankenstein’s Army on DVD and Blu-ray on 10 September 2013. Special features include a “making of” featurette, “Creature Spots,” and the film’s trailer. The omission of Raaphorst’s Worst Case Scenario trailers is curious, but probably due to rights issues.