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Toward the end of World War II, Russian soldiers pushing into eastern Germany stumble across a secret Nazi lab, one that has unearthed and begun experimenting with the journal of one Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The scientists have used the legendary Frankenstein's work to assemble an army of super-soldiers stitched together from the body parts of their fallen comrades -- a desperate Hitler's last ghastly ploy to escape defeat.
For more about Frankenstein's Army and the Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray release, see Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on September 9, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang
Director: Richard Raaphorst
» See full cast & crew
Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray Review
You Did Nazi This One Coming
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, September 9, 2013
If Frankenstein's Army had to be categorized with any specificity, you'd have to invent a new amalgamated sub-genre: the practical special effects-driven zombie-robot nazisploitation found footage mad scientist monster movie. (Or P.S.E.D.Z.R.N.F.F.M.S.M.M. for not-so-short.) The elements here are certainly familiar—the resurrected Nazis of Dead Snow, the unethical experimentation of Mary Shelly's original Frankenstein, the shaky cam of Blair Witch and Cloverfield—but they've never been combined in such a particularly deranged way. The film is the work of first-time director Richard Raaphorst, and after viewing Frankenstein's Army, it's no surprise to learn that his career until now was as a storyboard and concept artist. The movie itself is practically a portfolio of creepy monster and set design. Raaphorst's style is vaguely steampunkish, heavy on the melding of flesh and metal, and he amplifies the grimy industrial atmosphere by shooting in a derelict factory outside Prague, transforming its rusty innards into a nightmare workshop for the legendary Dr. Frankenstein's great-grandson, who obsessively toils away at making man-machine hybrids for the Third Reich.
The film is told from the first-person perspective of Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a bespectacled cameraman in the Russian army's propaganda division who's been charged with documenting a reconnaissance unit pushing through the German countryside during the last days of the war. If you've seen your share of found footage movies, you'll recognize Dimitri as that most improbable of characters—the guy who never stops filming even when his life is in immediate peril. The film eventually reveals a motivation for why he's so adamant about capturing everything, but this feels more like an excuse than an eloquent narrative solution. And then there are the technical quibbles; instead of shooting in Academy ratio black and white like most of the other war cinematographers of the day, Dimitri has a 16mm Bolex that's somehow capable of capturing a widescreen image, on what looks to be some primitive Technicolor stock, with sync sound, an invention that wouldn't appear until the Cinéma Vérité movement of the 1960s. Granted, I suppose in a movie about undead SS soldiers fused with repurposed war effort weaponry, we can forgive a little inaccuracy when it comes to the abilities of mid-century camera equipment. But I've digressed.
Dmitri's unit—including the grizzled Captain Novikov (Robert Gwilym), the hulking Ivan (Hon Ping Tang), the hot-tempered Vassili (Andrei Zayats), and the sympathetic Sergei (Joshua Sasse), amongst other monster fodder—soon arrives at a seemingly abandoned village, where dark deeds are clearly afoot. They've followed a distress transmission from another Russian recon squadron, but instead of comrades, they find a bricked-up convent with a pile of charred-to-death nuns outside. Inside, however, is something even more horrifying—a makeshift lab of sorts where they have an encounter with "Burnt Match Man," a slender, electricity-powered creature with a jackhammer attached to one arm and what looks like a series of dental drills and picks forged to the hand of the other. But this nunnery is only an outpost. Later, they make their way down into the labyrinthine underground factory of Herr Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Hellboy's Karel Roden), a madman whose grim work is ideologically inspired.
At this point in the story, Frankenstein's Army drops most of its pretenses about having an actual plot and becomes a kind of first-person haunted house fun-ride, a Halloween carnival attraction gone delightfully berserk. As Dimitri and his company skulk through the narrow corridors, bloody basements, and body-strewn research and development rooms, they face off against—or, run away from, rather—a series of bolted-together "zombots." One has steel, lobster claw-like scissors for hands, while another lurches forward with a spinning propellor and cowling where his head and neck should be. The showpiece monster, who makes numerous appearances, is a 10-foot-tall, gas mask-wearing baddie—with a drill protruding from his mouth—who skitters about on jagged scrap-metal stilts. These hulking monstrosities were designed by Raaphorst himself and brought to life with the help of special effects supervisor Rogier Samuels, who cut his teeth working for Weta Workshop on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If there is CGI in the film, I didn't spot any. It's clear that the director and his VFX mastermind were committed to using real costumes and in-camera trickery wherever possible, and the the film benefits from an insane level of hand-crafted detail.
Design-wise, the film's influences seem just as video game inspired as they are cinematic. There's a bit of Fritz Lang's Metropolis here, by way of Wolfenstein 3D, and the general post-Hammer Horror grindhouse vibe is modulated with enemies that could come straight out of the Bioshock or Silent Hill franchises. It's tempting to say Frankenstein's Army might've made a better game than a movie. It does have its flaws in a barely-there story and lack of dramatic impact, and at times it feels like you're watching an extended cutscene, waiting to press a series of buttons for a high tension quick time event. But I'd be lying if I said the film—especially the frantic last half—wasn't a hell of a fun time, striking just the right mood between run-for-your-life terror and over-the-top, gross-out hilarity. For all its faults, Frankenstein's Army has the makings and cult potential of a neo-classic midnight movie. The intestine-shredding violence. The exaggerated characters. The out-of-nowhere scares and the shriekshow monsters that deliver them. Might Richard Raaphorst be the next Guillermo del Toro? I wouldn't rule it out.
Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray, Video Quality
Frankenstein's Army is one of those home video releases where—in a few instances—it's hard to tell what is an intentional part of the image and what may be a shortcoming in the Blu-ray encode. The central conceit, of course, is that this footage was shot at the tail end of WWII on color stock, using a 16mm camera with sync sound. (Forget, for a moment, that color film was rarely used during the war, and that 16mm sync sound wasn't invented until the 1960s.) Because the film was actually shot digitally—with Arri Alexa cameras—grain, frame jitters, light leaks, color fluctuations, and other vintage analog characteristics were liberally applied in post-production to achieve the intended distressed look. Most of this is obvious, but the picture often also seems quite noisy in a way that may suggest a high compression ratio, with thickly spackled noise artifacts visible in darker areas of the image. Because I can't say with any certainty where along the production line this noise was introduced, I'm just going to give the benefit of the doubt and assume it's supposed to be there. Regardless, it's really only noticeable when viewing screenshots or standing close to the screen. From a normal viewing distance, the faux-16mm graininess is reasonably convincing, although the desaturated and sometimes oddly toned color grading is less believable. Appropriately—if 16mm was indeed the intended reference point—sharpness is not the picture's strong suit, but there's certainly enough to high definition clarity here to warrant watching the film on Blu-ray instead of DVD.
Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Not only does Dimitri's 16mm camera have sync sound, it can apparently capture multi-channel audio as well. Dark Sky Films has given us two audio options here, the default lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix and an uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 stereo mix-down. Like the image, the sound design features some post-production distressing to give a vintage feeling—intentional muffling at times, splice pops and crackles, the clicking whir of film running through the camera—but otherwise the audio is quite modern, with a thumping low-end, immersive ambience in just about every scene, directionally accurate effects, and and an assortment of cross-channel movements. It's all very well done, amping up the film's uneasiness with electrical surges, flashing sparks, and other loud industrial noises. Dialogue is easily understood throughout, and the disc includes English SDH and Spanish subtitles—in bright yellow lettering—for those who need or want them.
Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Coming at us from Dark Sky Films, my pick for underdog Blu-ray release of the week is Frankenstein's Army, a delirious creature feature, with the emphasis on creature. Director Richard Raaphorst has conjured up some nightmarish monsters for his debut film—a drill-mouthed Nazi zombie on razor edged stilts, a brute with circular saws for hands, a scythe-swinging lunatic—and while the slim, Frankenstein-meets-WWII story takes a back seat to the character design, the movie has great energy and a charming, made-by-hand aesthetic that eschews CGI for honest-to-goodness practical effects. For the best viewing results, watch this one with friends and a few drinks. Recommended!
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Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Frankenstein's Army Blu-ray - August 7, 2013
MPI and Dark Sky Films have announced the Blu-ray release of Richard Raaphorst's Frankenstein's Army, starring Alexander Mercury, Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Andrei Zayats, Luke Newberry and Robert Gwilym. The well-received horror-comedy arrives on Blu-ray on September ...
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