Monday, October 14, 2013

War is Hell

Frankenstein's Army

A friend of mine designs role playing games. When I mentioned that I was watching Frankenstein's Army (2013, directed by Richard Raaphorst), she told me that it's a game movie. She compared it to a first person shooter--and it's TOTALLY that--but my own preferences in gaming run to table top wargames, where kitbashed monsters like the beasties that inhabit this movie are incredibly common. So, yeah. It's totally a game movie, on multiple levels. I can't call it a fan film, because it has a level of production value that's well beyond what that phrase entails, but the impulses behind both its form and its aesthetic are both derived from fan culture.

The story is simple: a Soviet recon patrol at the end of World War II (or The Great Patriotic War if you're a Russian) is lured to an abandoned village by a transmission from another patrol requesting reinforcement. The village holds a secret: it's the home to Viktor Frankenstein, grandson of the original Baron Frankenstein, and Viktor has perfected his family's techniques to raise an army of monstrosities on behalf of the Nazis. Soon, our heroes find themselves besieged, and as the cracks begin to appear in their morale, the real reason for their mission and for the obsessive way the embedded film crew document are revealed...

Frankenstein's Army

Frankenstein's Army is a film that I wish I could like more than I do. I mean, it's a radical departure from the usual zombies and mad slashers that are the horror genre's bread and butter these days, and I have nothing but praise for that. It is endlessly creative in both its design sensibility--largely derived from steampunk even though the era is about fifty years later--and its staging of mayhem. This is a gore-hound's dream film and if this had come out in 1984 or thereabouts, it would probably be remembered fondly as some kind of minor classic. But in spite of that, it's has structural and dramatic deficiencies that I can't really overlook.

This is a "found footage" film, and even though it incorporates the idea into its plot better than most such films, it still tends to put blinders on the filmmakers. This is an inherent flaw of the form: it deprives the filmmakers of the opportunity to edit for pace, rhythm, and geography.The main benefit of the form is that it takes some of the pressure to block and choreograph shots off of the director--indeed, the whole point is that such films seem undirected--but this has its drawbacks even if it's forgiving of the process of shooting the film. In this film in particular, the found footage conceit introduces some unfortunate anachronisms. The film is widescreen even though the camera that the characters in-film are shown to be using would only shoot in the academy ratio. It's in color, which would have been fabulously rare, especially in Russia at the end of the war, and it has sound, and a camera that lightweight capable of recording sound wouldn't even be invented for another decade. I know, I know. I just need to go with it and accept the mystery. Perhaps it's some secret KGB gear. Whatever. In any case, this type of movie is apparently here to stay and I might as well try yelling at the sun for rising in the east for all the good it will do.

Frankenstein's Army

Visually, this film is very accomplished. There's a contemporary grottiness to the whole thing, and the locations in the Czech Republic are evocative. They've found great locations for this movie and dressed them to the hilt. The design sensibility not just of its beasties, but of its props and its sets is at the high end of what you might get if you assembled a bunch of really adept cosplayers and model builders and gave them their heads. There's a LOT of creativity out there in fan culture, and this film mainlines it.

Frankenstein's Army

From a dramatic standpoint: this film has types rather than characters: the gruff commander, the goodhearted second in command, the raping psycho, the green recruit. The inner lives of its characters are completely opaque. The only character whose motives we really get to see are Captain Dima's. He's the cameraman, charged with documenting the whole enterprise. But even Captain Dima turns out to be a cipher in the end. There's a strain of cynicism in the last act about the natures of Communism and Fascism and Capitalism that promises a better movie--particularly in a scene where Dr. Frankenstein transplants half of the brain of a fascist into the head where half the brain of a communist remains--but nothing comes of it. I wish this had more awareness of politics, but that's not this film's game. It's a cartoon, ultimately, and it's best to approach it as such.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 11

First Time Viewings: 10

Around the web:

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number has nice things to say about Night of the Creeps.

Fascination with Fear starts a new theme for the week, focusing on Road Trip Horror.

Horrifying Reviews has gotten ahead of the game over the weekend, with looks at The Ring, the original Friday the 13th, the remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Curse of Chucky, and Candyman. He's been a busy bee.

Expelled Grey Matter also made a push this weekend with The Asphyx, Dust Devil, Paranormal Activity 4, and Dead Snow.

Tim at The Other Side had a more modest weekend, with a look at Subspecies.

Finally, Bob over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has thoughts on The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Ravenous, Possession, and The Devils in his latest round-up. His slate is long on lunacy.

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