Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army may not reinvent the found-footage wheel, but at least it has visual imagination and the freshness of its setting on its side. In the last days of WWII, a unit of Russian soldiers find themselves on a mission to rescue a group of comrades—but the assignment, needless to say, isn’t what it at first seems. Through it all, Dmitri (Alexander Mercury), part of the military unit, keeps filming with his camera, tasked by the Russian government to pile up footage for propagandistic purposes, but it doesn’t take long for his role as a detached spectator to become challenged by the events he records, especially after his unit members, and by extension the audience, discover his ulterior motives for the constant documentation, among other things.
Early in the film, many of the team members vocally react to Dimitri’s constant shooting with mockery and scorn (“Don’t get in my way” is a common refrain). Such moments hint at a self-awareness that Raaphorst ultimately isn’t interested in exploring; this is no blistering satire, a la George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, of the distance between filmmaker and subject. Here, the found-footage gimmick mostly comes off as window dressing for what turns out to be yet another mad-scientist-run-amok romp, but on those terms Frankenstein’s Army delivers.
The title basically gives the story away: The Russian soldiers encounter a scientist named, not so subtly, Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), who’s thoroughly subsumed his hatred of humanity into “super soldiers” created from dead soldiers with all manner of tools and mechanical devices sewed on to them. As a result, we’re treated to many grimly fantastic sights of monsters with machetes for hands, giant fans for heads, and other inventively appalling concoctions. On the level of a freak show, then, Frankenstein’s Army is a midnight-movie audience’s wet dream.
But the film leaves itself wide open to charges of exploitation of human suffering for the sake of entertainment, especially because Raaphorst fails to bring nearly the level of imagination to the actual human characters in the film as he does to the monsters and production design. Does the director covertly align with Frankenstein’s misanthropic view of humanity? The punishment these Russian soldiers, seen earlier in the film mistreating innocent German villagers, suffer at the hands of Frankenstein’s monsters strongly exudes a “chickens coming home to roost” vibe that seems appropriate—just desserts that Dimitri can’t bear to face, evidenced by the moment he turns his camera away when Dr. Frankenstein saws a soldier’s skull open. All of this twisted human interest, however, is more conceptual than truly disturbing, with the characters painted in such broad strokes and the actors encouraged to play their parts with hammy relish. A late twist in which a seemingly minor character betrays Dimitri for the sake of a larger national cause points up the film’s failure in that regard, playing as a mere calculated attempt at shock value rather than mustering any unsettling dramatic weight.