J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Frankenstein’s Army


Okay, it’s a little creepy, but animating dead bodies has obvious military advantages. The National Socialists would be just the sort to develop such technology. In fact, the grandson of a certain controversial scientist has apparently cobbled together quite a monstrous division of soldiers in Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army, a midnight selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Dimitri is a graduate of Soviet film school filming a small recon squad in the field. Less than thrilled to be shepherding the would-be documentarian and his nebbish assistant, the commanding officer busts their chops every chance he gets.  Everyone is on edge since radio contact with headquarters was cut-off.  Suddenly, a mysterious distress call lures them to a remote monastery, whose occupants were gruesomely murdered by a mysterious force.  You can probably guess where things are headed from here, even if the Commies can’t.

The potential midnight movie appeal of Nazis vs. re-animated freaks needs no explanation, but Frankenstein’s Army is poorly served by its found footage structure.  That it is in color frankly makes no sense.  Hardcore cineastes will also be disappointed Dimitri, the Soviet Tarantino, never nods towards the work of Eisenstein Vertov that should supposedly have inspired him, not that this will be foremost in the minds of late night patrons.  However, they will notice when he “cheats” with the conceit.

On the other hand, Raaphorst is on pretty solid ground in the manner he depicts the Red Army.  Hardly liberators, they are more like marauders, committing war crimes against the local peasantry that the commander not so discretely censors.  Likewise, it becomes clear their Soviet masters do not care about the soldiers’ safety. In fact, they have a secret agenda in the whole horrific affair.

The Frankenstein monsters are also quite inventive in a ghoulish way, looking like a rogue’s gallery of Silent Hill creatures decked out in Nazi regalia.  While Karel Roden has plenty of genre cred, his mad doctor’s character is sadly underdeveloped. There is an intriguing hint of a backstory involving the Frankenstein family’s complicated relationship with the German state, but Raaphorst never fully capitalizes on the Frankenstein legacy (after all, if he is the grandson, than Basil Rathbone’s Baron Wolf von Frankenstein must be his father, right?).

Army’s gory effects and make-up are definitely first-rate.  Cult movies fans looking for a few grisly thrills should find it adequate, but those hoping for more given its historical context will probably be disappointed.  Earning points for its realistic portrayal of the Soviet war machine, Frankenstein’s Army is recommended for Silent Hill franchise fans (which it so resembles) when it screens again tonight (4/20) during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

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