Monday, November 26, 2018
War is Hellaciously Gruesome :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Richard Raaphorst's Diesel-Punk Masterpiece, Frankenstein's Army (2013)
As the German lines collapse on all fronts as World War II breeches its bloody climax, a famed Soviet long range reconnaissance patrol led by Lt. Novikov (Gwilym) mops up what little resistance is left as the enemy retreats from the Red Army’s wrath and its inexorable push toward Berlin. Tagging along on this mission is Dimitri (Mercury), a political officer, sent to document these heroes of the Great Patriotic War on film for propaganda purposes, which lets us meet the rest of the squad as the cameraman interviews them after each victory: starting with second in command, Sergei (Sasse); team sniper, Alexei (Stevenson); the brutish Ivan (Tang); the hot-headed Vassili (Zayats); and the youngest of them, Sacha (Newberry), who serves as both the radio operator and has the privilege of schlepping around Dimitri's equipment and film stock.
Thus, it’s Sacha who first hears the distress call from another Soviet patrol, who claim to be pinned down and trapped in a nearby village. And it soon becomes apparent those trapped can only transmit and not receive when they do not respond to any reply. Well, turns out the problem might be on Sacha’s end as he can’t raise anyone else on the radio either, meaning their transmissions are in all likelihood being jammed by the Germans. Still, the distress call keeps repeating, and the caller relays their coordinates, where no patrol should be. Regardless, despite no orders or permission, Novikov decides to push on in to enemy held territory and come to their comrades’ aid.
But as the patrol gets closer to their destination, the sights along the way go from strange to downright disturbing -- even in this age of Nazi atrocities and Uncle Joe’s scorched earth tactics. Most of the buildings have been razed, there’s odd bits of machinery scattered all around, and most of the corpses they come across -- combatant and noncombatant alike, appear not to have been shot or blown up but torn asunder; almost as if they were shredded; anomalies Dimitri films studiously. They then come upon the smoldering ruins of a convent, and then find the former occupants, also smoldering, all piled up nearby, victims of some obscene massacre. One of the butchered and burned nuns is still alive but is in so much pain, Vassili quickly puts her out of her misery before Dimitri can get any answers from her as to what happened here.
Then, when they finally reach the village where the lost patrol should be, they find the area completely deserted -- except for a lone sentry found inside a warehouse, blindly groping around, strung up like some obscene marionette, whose appearance is human but not quite; and whose appendage, of what appears to be a jackhammer attached to the elbow instead of an arm, might explain what happened to all those dead soldiers and nuns. Something so hellishly unnatural, half human, half machine, all murder, that quickly lashes out and kills Novikov and proves very hard to put down. And worse yet, turns out it’s not alone...
So, I finally caught Overlord (2018) a few days ago and thoroughly enjoyed this elseworlds saga of the remnant survivors of a parachute squad of Screaming Eagles, who must knock out a German radio-jamming tower before the D-Day landings commence at dawn, only to find something much worse instead: a secret Nazi lab, where a mad scientist is experimenting on the local French villagers as he tries to perfect a serum which can not only reanimate fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht but grant them enhanced strength, speed, and durability to serve the thousand year Reich indefinitely.
But! This process has not been perfected yet, resulting in several ghoulish guinea pigs lurking around to be discovered by our paratroopers as the clock keeps ticking and the deadline of the landings at Normandy ever looms as they try to stay alive and undetected to complete their mission and rescue the younger brother of a French woman, who had helped them along the way and pitches in during the final assault.
I think it’s the ticking clock element that really helps keep Overlord moving, as all the zombie-fu is secondary to the main objective, making it a pretty good war movie for such a monster mash. And for a monster mash, it’s a pretty good war movie. It’s also anchored by a couple of great performances by Mathilde Ollivier, as the resistance fighter, and Wyatt Russell, who comes off pretty well as the grizzled and hardened corporal even though he was channeling his father pretty hard in spots -- but he hasn’t quite got the old man’s delivery on his punctuating quips down just yet; but I think he’ll get there.
But as the film played out I kept getting distracted by one single thought as we moved deeper and deeper into this mad scientist’s lair and discover what obscenities these Nazis have cooked up. For while I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, it all came off a little tame after being exposed to Richard Raaphorst similar World War II based body-horror film, Frankenstein’s Army (2013). Then again, if you’ve seen Frankenstein’s Army, like I had, what wouldn’t be tame compared to that? And after leaving the screening of Overlord, I had the itch to watch it again.
Seems back in the early 2000s, Raaphorst was one of the first filmmakers to try and crowdfund a film via the internet. And what he had envisioned was a practical special-effects driven dark comedy called Worst Case Scenario, which would center around a cadre of undead Nazi-cyborgs surfacing from the sea and laying siege on some beach resort. Pre-production on the film began in 2004, and in 2006 two teaser trailers were released. (Teaser one. Teaser two.) But the film never went much further than that and was officially abandoned in 2009. But, Raaphorst folded a lot of the monster designs for the project into his next idea, Frankenstein’s Army, which was cooked up by him and Miguel Tejada-Flores.
An what they concocted is an inexplicably effective first-person shooter / found footage / torture porn / World War II period piece that regrets nothing while it does a naked cannonball into the splatterpunk pool. The plot about a Russian patrol being lured into a trap is fairly irrelevant because once the дерьмо hits the вентилятор, they're nothing but fodder for the FX to buzzsaw thru as Sergei takes charge after Novikov is killed despite Vasili's challenge. They then stumble upon a cache of caged animals and ambush their caretaker, capturing him. But while Dimitri interrogates the old man, trying to find out what that thing was, and who was behind it, he claims to know nothing and only cares for the animals. Here, Vassili loses his temper and tortures the prisoner, cutting several fingers off, until the old man relents and agrees to take them to the man in charge, who will answer all their questions.
But as the prisoner leads them deeper into the catacombs below the warehouse, turns out he was leading them into a trap all along as several more “zombots” -- zombies with huge metal implants, including one with giant metal pincers for hands, one on stilts that looks like a demented mosquito, and yet another whose head has been replaced by an engine and prop from some downed aircraft that makes like a giant weed-whacker with the expected gory results -- and we're barely scratching the surface here. And with each harrowing escape, Sergei’s command gets whittled down a little more in the resulting carnage, including a trio of Nazi-sympathizers, who were trying to escape from “the Doctor,” who has gone mad, they say, and failed.
And during one of these brief respites, Sergei discovers Dmitri has betrayed them. Seems he was the one who orchestrated the fake distress call to bring them all here under orders from the Kremlin to seek out Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the man responsible for these horrible aberrations, and recruit him to their side. And if he refuses, Dmitri has orders to capture him alive at all costs and take him back by force. But despite the threat of political reprisals on their families, the others refuse to obey his orders and abandon Dmitri in this abominable meat-locker of the damned with his camera.
Alone, Dmitri presses further into this phantasmagorical madhouse and stumbles into Frankenstein’s study, where he makes the most bizarre discovery yet: the decapitated head of a woman, still alive, stitched onto the body of a teddy bear. (Production notes would show this woman was Frankenstein’s mother. Overlord tried to pull off a similar gag, and while disturbing it wasn’t quite as disturbing as this.) Moving on, he finds a repository where all the dead (and not quite dead) bodies are hung from the ceiling, waiting for their upgrades and reanimation. Here, Dmitri is discovered by several more outlandish zombots and is captured. He comes to in the galley, where the animal caretaker force feeds him some soup. Turns out this was Victor Frankenstein (Roden) all along; descendant of the original Baron Frankenstein and all that.
Anyhoo, seems the Kremlin had heard Frankenstein had gone rogue and turned against Hitler. But he isn’t all that interested in Dimitri’s sales pitch. Instead, he wants to show the cameraman how his process works, where we see almost everyone we've met thus far has since been "converted," culminating with his latest experiment, which he claims will end the war. And this experiment is to fuse together two half brains; one from a captured Nazi officer, the other from a captured Sergei, who will also play host to this hybrid. Sergei begs for help, but Dmitri refuses and stays on mission. But, once that operation is done, the doctor decides to operate on Dmitri next and film it using his own camera. But this is thwarted by a fail-safe aerial bombardment.
Before Frankenstein can flee, he is shot and killed by Sacha, who refuses to free Dmitri, swipes his camera and his rucksack full of spent film, and vacates. Meantime, Sergei has awoken, breaks free, and has his revenge on Dimitri before the whole lab is obliterated from above. Meantime, the final coda shows Sacha as the conquering hero of the people, who is personally decorated by Stalin himself for his actions.
At times, Frankenstein’s Army almost feels like a demo reel of sorts as the whole thing is in service to the FX and creature creations. All of the FX and gore are practical and done in camera. The zombots are also practical and are some true steampunk inspired wonders -- though given the time-frame, make that diesel-punk. And the only real beef I had with the movie is don't tease me with 'The Sherman Tank that Walks on Two Legs' and then don't do anything with it. And as the expendable meat is herded around from one monster and atrocity to the next it also kinda feels like you’ve stumbled into the world’s greatest Jaycees Haunted House of ever!
Others have already addressed the anachronistic camera Dmitri uses that employs color film stock, a widescreen lens, and captures sync-sound, which I don’t think had been invented for a hand-held camera yet back in 1945. But if you can’t suspend your disbelief for that, you probably won’t for the zombot with a propeller prop for a head either. Such is life in direct to video horror films.
On first viewing, I found Frankenstein’s Army to be both top-notch, production design wise, and a lot of ferocious fun -- if not a tad overwhelming as things piled up in the third act. And it nearly lost me, but the ending and final coda had me giggling like an idiot. And judging by the trailers, I half-expected Overlord to reach those same gorenagraphic heights but, nope. And that’s OK. It didn’t need them, and was shooting for something else. Frankenstein’s Army, meanwhile, scored a direct hit for what it was shooting for, which proved slightly more coherent on second viewing. And those inspired nightmare fuel creatures it unleashed are worth the watch alone. And in action, they are decadently gross and gooey, violent, surreal, and definitely not for the squeamish. But for those inclined to such things the film is absolutely ah-mazing and one helluva thing to see. (And if you hurry, you still might catch Overlord playing in theaters, too.)
Frankenstein's Army (2013) MPI Media Group :: Dark Sky Films :: Pellicola :: XYZ Films :: Sirena Film :: Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic :: The Czech Film Industry Support Programme / EP: Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Malik B. Ali, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian / P: Richard Raaphorst, Todd Brown, Nick Jongerius, Daniel Koefoed, Greg Newman / LP: Kristina Hejduková,Pavel Muller / D: Richard Raaphorst / W: Richard Raaphorst, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Chris W. Mitcheli, Mary Shelley (novel) / C: Bart Beekman / E: Aaron Crozier, Jasper Verhorevoort / M: Reyn Ouwehand / S: Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Joshua Sasse, Mark Stevenson, Andrei Zayats, Karel Roden