Before Richard Raaphorst’s FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY made it to screens, stills of the doctor’s creations hit Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Those killer images captured one’s imagination, like collector cards from another era. After all, it wasn’t hard to not be hooked by the tremendous Steampunk like images – as if that bratty kid from TOY STORY had grown up and really got to work on monstrous manifestations.
It’s the end of World War II and a group of Soviet soldiers are deep into German territory. But this mission must be special because an officer films the band’s every step with color film – a hard thing to come by in the day. And that makes the regulars skittish, especially when they come across a village with a secret that brings the story of Viktor Frankenstein to reality.
What Raaphorst brings us is a World War II fantasy of stellar proportions with enough conflict to rival any serious drama. Beyond that, it’s hard to watch FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY and not wonder what the hell will happen next. Once the soldiers leave “the big one” behind and enter the surreal nightmare world that seems to be a conspiratorial fabrication between Salvador Dali and Hieronymous Bosch, we’re truly in no man’s land. It’s cold, dark, gritty, and you can smell the grease of what becomes the equivalent of a funhouse incorporated by reanimated cyborgs.
Bart Beekman’s cinematography is spot on fabulous, and Jindrich’s Kocí’s production design will amaze. The two join forces to bring the audience a compelling labyrinth of steel and concrete that only adds to the creepiness – especially when one of Viktor’s (Karel Roden) monsters can jump out, jump down, or jump in to tear someone apart at any given moment.
Yes, it sounds like a gorehound’s dream, or a horror video game for the brainless. Not at all. As Viktor states, “My father said men will be more efficient if they have hammers and screwdrivers instead of fingers.” And this leads to one of the films most thematic elements. Near the end of World War II, the Nazi regime was desperate. After all, the so-called “superior” Arayan race was losing to a bunch of worthless Slavs, Brits, Americans, and other lesser cretins. Hitler’s henchman and his elite SS couldn’t do the job. They failed as men as well as a self-imposed pure, chosen race. And what does Viktor use to fill the void and pick up the slack? The dead mixed with machine, a menagerie of death dealing mayhem to turn the tide.
But we’re in the middle of nowhere and Viktor doesn’t seem to have a rock steady Igor by his side. This is a madman, like Hitler, with blinders on, ready to go full steam ahead. Where Hitler had an ideal, a final solution, and a desire for an opera house in every city, Viktor wants life-sized toys to wreck havoc as if he were a villain from a lost James Bond movie. This is FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY, not the fuhrer’s, and Viktor could care less about political rhetoric or desire.
What’s in it for Viktor? Who the hell knows. That’s what. He’s a man with a talent and he’s delivering the mechanized material that will unleash chaos. Maybe he’s Batman’s Joker, the man without a plan who just wants to watch the world burn.
Raaphorst brought to the screen a blast of a film that should have been doomed. Yes, as an art director, he’s served on the phenomenal World War II drama BLACK BOOK (Netherlands, 2006), the ill-fated horror, SLAUGHTER NIGHT (Belgium/Netherlands, 2006), and he even worked with Stuart Gordon on DAGON (Spain, 2001), among others. But the concern for potential doom comes from the fact that FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY stemmed from the minds of four writers. Normally, only three writers maximum receive credit, and they are usually the final three to work on the script, and not all at the same time. Mary Shelley gets credit for the characters, but “story” credits go to the director and Miguel Tejada-Flores, who is also listed as a “writer” along with Chris W. Mitchell. One would think the end result from so many heads coming together would be a Frankenstein monster of failure, but Tejada-Flores has been a notable writer since his REVENGE OF THE NERDS screenplay became a hit in 1984, and SCREAMERS (Canada/USA/Japan, 1995) has many a Philip K. Dick and Dan O’Bannon fan. Mitchell may not have Tejada-Flores’s pedigree, but like Raaphorst, he’s no stranger to collaboration.
Film is a collaborate process, and Raaphorst proves that he loves the collective creativity it takes to make a film. I can see him, along with Tejada-Flores and Mitchell having a blast like little boys as, like Viktor, they create their action-based masterpiece. All three, along with the teenage vision of Shelley, bring us a fullblown tale of monsters and Victorian era like macabre that’s as exciting and as fast-paced as any other action film.
Sure, you have to throw reality out the window: Everyone speaks English instead of their respective Russian or German, and I have no doubt this was influenced by American co-production interests because, sadly, US audiences have a collective aversion to “reading” movies. And the color film quality is stellar. If we’re supposed to believe the images of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY were from found footage, the film should be far less crisp. I actually searched for Soviet World War II color film footage and came up with only photographs.
Richard Raaphorst’s creature designs will have one’s head spinning. And one can imagine comic books, video games, and sequels stemming from what he’s developed. In this sense, Raaphorst himself is Viktor Frankenstein – and that’s a great thing for those of us who want to enjoy a wild ride with endless possibilities.
Indulge in the fun, wit, and chaos of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. It’s a definite keeper for any collection. And I certainly hope the team is working on a killer sequel – because I want more. Much more. I guess you can say Raaphorst created a monster…
4 out of 5 stars.
(Photo from Imp Awards.)