Mighty Mother Russia meets her match in “Frankenstein’s Army,” an enterprising addition to the found-footage horror canon that gleefully and gorily imagines what might have happened if the grandson of Victor Frankenstein had gone to work for the Nazis creating deranged mutants out of mixed-and-matched human and industrial parts. Feature directing debut for veteran concept and storyboard artist Richard Raaphorst is short on plot and long on ingeniously gruesome creature designs and practical special effects that hark back to the industrious 1980s schlockfests churned out by the likes of Frank Henenlotter and Stuart Gordon. Only the genre faithful need apply, but “Frankenstein’s Army” (which is getting a limited theatrical run in concert with a July 26 VOD release) should succeed at putting Raaphorst on Hollywood’s radar.
Pic purports to unfold though the lens of Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a Red Army soldier who has been assigned the making of a propaganda film as his squadron makes its way across wintry Germany in an unspecified year of WWII. Screenwriters Chris Mitchell and Miguel Tejada-Flores (working from an original story by Raaphorst and Tejada-Flores) sketch in the rest of the squad — the usual who’s-who of men-on-a-mission types — with just enough details for us to tell them apart. There’s the intense, purposeful Sergei (Joshua Sasse), revealed early on to be a Polish Jew who escaped to Russia; hair-trigger Vassili (Andrei Zayats), who has major authority issues; fey, immature Sacha (Luke Newberry); and grizzled Sgt. Novikov (Robert Gwilym), a veteran of WWI and the first of the group to bite the dust in (literal) gut-ripping fashion.
Early in the film, a cryptic distress call from some fellow Russkies sends the soldiers in the direction of an abandoned mining town. Only, instead of POWs, they find a veritable rabbit warren of strange, man-made creatures who seem to have but one directive: Kill! This kicks off what can best be described as an hourlong monster mash that eventually leads to the lair of Viktor (with a “k”) Frankenstein himself, played by Czech thesp Karel Roden with enough lip-smacking nefariousness to make Josef Mengele look like Hippocrates. Along the way, various soldiers become the not-so-good doctor’s latest guinea pigs.
The creatures — or “zombots,” as they are referred to in the pic’s press notes — are easily the stars of the show, and Raaphorst even brings them on as if they were the members of a demented vaudeville review. Presenting … the man with lobster-claw hands, and now, the man with the spinning-drill-bit proboscis. One Frankenstein spawn even has a literal steel trap where his head ought to be. (The creatures, who sport nicknames like Mosquito, Propellerhead and Overlocker in the press notes, remain anonymous in the pic itself.) The junkyard-chic designs owe something to the Steampunk machine men of Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” series, as well as “The Terminator” and the early films of Peter Jackson (thanked, along with James Cameron, in the end credits). Eschewing CGI in favor of doing things the old-fashioned way, most of the effects work was achieved using dance and mime work, plus touches of fast-motion photography.
Pic’s monotone edges towards monotony by the end of the third act, but as no-budget calling-card features go, “Frankenstein’s Army” remains a grisly cut above.