It shouldn’t be surprising that “Frankenstein’s Army,” alluding to a group of soldiers built out of the spare parts of corpses left on the battlefield of World War II as well as some of the various artillery, is a bit of a mixed bag. Told in the found footage format as if sitting in a film tin for 70 years, it is notably rickety in its early going, not just in the dirt and scratches that have been grafted onto a pristine digital image for faux authenticity, but in the mechanics that eventually lead a group of Russians, including naturally the cinematographer Stalin assigned who provides us with the footage, into the lair of Dr. Frankenstein (Karel Roden), a German doctor that has been piecing together undead troops to fight under Hitler’s command.
“Only the Nazis would think of this, sewing together dead people, giving them swords for hands,” one of the Russians laments, to which a comrade replies, “It’s brilliant” and he must disagree, “It’s insane.” Turns out “Frankenstein’s Army” is actually a bit of both (considerably more the latter), but only after a half-hour is spent with the Russian company wandering around looking for trouble and only finding suspicious corpses.
Director Richard Raaphorst doesn’t derive much tension from employing moderation and playing coy, making clear his abilities lie with bombast when the soldiers stumble upon the first warriors of Frankenstein’s Army, a poor guy with a box over his head that operates like a beartrap when it closes and another with disfigured features and a set of scythe blades for arms.
The character design is impressive – some of the most inventive this side of a Guillermo del Toro flick – and even more so considering the film’s obvious budgetary constraints that occasionally bubble up elsewhere. Spare sets and scenery chewing are markers of an undernourished endeavor, but when the action begins, the tackier aspects fall away as quickly as the fake image degradation which all but disappears.
Of course, the Russians are under strict orders not to kill Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps in order to bring him back to the Motherland to use him for their own devices or simply to prolong the film to a feature-length 84 minutes. But whatever the reason, Raaphorst and crew keep up the energy once the focus narrows to the tight underground corridors in which the Russians must fend off their amalgamated adversaries to reach the doctor. Boisterous and bombastic, the film wastes no opportunity to indulge in grossout body horror or a thunderous music cue and still, those elements may seem tame in comparison with the extreme plans of Frankenstein to end the war once and for all when there’s finally contact between the two sides. Like many of Dr. Frankenstein’s creations, it all eventually comes together, even if it bears the scars of an unpleasant birth.