Perhaps I'm just a sucker for a little historical fiction mixed in with my crazy horror stories, because over the last several years I've found myself recommending wartime terror tales The Bunker, Deathwatch, Outpost (and its sequel) and, of course, Hellboy. (It's at least partially horror. Don't start with me.) There's just something about a true-life time and setting that automatically adds a touch of ambition to all of those indie and foreign horror flicks I just mentioned, and now we can add a new one to the list: Frankenstein's Army, which comes from a bunch of Czech filmmakers who have clear aspirations of mixing the old with the new.
The old, of course, is the setting: it's the end of World War II we are deep behind German lines with a Russian invasion troop. They're on a mission to rescue some comrades, and kill some Nazis if possible, but everything goes sort of insane once they happen upon the lair of a truly ambitious but certifiably insane German scientist. One who builds virtually unstoppable monster-soldiers who are quite efficient at killing Russian soldiers.
The new hook is that this is (yep, another) "found footage" horror flick. Turns out that one of the Russian soldiers is there solely to document the mission, but certainly that seems strange. Surely this guy has some ulterior motives... as in he knows all about the mad German scientist and his small army of biologically mutated monster men. Those who dislike the "first person" gimmick may be pleasantly surprised by the long takes and the sly tricks that director Richard Raaphorst pulls out of his bag, while those (like me) who actually like "found footage" presentations will no doubt appreciate how the style works in relation to a WWII setting. (In other words, we don't get many WWII found footage movies.)
Plot-wise, Frankenstein's Army is pretty darn simple. Where the film shines is in the department of creepy visual style, a grim but essential sense of humor that (thankfully) never gets wacky or dumb, and some creature design that could come off as ridiculous, but -- thanks to a well-earned and ominous tone -- somehow do not. Frankly some of the doctor's crazier concoctions are downright inspired, albeit in a "Lovecraft meets steampunk" fashion that only the hardcore horror fans will appreciate.
It's the attitude, frankly, that elevates Frankenstein's Army beyond that of a minor diversion. With a concept like this one, it'd be a whole lot easier to act super silly and hope you catch the genre crowd in a good mood. To their credit, the folks behind Frankenstein's Army take some crazy chances with some of their more elaborate kills and creatures, but that's what makes it impressive: taking the tougher path and making it work. For all its potential familiarity and possible silliness... the movie is actually sort of scary. That's impressive.
Frankenstein's Army is so earnestly odd and craftily creepy -- and so astutely balanced between homage and originality -- it seems a sure bet to become another international horror favorite not unlike Dead Snow, The Host, and Troll Hunter. Certainly not a mainstream piece of horror filmmaking, and nothing you'll ever want to watch with your mom, but for those who like to keep an eye out for clever, entertaining, and well-crafted international horror cinema, Frankenstein's Army is a cool little winner.