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Mini Review: Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Frankenstein's Army #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the past several years, the horror movie market has been flooded with “found footage” movies made on the cheap. It’s easy to see why Hollywood loves producing these kinds of films, as they can be made with a small pile of cash and when they are finally dumped on the market, they can turn quite a profit for the studio. While a good majority of these films are garbage, every so often one turns out to be worth your while. Take director Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army, another “found footage” horror film that doesn’t necessarily break any new ground with this particular subgenre. While it might not get too creative with it’s style, Frankenstein’s Army manages to sneak by as a winner due to its must-see creature effects, all of which were achieved without the aid of rubbery CGI. Where most horror films drop the ball when they reveal their boogeymen to the audience, Frankenstein’s Army actually finds its momentum in these lumber abominations. And you know what? They are stunningly creative and absolutely terrifying. Sadly, they are the strongest part of the film, as the storyline and most of the performances fail to live up to the how-the-heck-did-they-do-that? special effects.

Frankenstein’s Army tells the story of a battalion of Russian soldiers, who are fighting through enemy territory during the final days of World War II. Among the group is Dimitri (played by Alexander Mercury), who claims to be filming a propaganda film for the Russian government. As the group pushes through the German countryside, they stumble upon a small town that is seemingly deserted. After finding a number of charred bodies and bizarre mechanical skeletons strewn about, the soldiers begin investigating the empty buildings, but as they push underneath into the town’s catacombs, they come face to face with a slew of nightmarish creatures that are half human and half machine. With their numbers quickly dwindling, the monsters closing in, and their options limited, the soldiers make a push to flee the town, but in the process, they meet Viktor (played by Karl Roden), a distant relative of the infamous Victor Frankenstein and the demented creator of these hellish monstrosities.

Frankenstein's Army #2

The early scenes of Frankenstein’s Army force the viewer to spend time with a bunch of two-dimensional soldiers as they shoot, bicker, and stomp through the scenic German countryside. Probably the only interesting moment of the first twenty minutes is a pit stop in a small German village, where our heroes decide to terrorize the frightened villagers like a pack of ravenous dogs. After a while, you fight the urge to take a nap, but rest assured that things are going to get very twisted very fast. Things finally pick up when the boys stumble upon the smoldering corpses of what appears to be nuns and twisted remains of some sort of mechanized terror. When the “Zombots” (the title their maker has bestowed upon them) finally decide to make their presence known, you’ll have a difficult time getting enough of them. They come in various shapes and sizes, one more horrific than the next. One has a plane propeller for a head while another struts around on what appears to be stilts with a drill for a head. There is even one Zombot that goosesteps towards his prey like an oversized tin soldier from Hell! They are absolutely fantastic in all their menacing steam-punk glory, made all the more horrifying through the idea that these were all created without the use of distracting CGI. It’s best not to say too much about them because most of the fun comes from being on the edge of our seat over what may come charging at us next, but just know that they are the best and most suspenseful part of the entire movie.

With Raaphorst placing all the attention on his magnificent monsters, the rest of Frankenstein’s Army begins to feel a bit rickety. The opening is dreadfully slow and he does very little with the “found footage” gimmick that he uses to tell his story. The plot itself is very thin and riddled with flaws in logic (How the heck is Dimitri still holding onto the camera—let alone, alive—when the Zombots take their swipes at him? What type of camera is he using to get a picture this good?), making it feel like we’re playing a video game rather than watching a feature length movie. As far as the film’s performances go, everyone is mediocre except for Roden, who is unhinged treat as the maniacal Viktor. For you gorehounds out there, Frankenstein’s Army delivers plenty of the red stuff. Zombots wheel around carts of bloody body parts, dead bodies dangle from the celling, and people’s heads are peeled open to reveal their gooey brains. Overall, while the “mockumentary” approach is uninspired and the entire project feels like a mash-up of Wolfenstein and Call of Duty, Frankenstein’s Army manages to milk plenty of entertainment from its ingenious monsters and Roden’s screw-loose performance, making it a horror gimmick that is worthy of your precious time.

Grade: C+

Frankenstein’s Army is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Over the past few years, the tanking horror genre has been desperately searching for a way to make itself scary again. For a while, it turned to “torture porn” and the Saw franchise in the hopes that people would tremble in fear, but Jigsaw and his merry band of copycats soon wore out audiences with their gore-drenched games (When the singer from Linkin Park is starring in your movie, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.). With interest diminishing in torture porn, Hollywood then turned to the “found footage” subgenre to instill fear in the hearts of every man, woman, and child. The result was the lackluster Paranormal Activity, a film that grew increasingly frustrating the more one thinks back to it. Naturally, Paranormal Activity was a huge success and three pointless sequels and more copy cats emerged in its wake. There is no doubt that the “found footage” well is running dry, but miraculously, a handful of up-and-coming horror directors (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) found a way to put a relatively creative spin on the subgenre. Acting as more of a Tales from the Crypt anthology, V/H/S is a flawed but surprisingly devilish “found footage” flick that will certainly impress but not totally floor horror fans looking for a decent scare. These days, it really doesn’t take much to impress us, even if you deliver a film that is half good, it ends up being a winner. V/H/S is bound and determined to win us over, bringing everything from ghosts to aliens to slasher killers to vampires to the party.

V/H/S picks up with a group of small time thugs being asked by an unknown employer to break in to a secluded home and steal a mysterious videotape. The thugs are not told what is on the tape, only that the will know it when the see it. As the thugs explore the home, they stumble upon a room with a dead body propped up in front of several television screens and a VHS player. Curiosity gets the best of them and they begin watching the video insider the player. The thugs witness a bizarre string of videos that include three obnoxious guys trying to pick up girls at a local bar, a married couple on their honeymoon, four friends on a camping trip, a video chat between a disturbed young woman and her boyfriend, and a Halloween video of four friends exploring what they assume is a staged haunted house. All the videos seem to start harmless enough, but each segment soon erupts into unspeakable horror and carnage.

V/H/S is the type of film that gets by with the element of surprise. You can’t wait to see how each of the segments, which all last about twenty minutes, will play out and spiral out of control. Being an anthology, the segments end up being hit or miss, which ends up throwing the entire project off. The strongest installment is without question Ti West’s unsettling “Second Honeymoon,” which relies on eerie knocking on a hotel door and a staggeringly realistic murder to spook the audience. It was easily the strongest twenty minutes of the entire movie, unsurprising because West is certainly a talented guy (See The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for further proof). Perhaps the lowest point of V/H/S was Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” a Friday the 13th style slasher with perhaps the goofiest killer ever conceived. This is where the quality really dips and the lull carries over into Joe Swanberg’s bizarre “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” This segment starts off creepy enough but manages to completely fall apart as it goes on, even though it unleashes an impressive twist in the final few minutes. The other two installments, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” and Radio Silence’s “10/31/98,” are wicked fun, especially the Twilight Zone-esque “10/31/98.” The arching story, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” which follows the thugs on their quest to find the tape, is also a real creep out even if it seems a bit anticlimactic (wait for the scene in the basement).

V/H/S (2012)

One of the biggest problems with the “found footage” subgenre is the unconvincing acting, which is meant to seem realistic but often comes off as strained or staged. These directors are forced to turn to relatively unknown actors and actresses due to the idea that a well-known face will instantly drain all the “realism” from the experience. V/H/S naturally turns to a cast of relatively unknowns and the results end up being a mixed bag. The best acting comes from Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal in West’s installment and the thugs in Wingard’s segment. I really disliked the thugs of “Tape 56,” who enjoy ambushing young women and lifting up their shirts for the camera. Just hearing the woman scream in terror as they charge her was enough to make this viewer very uncomfortable. The worst acting is definitely found in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” especially from Daniel Kaufman’s James, a guy who seems to be completely unfazed as an apparition (or is it?) runs into Emily’s bedroom.

If you are someone who likes plenty of gore with their scares, V/H/S has you covered, never shying away from a grisly shot of entrails being ripped out of someone’s chest or a severed head rolling around on the ground (just to name a few). For a film made on a shoestring budget, the effects are absolutely incredible. “10/31/98” is an effects heavy offering and “Second Honeymoon” features a grisly murder that seems a bit too real (there is barely a cut to be found). “Amateur Night” features a nifty shape shifting character and even a brief glimpse of a monster gliding through the air. This proud beast is drenched in darkness to make it extra creepy, relying on the idea that the less is actually more. If you’re the type who favors plenty of gratuitous sex and nudity, you’re also in luck because there is plenty to go around. Boobs are flashed, people film themselves having sex, and the girls are even treated to a full frontal of one terrified male character. Overall, for all the hype surrounding the film, V/H/S actually lives up to all the positive word-of-mouth surrounding it. It certainly would be better if “Tuesday the 17th” and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” were cut from the middle section of the film but we’re stuck with them. It would also have been nice if the filmmakers found a way to tie everything up in a more satisfying manner, but there is still plenty of creativity to keep this one lodged in your nightmares for quite some time.

Grade: B-

V/H/S is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Bay (2012)

The Bay (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Horror film The Bay is, you’ve guessed it, a found footage movie. “Oh no,” I hear you cry, “not another one!” Yes, another one. “Really?” Yes. “Really?!” Yes, now please stop asking.

The Bay tells the story of a quiet town by the sea which has untold horrors thrust upon them from beneath the water.

The story is told by a former journalist, Donna (played by Kether Donohue) who just happened to be there with her cameraman covering a fluff piece about some festival or another. We are informed, via a webcam interview, that this (and all associated footage) was covered up by the US government. We then learn this footage was stolen and leaked by a Wikileaks type hacking group (mmm, topical). Our journalist has now spliced together the footage to create a documentary to “expose” the cover-up and the tragedy of what happened on that July 4th weekend. This is how the film continues throughout, with voiceovers and subtitles to provide context for what we’re seeing.

Somewhat surprisingly this idea actually works. By setting it at a carnival it gives an excuse for a lot of people to be recording the initial proceedings and making the protagonist a journalist allows the filming to continue throughout. Even the hospital scenes are well done with people recording the full waiting rooms for one reason or another, but more important here is the role of Doctor Michaels (played by Kenny Alfonso). Struggling to work out what is going on, he videochats with the Centre for Disease Control, which in turns allows us to see how the outside world is reacting to the outbreak. At times however, it does fall back onto the old “why are you filming this?” question which inevitably pops up in such films, but for the most part it seems a perfectly reasonable setup.

For a low budget film, both the acting (from as cast of relative unknowns) and the script (from single IMDB credit Michael Wallach) are pretty decent. There are a couple of slightly clunky moments, but for the most part it is solid. There also aren’t any lulls. Every scene has almost by default, a sense of peril because we know what is going on even when the characters don’t. Part of the credit goes to the script, part goes to director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, Sleepers). He does a good job balancing what the audience needs to see with maintaining an authentic amateur documentary feel to the project.

The Bay (2012)

By making the monster essentially invisible it intends to scare on a base level, as well as saving on special effects in a much more efficient manner than the deeply disappointing Chernobyl Diaries. The shots of sores and blisters and partially digested flesh are unpleasant and are used rather sparingly to increase the impact and, one suspects, to hide their relative cheapness. Whilst a lot of films scrimp and save on effects (and as a by-product, scares) for a big though often unimpressive finale, The Bay sidesteps that trap. However, the ending is not entirely satisfactory and I suspect it will split viewer’s opinions

This is very much an eco-horror movie with a strong “pollution is bad” moral to it. At its heart it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Bad stuff is put into the water, sea creatures mutate into unstoppable killing machines, chaos ensues. This isn’t Jaws in that the terror is confined to the waters, nor is it something like The Host where a big creature is running amok in the city. This is a small scale-story told through the inter-connecting tales of a number of different characters. To that extent, it works quite well. There is a constant sense of unease about the place as people react to a series of seemingly unconnected incidents through their own world view. It is only when the size of the problem is too great to deal with that people realize what is happening.

Whilst this is not the greatest film in the world, or indeed the scariest, it does convey a constant sense of unease throughout which puts it head and shoulders above a lot horror these days. The ending is somewhat of a letdown and will surely divide people who see this, but it is worth seeing just to see that a good idea, well executed can mean a found footage film needn’t be stupid and/or a waste of potential.

Grade: C-

The Tunnel (2011)

The Tunnel (2011)

by Craig Thomas

The Tunnel is a 2011 film from Australia which purports to be a documentary about a news investigation gone horribly wrong. As the title suggests, it shares a number of similarities with another horror movie, called The Descent, in that they both involve people trapped underground with unidentified monsters.

This is basically another found footage horror film with ideas above its station. Whilst big ideas are laudable, you have to be able to pull them off, and that just doesn’t happen here. The biggest twist on the idea is that this is actually a documentary, made after the supposed events. This means there is lots of people talking to camera about what happened and whilst this is a nice idea, it commits the cardinal sin of being relentlessly dull. It also removes any tension regarding whether or not certain characters will die, as they clearly didn’t. Despite this being a work of fiction, the actors actually do a convincing job that they are recounting events, which is somewhat of a rarity in such movies. So you can get on board with the whole idea.

It is, in theory at least, an interesting concept. A similar technique was used to much better effect in the not very good Mila Jovovich alien abduction movie, The Fourth Kind.

The biggest problem with The Tunnel is that it is a really good idea, for a TV show. By which I mean, as a special at a length of 45 minutes to one hour, it had the potential to do something really good. However, with it being 90 minutes long, there just wasn’t enough material to sustain it, therefore there is a serious drag for the first half of the movie, most of which is superfluous. The first 30 minutes, a whole third of the film, could easily have been cut down to five minutes, without any loss whatsoever. It would seem the only reason it was all there to begin with was to take up time. After that, it takes another 15 minutes for anything interesting to happen. So straight away, we’re halfway through the film without anything of value or interest happening.

The Tunnel (2011)

After that it does improve dramatically. The actual horror part of the film is pretty good. It builds and maintains the suspense and there are a good couple of jumpy bits. But by this point a lot of the audience’s goodwill has been spent so it needs to work really well to justify the first half of the film and unfortunately it doesn’t quite get there. If they had managed to extend the actual horror elements of the film, then it would have been significantly improved.

In its defense, it is not too surprising how little is actually shot in the tunnels, in what would appear to have been a fan-funded film. What they have done here is impressive and the last half outstrips many larger budget films. The problem is the rest of it doesn’t work.

Considering the budgetary constraints, everyone comes out looking good and if they had found a way to make more of it a horror, or made the non-horror bits in any way engaging they could have had a good little film on their hands. Unfortunately, what they’ve got now half a film and an interesting idea. Hopefully the people involved will be able to use this as a stepping stone to greater things, of which I am confident they are capable.

Grade: D

The Tunnel is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Grave Encounters 2 (2012)

Grave Encounter 2 (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Since the success of the low-budget “found footage” phenomenon, The Blair Witch Project, such films have been a pound a penny. And since the technology to actually make a film has become much cheaper and far less unwieldy, they seem to have become even more popular. And even though most of them are terrible, they, like far too many terrible horror movies, make enough money to keep the cameras rolling. Some even spawn sequels. In fact, the Paranormal Activity franchise is currently up to four and number five is out later this year. There is even rumors of some kind of spin-off. The question must be then, why do those people keep filming if such dreadful things continually keep happening? It is that question that will forever remain a mystery.

Yet not all such films are terrible. [Rec], a Spanish take on the genre offers genuinely scary moments and is pretty unpredictable. So, obviously this unexpected hit now has two (and probably three) sequels, along with the obligatory awful American remake and even worse sequel. As a sub-genre it has about as much credibility as the rom-com whose protagonist is fascinated by clothes and shoes, of which there are also far too many.

So it is difficult to accurately judge the quality of films in the genre. On the one hand you have the knowledge that these films are almost universally terrible, therefore preparing you with the mindset that it is going to be terrible and you pick up on every little problem. On the other hand, you have the knowledge that these films are almost universally terrible, therefore you are overly-generous to any film in the genre which isn’t mind-numbingly dull, in one or both senses of the word.

And so it is with what is now the Grave Encounters franchise. The first, which is not particularly well known, is an ok, if sub-par, film in which a small TV crew are making a show about supposedly haunted buildings. They are not totally serious, nor are they total skeptics. They go around looking for paranormal activity, whilst hyping up non-events and bribing people to tell scary stories to maintain ratings. They then go into an old mental hospital which, surprise surprise, is actually haunted and find themselves locked in a Blair Witch-esque maze from which they are unable to escape. In the end it was a decent little film with the premise being the most interesting part, even if it didn’t live up to its potential.

What it didn’t need, and what no-one was crying out for, was a sequel.

But this is the 21st century, a century in which cinema cannot help but eat itself. Sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remakes and reboots are the order of the day. If it was a successful book, it will be a successful movie (and vice-versa with movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy getting the novelization treatment, so bitterly condemned by Woody Allen all the way back in Annie Hall). So when there is an opportunity to make money off a sure thing, rest assured, that opportunity will not be overlooked.

Which brings me to the utterly unnecessary Grave Encounters 2, which, in a list of films people didn’t want to be made, ranks only below Transformers 4 and Ghostbusters 3, (though for completely different reasons).

So what of the film?

The premise is similar to Human Centipede 2, or so I’m told. In the latter, a man becomes obsessed with the first Human Centipede film and duly sets out to recreate it, but on an even bigger scale. In Grave Encounters 2 a similar thing happens. A man becomes obsessed with the original Grave Encounters and sets out to reproduce it. I’m not seen either of the Human Centipede films, but I’m pretty sure that’s where the similarities end.

Grave Encounters 2 takes the first film as its starting point and adds another layer of meta onto it. The main characters are all in film school and are making their own horror movie. The protagonist also does video reviews to boost his profile, one of which is of Grave Encounters. He receives a message about the film and they start investigating whether or not it was “just a film”, which includes recording their investigations supposedly for his thesis, whilst another guy is recording everything for a documentary he is making about himself. It’s a bit silly, but from the outset this film clearly does not take itself too seriously, which makes the mostly horror-free exposition actually entertaining, which is a rarity in modern horror films.

The biggest problem with this film is the structure. It works on the premise that the audience has seen the original, which let’s face it, most people haven’t. If you are one of the few that did, then there will be no shocks or surprises for you, outside of the occasional jumpy bits. It is set in the same place, with the same ghosts and the characters set up the same cameras in exactly the same places. Once inside the building, the plot is basically the same, though a lot sillier and all the attempts to create unease fail spectacularly, instead generating a fair amount of laughter. Once you’ve seen a giant killer ghost thing running about, a floating camera (or even a fleet of floating cameras) is not particularly scary. In fact, it just falls into the category of overkill, as all sequels tend to do in order to one-up the predecessor.

Grave Encounters 2 (2012)

In that case, you might think it would be better not to have seen the first film (which you probably haven’t) and delve straight into this one. Well, you would be wrong. Due to the fact it works on the assumption that you’ve seen the first one, it gives away all of the secrets and potentially scary twists that made the first one at least interesting. It shows a number of clips from the first film and exposes (and mocks) the biggest demons in the cold light of day, meaning that once they’re in the hospital, nothing is particularly surprising as you’ve seen it all in the build-up.

The best part of the film is the first 40 minutes, which is before they enter the hospital and it becomes a bigger, sillier rehash of the original.

But for all that it isn’t a bad film. It certainly isn’t good, but by the standards of the genre, it is at least entertaining, if not particularly scary. It is amusing, sometimes unintentionally so, but even when it is at its most ridiculous, at least you aren’t bored to tears.

What is most irritating about the film is that they hand themselves a perfect opportunity to shake things up and genuinely surprise the entire audience and they choose not to do it. That might have very well have made it an interesting film, which this is most certainly not.

The only thing this adds to the original is that it is more entertaining, though it does mean a proportionate level of scares are removed, though that didn’t necessarily need to be the case. If you want to see a silly movie with a couple of jumpy parts then this is the film for you.

As to the original conundrum of evaluating this sort of movie, what I have to say is this. If you go in expecting a good film then you will be sorely disappointed, if you go in expecting a terrible film you be pleasantly surprised. It generates enough goodwill in the 40-50 minutes that it will carry you through the rest of the ridiculous plot. It is around this time that a plot twist is revealed and if you can accept that for what it is then the rest of the movie will be nice enough. If you balk at it and find it too stupid for words then I’d recommend you stop watching at that point because it doesn’t get any less silly.

It is not essential watching and is little more than a cash-in on the apparent success of the original, though it is not without its charms. If you have to watch one of them then personally I would recommend the original because at least it has some creepy moments and surprises, both of which are lacking in the follow-up.

This original was an interesting, if flawed take, on the genre and this is an interesting, if flawed take on the original. The core idea at the heart of both films is interesting, though the execution leaves something to be desired.

Grade: D+

Grave Encounters 2 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.