Sunday, September 27, 2015

Time Travel Time #14: Army of Frankensteins

When I first heard the title, "Army of Frankensteins", I assumed it a sequel to Richard Raaphorst's "Frankenstein's Army": a fascinating 2013 found-footage film just itching for a sequel. Lo and behold, however, Ryan Bellgardt's "Army of..." is also a 2013 entry, only recently released on disc (by Shout!Factory) and independent of Raaphorst's effort. "Army of..." not only includes Mary Shelley's iconic concept, but time travel and the American Civil War.

Make no bones about it, "Army of..." is unpretentiously but sleekly low-budget. As with other such productions over the decades, this one works because of the imaginative, tender loving care poured into it. Its usage of time travel (and the laying of a hidden history) isn't so much a statement device, but rather a means for fun, as the adventurous twists and turns develop. It also makes great use of Shelley's creature (fashioned just enough in the Jack Pierce vein to avoid copyright infringement), but multiplied to an almost absurd, but stunning effect.

The story, written by Bellgardt, Andy Swanson and Josh McKamie, commences in present day, centering on a young man named Alan Jones (Jordan Farris), who after a series of mishaps that prevent him from proposing to his girl, Ashley (Jami Harris), is assaulted by thugs on his way home one night. The attack is, in actuality, a set-up by a modern Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Tanner Finski (John "Count Gregore" Ferguson) and his adopted, kid-genius assistant, Igor (Christian Bellgardt), who use the young man as an eye-donor for the yet-to-be revived Frankenstein Monster (Eric Gesecus).

Of course, electrical equipment figures into the resurrection process. However, this particular machinery can also catapult one through time by churning a nifty wormhole into the atmosphere. It also culls multi-universe Frankensteins and inadvertently transports them with Alan, Tanner and Igor into the throes of the Civil War. 

After a rough landing (and being swiftly relocated to a medical tent), the dying Tanner insists that Alan track and destroy the Monsters; he also asks Igor to repair the dimensional rift so that the boy and Alan can return home.  

In that the original Monster possesses Alan's eye, such allows the young man to see from the creature's vantage and the merciless way his "clones" attack the warring soldiers. Though Igor remains calm and subdued throughout, Alan becomes the film's hapless anti-hero: a would-be Ash, if you will, but with greater moral conviction than Bruce Campell's celebrated character. Alan also teams with a traditional adventurer, the resourceful Union Corporal Solomon Jones (Rett Terrell), Alan's apparent ancestor. 

Keeping up with Igor and the Joneses is runaway slave/nurse, Virginia (Raychelle McDonald), who more than holds her own with the men, even when she and the primary Frankenstein inadvertently end up a hot air balloon. Fortunately, during their wayward flight, Virginia's sensitivity compels the Monster to champion the Northern cause. 

Alan's symbiotic eye, meanwhile, keeps him tuned to the duo's whereabouts, eventually allowing the principles to reunite. Too bad Virginia's sister, Maggie (Shellie Sterling) doesn't hold the same stalwart motivation, but that's only because she watched the soldier she loved get mutilated by a Frankenstein in the film's prologue.

The strange situation grows even more complicated thanks to Confederate Lieutenant Herbert Henry Swanson (Lucas Ross) and his crazed commander, Robert E. Walton (Thomas Cunningham), who've seized Igor's nano-bot gun. The device can transform any living specimen into a monster, as Walton discovers when he turns his poor cat into a ferocious, bipedal beast that tracks down and bites off Solomon's arm. And wait till you see what happens when Walton orders the lieutenant to use the device on himself! Whoa--Mr. Hyde step aside! (BTW: once transformed, Swanson is portrayed by the effectively hulking Billy Bean.)

In that the film mixes Shelley lore with time travel, "Army of..." can easily be compared to "Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound" (see "Time Travel Time #4": April '14 ), though it projects a higher air of levity than the '90s effort. It also contains a dash of Rod Serling's "Back There" and a hardy sum of Seth Grahame-Smith's alternate-reality mash-up, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter", incorporating an appearance by the President (Donald Taylor) and John Wilkes Booth (Christopher Robinson) later in the film. 

The movie also offers an ample supply of steampunk, highlighted by Igor's makeshift, "coil cannon" lasterblaster, which he conveniently attaches to Solomon's stump. (Heck, this sucker would make even the well equipped Jim West and Artemus Gordon envious.)

Oh, and for what it's worth, the film's big battle sequence isn't for the squeamish. Though the splatter is mostly computerized, it's also relentless, with plenty of gut-wrenching deaths, accompanied by some swell "Mars Attacks" disintegrations (due to Solomon's handy appendage). The accumulated result should satisfy even the strictest of old-school aficionados. 

Filmmakers of both big and small productions could learn much from "Army of..." (Incidentally, it more than holds its own with such acclaimed eccentricities as  Timo Vuorensola's "Iron Sky" and Jon Favreau's "Cowboys and Aliens"). By simply injecting a fair dose of unapologetic glee into the familiar elements of horror, science-fiction and history, it forges something unlike anything that's come before. To me, that's evidence of genius, and for pulling off something this outrageously imaginative on a shoe-string budget, Bellgardt and his crew have damn good reason to hold their heads high. Now, let's get rollin' on that sequel, guys!!!

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