For my money, there is no better film review than the one Roger Ebert wrote for The Human Centipede. This isn’t to say that The Human Centipede is a particularly important movie or that Ebert put forth his most passionate argument. Instead, this review serves as a litmus test for Ebert’s approach to film criticism. Many of Ebert’s contemporaries have commented in the weeks since his death on how he would approach every film on its own terms. Ebert used The Human Centipede as an opportunity to redefine this viewing process.
I have long attempted to take a generic approach. In other words, is a film true to its genre and does it deliver what its audiences presumably expect? “The Human Centipede” scores high on this scale. It is depraved and disgusting enough to satisfy the most demanding midnight movie fan. And it’s not simply an exploitation film.
This approach to film was what I admired the most about Ebert – while I have read many film critics who are adept at weaving threads between different films or who possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every movie they’ve ever seen, Ebert stands alone in his self-described generic approach. It was from him that I learned that an ambitious movie that fails can be weighed against a romantic comedy that succeeds and be found lacking. A movie should always be judged on its merits, and even a film like The Human Centipede succeeds well enough that Ebert offered it grudging praise.
With that in mind, I cannot help but wonder what Ebert would have thought of Frankenstein’s Army. The movie, part grindhouse film and part found-footage slasher, focuses on a Russian unit behind enemy lines towards the end of World War 2. This unit has been selected by Joseph Stalin to be accompanied by a film crew to document the fortitude of the Russian soldier – this toughness is immediately test when the unit receive a distress call from a nearby town. Upon arrival, they find that the town has been wiped out, and all that remains is a single stablehand. He tells a story of a mad doctor who is experimenting on the survivors, reanimating their dead bodies and combining them with machines to create a race of grotesque super soldiers. It isn’t long before the unit comes to face to face with these monsters themselves and discovers, much to their horror, that they have been sent on a suicide mission to try and recruit the mad doctor to their side.
That’s a fair amount of words on the premise of Frankenstein’s Army, but it would be misleading to think that this was a movie that is overly concerned with plot. Other horror films – Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers or James Cameron’s Aliens come to mind – have taken a similar premise and focused on the group dynamic of the soldiers or the supernatural origins of the creatures. Not so here. What director Richard Raaphorst has given audiences is the pure joy of a splatter horror film mixed with the campy fun of 70’s grindhouse film. There are no hidden morality or history lessons in Frankenstein’s Army, unless a reminder that the Nazis were both evil and crazy can be considered a history lesson. What we have here are decapitations, severed limbs, crushed heads, and enough fake blood to keep any young genre fan in the thralls of ecstasy.
And yet, just like Ebert with Human Centipede, we have to acknowledge that this is not simply an exploitation film. Frankenstein’s Army is first and foremost an opportunity for Raaphorst to show off his ability to design fantastical creatures. The monsters that the mad doctor creates in the film are the reanimated dead, yes, but they are also the best blend of horror and steampunk that I have seen to date. Each monster represents a combination of blades and pipes; some feature gas masks or spiked helmets, others have had their arms re-purposed as claws or pincers. The effect is not necessarily frightening so much as it is fascinating. Raaphorst demonstrated that he is Guillermo del Toro for the splatter set, capturing the imagination almost as much as he empties the stomach.
Still, how does one measure the success of a movie like Frankenstein’s Army? How does a film that is so purely, unabashedly paracinema rank against the other films of the Tribeca Film Festival that aspire to have more to say? I decided to go against form and read different reviews during my writing process in an attempt to take the pulse of other film critics. One review in particular, by Sound on Sight author Mark Young, caught my eye.
I don’t like to insert myself into these reviews, but at this point it’s important that you know something about me: I have a strong stomach, movie-wise. I didn’t even flinch the first time I saw the birthing scene in Alien. I chuckled my way through the original Evil Dead films and laughed at the cannibalistic climax of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. I say this not to brag, but to lend some weight to the following statement: Richard Raaphorst’s film Frankenstein’s Army is by far the most disgusting film I’ve ever seen.
In trying to defend himself as someone with a tough palette, Young perfectly encapsulates the primary issue with a movie like Frankenstein’s Army. Alien, Evil Dead, and Hannibal are all films that provide varying degrees of shock and gore, but they are also on the more mainstream end of the spectrum. Frankenstein’s Army was made for and made by the kind of film fans that consider Dead Alive, Hobo With A Shotgun, and Cannibal Holocaust to be talking points in conversations about gore. It may sound like an odd thing to say, but films like Frankenstein’s Army choose their own audiences, not the other way around. It does not make the film exempt from criticism; it simply has a different fanbase to answer to. I am no Roger Ebert, but I have tried to adopt his generic approach, and I think he would agree with me when I say that Frankenstein’s Army accomplishes what it set out to do. It is depraved and disgusting enough to satisfy the most demanding midnight fan and it is not simple exploitation. God save those poor people who walk into the theater during the Tribeca Film Festival thinking anything else.