No agency: The patchwork creations of Frankenstein’s Army are a perverted steampunk fever dream
While Schlock Magazine gets its ‘Monster March’ on the road, I troop away with my own, starting with a shit-and-mud caked gem.
That there is something both liberating and enslaving about the monster is a well-worn trope in both popular culture and popular discussion. ‘You take something away, you get something back’ is part of it: monstrosity can signify exclusion and enslavement, but by that same token it can also mean that the monster is freed from the rat race of day-to-day existence. By destiny or design, the monster is plunged into a skewed world, which can yield to plenty of advantages if they play their cards right… that is, given that the monsters in question have any cards to play at all, or if they do, whether they have the cerebral capability to process the rules of the game in question.
The monsters of Frankenstein’s Army (2013) certainly have zero agency. Nazi cyborg grunts for the titular Josef-Mengele like throwback to Mary Shelley’s famous doctor, they shuffle along, showing off their freshly grafted bodily modifications with automated – but still menacing – glee. What’s more interesting though is Dr Frankenstein’s (Karel Roden) justification for his experiments… at least, the justification we’re given at the end, which feels like a hurried, tacked-on thematic appendage suited both to his in-film creations and the meta-film’s messy raison d’etre.
Frankenstein, you’re barmy: Karel Roden as the titular mad scientist
The fascists he – ostensibly – works for and under are “insane”, Frankenstein admits. But so are communists and capitalists. he declares. His creations, on the other hand, made entirely of the human contradictions that lead to war, can in fact be used to smooth the same contradictions out. The scene in which the doctor attempts to collage a fascist brain with a communist one is an explicit illustration of this, of course, but it’s also a reminder of how vulgar pulp can remind us of what monsters are ‘for’ in the first place.
READ RELATED: Monstering
China Mieville’s argument that Halloween is not an enemy to contemporary socialists – if ‘done well’ – bears the kernel of what I was complaining about. Allowing your kids to dress up as cowboys for Halloween means just succumbing to the capitalist machine; making them dress as ZOMBIE cowboys – thereby allowing the still-existent chthonic underbelly that Halloween hints at – is good, because it acknowledges the topsy-turvy disorder that Halloween (like Carnival) encourages – a temporary subversion of the status quo.
And films that are nominated or Oscars tend to be guilty of promoting this ‘vanilla’ view of culture. 12 Years a Slave appears to be searing, but it comes draped in the trappings of stereotypical period dramas – the worst of both worlds. American Hustle appears to be an edgy look at how the capitalist machine in America functions, but it’s too keen to please it viewers to allow for anything genuine to seep through.
This isn’t just limited to Oscar fare, either. The Robocop remake has been released to some negative press in the US and UK, and it appears to have fallen into a similar trap. It’s not a freakish creation like its original – a wonderful aberration by Paul Verhoven that doubles up as a satire of the Regan administration. As a wonderful article on The Guardian illustrates
, Verhoven was successful – and this counts for his subsequent films Total Recall and Starship Troopers too – because he had a keen grasp of how the grotesque works.
His films walk like dumb action flicks, but talk like something far more playful.
It’s this commitment to your vision that I tend to admire, and that I want to champion here. Just like wearing non-supernatural, non-horror costumes in favour of something generic for Halloween is a disservice to the imagination and the subversive implications of the festival, so does making concessions to the audience and the established cultural order make for maimed storytelling.
I admire China Mieville for saying what basically amounts to “Sometimes a monster is just a monster.” By making monsters obvious ‘symbols’ for something, you divest them of their real power. Monsters will always mean something, of course, but they can stand for a rich variety of things – as opposed to some single, often hackneyed idea – if you just let them be.
Utopian vision: Let the work do its work. And don’t give awards to work that is more interested in glory and appeasing the status quo than in delivering good work.