In my Stake Land review, I briefly discussed this film’s producer, Larry Fessenden, a veteran of the indie horror scene. A self-proclaimed student of Hitchcock, the man of many hats and his New York based company, Glass Eye Pix, have been going strong for 25 years. During that time, he and Glass Eye Pix have launched and furthered the careers of some of the better directors on the outside of the mainstream: Ti West, Jim Mickle, Kelly Reichardt, Mickey Keating, and Glen McQuaid. Fessenden has produced and also acted in a lot of their work and other films, making him an unsung character actor of the horror genre as well. He even made an appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 Cannes’ entry, The Dead Don’t Die.
But of course, what wouldn’t an indie horror mogul be if he didn’t have a few creative ideas of his own. Though his directorial outputs often fly under the radar, Fessenden is probably better known to mainstream audiences through his writing for Supermassive Games, giving gamers the recent survival horror classic, Until Dawn, along with some well received Playstation VR titles. Cinematically, he has written, directed, and even edited multiple features, and his 1997 vampire film Habit, won him the Someone to Watch Award from the Independent Spirit Awards. Notably, he also directed the last aired episode of Mick Garris’ Fear Itself anthology in the late 2000's. So now let’s take a look at Fessenden’s most recent film, Depraved, a modern update of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
We all know the story to an extent, as it’s one of the most adapted stories in existence. Scientist, Victor Frankenstein, creates a being out of dead body parts and brings it to life with the technology of the time, just to show that he can. However, due to the inclusion of an “abnormal” brain, his creation doesn’t behave to the ideal of Frankenstein’s higher class liking. The creature breaks loose, and insanity ensues, which eventually leads it to take revenge on Victor for the loneliness it's forced to live with. Throw in some commentary about how industrialism will go on to replace religion, and you have the timeless template of horror and science fiction, with over a hundred years of interpretation.
The film opens in present day New York as our being, Adam, awakens in the Brooklyn loft apartment/laboratory of Henry, our Dr. Frankenstein, and a nod to the 1931 Universal film. The first quarter of the film dedicates itself to a bottle narrative, focusing on the budding father/son dynamic. We have a child in the body of an adult who is slowly relearning his way through the world, and we have a father who is a former army medic with untreated PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Over the course of a month, Adam learns enough to pass himself off as an introvert while also reliving fragmented memories of the man whose brain is inside him. These scenes are also overlaid with effects replicating brain synapses and pumping blood vessels giving Depraved that indie movie sense of whimsy audiences both love and laugh at.
The plot changes focus as Adam is gradually introduced to more people in Henry’s life, at Henry’s behest, including his concerned girlfriend Liz, who continues to stay with Henry despite their growing detachment. We’re introduced to Polidori, an inverse of Dr. Waldman (who was a stand-in for Frankenstein’s conscience) and the Igor-like assistant (his words). Obviously, he’s our villain, the man with the money who funded this experiment and who represents a shady pharmaceutical firm, that profits off of price gouging. Once introduced properly, Polidori takes it upon himself to show Adam, our fish out of water, the party life of New York City, bringing him to art galleries and strip clubs (which he may own, that part is left unclear). He gives him a taste of the world and slowly plants the seeds of adolescent rebellion in his brain, pitting him against Henry.
Soon enough, Adam gets tired of the vague answers and discovers videos of how he was created as well as the identities of those he was made from, which sends him into a rage (mirroring the earlier moments where Henry would snap from lack of patience). And of course, this mirrors the story we know, as Adam attempts to experience society on his own but causes harm to those he encounters.
As a film, Depraved wants to be many things than just a conventional horror film. This seems appropriate, considering the source material predates the conventions we associate with horror and it's one way to justify the messy narrative we see. There are genuine moments of emotion, as established at the beginning and it’s an interesting character study. Skipping over the initial “why?” and the collection of the corpses, we are starting right from the monster’s point of view. The “why” gets explained later when we get a glimpse into Henry’s mind and what he saw overseas. That itself makes for an interesting story, but then it gets bogged down by the end when it remembers it has to be a horror film, thus turning into a B-movie just to tie itself up.
After Adam accidentally kills a girl at a bar, he brings her back to the lab in an attempt to convince Henry to revive her. Henry injects Adam with a needle in an attempt to euthanize him (but obviously that doesn’t work). Henry drags Liz into helping him dispose of both bodies, plus all the evidence of the experiment. They bury all of it in the woods behind Polidori’s house, before entering the home to inform Polidori of the recent events. Instead of Henry and Liz leaving, they agree to stay the evening with Polidori and his partner, Georgina. During the night, Adam digs himself out of his shallow grave and makes his way to the house, somehow knowing they are there. Similar plot points from the novel ensue; there’s the monster’s attack on Henry’s (Frankenstein’s) loved one, and the creation confronting the creator.
This all feels forced, however. For every new direction the film takes, Depraved feels the need to replicate its source material. Honestly, it falls apart once the leads choose to stay the night with the villain. We know Adam is going to dig his way out of the ground and make his way to the villain, but it’s disappointing to see the lead stick around just so the film can kill him off, rather than give him some real time of reflection. Henry is a complicated and despicable character, but there was room for the audience to have pity for him. There’s also a questionable scene where Liz and Georgina have an argument in a separate room where they basically have the verbal confrontation that Henry should be having with Polidori. These are the two most underdeveloped characters in the story having what should be a powerful moment between a man realizing he was just as much of a puppet as his own creation, and the man pulling the strings.
The film comes to a close with Polidori killing Henry and Adam mourning his father despite all the pain that Henry has brought him. Polidori lights his house on fire to bury the evidence of the murder, (he also kills Georgina, because, why not). Nevertheless, after a fake out death, Adam is able to get the upper hand and kill the cartoonish bad guy once and for all. Left alone, and on the lam, Adam attempts to make peace with the fragmented pieces of how he was created, before venturing off to an uncertain future.
Despite my critique, I don’t find myself disliking Depraved. I greatly enjoy how Fessenden approached the themes of Mary Shelley’s work and brought them into the world he’s familiar with, that being the New York art scene. Fessenden is able to take the film beyond the novelty of “Frankenstein as a hipster,” and in fact, it’s more like Frankenstein’s monster vs. a hipster. Fessenden also edits the film, which is appropriately “stitched together” where it needs to be when it comes to Adam’s fractured point of view. The editing is handled perfectly when Adam discovers the video evidence of his creation; it’s a scene that is as devastating as it is revolting, and executed perfectly.
On the casting side, the relatively unknown Alex Breaux excels playing Adam, giving a real sense of vulnerability behind his stoic, eerie appearance. I was surprised to discover, after watching Depraved, that Breaux was somewhere in the previously reviewed Trick that same year. Once again, it all depends on the material in the right hands. David Call’s take on Henry makes for an interesting interpretation of the mad doctor. He’s always on edge and easily agitated, clearly haunted by ghosts of his past, which adds an extra layer to his altruistic behavior that isn’t seen in other adaptations. Finally, there’s Joshua Leonard as Polidori. There’s a reason why he’s the one actor from The Blair Witch Project who we keep seeing. He’s a joy to watch, bringing manic energy and a bad hair piece to this character. Normally a character in this position (Waldman in the novel) would appeal to Frankenstein’s morality, but this character pushes him further into the dark for his own profit.
I walk away from Depraved believing I saw a positive treatment of a story that has been adapted since the dawn of cinema, and that’s the biggest takeaway. With both good and bad qualities, this film deserves to be seen more and Larry Fessenden as an auteur deserves the credit. Being in the industry for such a long time can leave many storytellers jaded, but this is a man who clearly loves horror and has the energy to give life to new ideas. I look forward to seeing what Glass Eye Pix has in store for the future.
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