Larry Fessenden (2019 114 minutes, RED)
DAVID CALL, JOSHUA LEONARD, ALEX BREAUX, ANA KAYNE, MARIA DIZZIA, CHLOË LEVINE, OWEN CAMPBELL and ADDISON TIMLIN
Depraved centers on Henry, a field surgeon suffering from PTSD after combat in the Middle East, who creates a man out of body parts in a makeshift lab in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The creature he creates must navigate a strange new world and the rivalry between Henry and his conniving collaborator Polidori.
Fessenden’s macabre, inspired take on the
Frankenstein story is heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
Alex Breaux’s performance is stunning
in its physicality and pathos.
A fun and febrile tale that takes the moral temperature
of our time with an almost invasive degree of accuracy.
the definitive Prometian tale of the decade.
It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that speaks enough
about what is humanity, while having quite a bit of fun as well.
an instant classic…
this modern-day Frankenstein story has a lot of heart
and is Fessenden’s best work to date.
an incredibly thoughtful horror
parable with a strong sense of morality
and compassion that is rare these days.
Depraved proves why Fessenden has been such a staple in the genre.
No matter how much you’ve experienced the Frankenstein story,
this film makes it feel new again.
Fessenden has beautifully transposed a timeless story to modern day.
It’s gritty, moody and beautiful all at once.
Whilst the Frankenstein story has been
told hundreds of times across the world of cinema,
Depraved somehow manages to feel completely fresh.
A dramatic character piece that will
reward those looking for a thoughtful
take on Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
one of Fessenden’s best films to date,
showcasing the director’s ability to craft a memorable,
stylish and creatively astute narrative on a small budget.
His status as a darling of horror and
New York indie cinema has only be
reinforced with this feature.
A far better re-mything of Frankenstein than anything
big-budget Hollywood has brought our way in the last decade or three.
impressive work of ultra-indie auteurist horror cinema.
Highly recommended for Frankenstein and Fessenden fans.
much more of a dark drama with horror elements
than an all-out fright film. And it’s much better for it,
his talents would be wasted on another generic
“creature on the loose” film.
an inspired Gowanus-grungy DIY Frankenstein,
with director Larry Fessenden pushing through
to the subtext of parentally irresponsible men.
Grabs you with its ideas (and imaginative production moxie).
Somebody buy this.
Depraved might be Larry Fessenden’s best movie yet.
a look at Frankenstein’s monster
in the way that Mary Shelley always envisioned…
a desolate, confused creation rebuilt
out of other people’s parts that only reacted
to what he had learned in his short, miserable life.
Fessenden approaches the material through an existentialist’s lens,
touching on how what we experience,
not only the mental but the corporeal, forms us as people.
Writer director Larry Fessenden has made an intriguing film.
Updating Mary Shelley’s tale to modern day Brooklyn,
he shades it not just with a mad genius trying to usurp god
but with thoughts of trying to help those left broken by war.
a noteworthy entry in Fessenden’s oeuvre,
building on his history of reimagining the classic Universal monsters
(Habit, Wendigo, The Last Winter, Beneath).
Independent horror filmmaking at its finest,
and this may be Fessenden’s best directorial work to date.
Independent film king Larry Fessenden decides to try his luck with
a minimalist approach and he’s doing pretty well.
Fessenden’s latest cinematic venture proves that horror
can be more than scary; it can encourage us to truly feel something.
[Overlook Review] ‘Depraved’ Marks a Return to Form for Larry Fessenden
One of the most exciting aspects of genre film is its ability to reinvent itself no matter how stale the trope or subgenre. All it takes is a fresh perspective, new voice, or a visionary to show that even centuries old stories can be hacked up and stitched back together to breath new life into it. Take Mary Shelley’s now 200-year-old Frankenstein, a classic novel that’s received nearly two centuries worth of adaptations in television, film, and stage plays. You’d think there’d be nothing left to say, but of course, that’s not true. Filmmaker Larry Fessendenreturns to the director’s chair to show there’s still a wealth of existential terror and emotional devastation still left to mine from Shelley’s story.
Known for indie horror faves like Wendigo, Habit, Beneath, and The Last Winter, Fessenden has shifted focus from directing to producing and mentoring new rising talent in the indie scene in recent years. He’s become a bit of a character actor, as well, and proven a knack for writing horror games (Until Dawn). Depraved marks his first feature length film in six years, one in which he directed, edited, produced, and wrote. He pays his respects to Shelley while reconfiguring her story into something that’s wholly his vision.
Henry (David Call), a PTSD suffering field surgeon with lofty ambitions has successfully reanimated a new man, Adam (Alex Breaux), using assembled parts from various bodies brought to him by his business financier and old college friend Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Henry keeps Adam in isolation as he spends all hours retraining Adam how to speak, regain motor control, puzzle solving, ping pong playing, and all of the various basic life skills someone Adam’s size and age should have. There’s a sincerity to this strange bonding that takes precedence over the first half, but Adam soon learns enough to begin questioning his own existence and loneliness while his two fathers- Henry and Polidori- clash over two drastically different parenting styles. That the mounting tension between the three escalates into violence should surprise no one.
Depraved works like a master class in DIY horror filmmaking. Fessenden has always been able to create heady, emotionally centered horror on a show string budget, and this is still the case here. And yet it’s a gorgeous film that looks grander in scale than it is. The title cards, the psychedelic imagery that show off Adam’s synapses firing or drugs entering his veins, and a third act homage to Universal’s classic monster make for interesting visual choices that adds to this love letter to Frankenstein. This is Fessenden’s Frankenstein, not just in how he narratively stitches pieces of these characters’ stories together but in his visual approach, too.
It’s his most ambitious film yet, and it shows. The downside is that it overstays its welcome a bit in the final act; namely in a climactic sequence that feels jarringly wedged in and a bit lost in focus. Depraved also does a massive disservice to its female lead in Liz (Ana Kayne), Henry’s estranged lover and Adam sympathizer. We never get to know her beyond her willingness to show up and subject herself to questionable acts in the name of love- one that’s mentioned but never earned.
Fessenden’s latest is at its strongest when it’s exploring the very fragile relationship between Adam and Henry, and the crash course Henry and Polidori provide Adam on what it means to be human. Breaux’s take on the character is pitch perfect. Every emotion he experiences for the first time is keenly felt, and his journey will break your heart. This is also to say that it’s a deliberately paced story that won’t be for everyone, one that does run a bit overlong. If you’re in the mood for something more DIY, experimental, and introspective with gravitas, then this is a must.
Larry Fessenden Gives New Life to Frankenstein with Depraved
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been adapted so many damn times that you might think there’s nothing left to do with the story. But that didn’t deter indie horror legend Larry Fessenden from giving it a go. Fessenden has spent the last few years producing and acting, and his only directorial output has been in the form of shorts. Depraved marks his return to feature filmmaking for the first time since 2013, and the results don’t disappoint. In his time away from feature films, Fessenden has only grown stronger as a filmmaker, and Depraved ends up being his most visually stunning film to date. Fessenden directs the hell out of this thing, full of dreamy visual overlaps, graphic illustrations, montages, and immersive point-of-view shots. It’s a wonder to watch.
Depraved brings Frankenstein into the 21st century, opening with a scene of domestic bliss turned into domestic dispute as nervous Alex (Owen Campbell) ends up in a fight with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine, an actress who is becoming a familiar, and welcomed, face in the indie horror scene). Lucy wants kids, but Alex is horrified at the idea, and after a brief emotional blow-up, he decides to go back to his own apartment. The couple part ways awkwardly, but not bitterly. Alex assures Lucy they’ll continue their conversation tomorrow, but that doesn’t happen. Because on the stroll home through the New York streets, Alex is brutally stabbed to death.
This being a Frankenstein story, death is only the beginning. Alex is brought back to life, stitched together with new body parts as a taller, more muscular figure named Adam (now played by Alex Breaux). He has no memory of his past life. In fact, he doesn’t really know much of anything. He’s like a giant newborn. And he has only his “father”, a doctor named Henry (David Call) to care for him. Henry is a former field surgeon with PTSD who is working with an old buddy (Joshua Leonard) to develop a method of raising the dead.
Adam and Henry bond over the first half of the film, and here is where Depraved shines brightest. Fessenden is leaning into the Frankenstein story elements that focus on just what it is to be human, and watching Henry help his creation learn to talk, and interact, and become more social, is surprisingly emotional. That emotion is backed-up by a swooning, heartbreaking score courtesy of Will Bates.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Frankenstein story without something going wrong. Adam’s inner turmoil about who and what he is begins to become a serious problem – with deadly consequences. Sadly, it’s here where Depraved stumbles a bit. After a near-perfect first two acts, Fessenden moves the action to a new location – a house full of people as a storm rages outside. It’s obvious the filmmaker is paying tribute to Frankenstein‘s origins – dreamed-up on one dark and stormy night as part of a ghost story-telling parlor game. But this chunk feels completely disconnected from everything that came before, and drags on.
No matter: the rest of Depraved is strong. The film is surprisingly sweet and melancholic – it aches with the soul of a poet. And the make-up effects used to bring Adam to life are convincingly icky. I went into Depraved wondering if we needed yet another Frankenstein adaptation. I left realizing I had just experienced one of the best.
Depraved. Larry Fessenden’s macabre, inspired take on the Frankenstein story is heartbreaking as it is horrifying. Set in a warehouse/loft in Brooklyn, Henry (David Call) is a former army surgeon suffering PTSD who has stitched together body parts and brought to life Adam (Alex Breaux). He reluctantly becomes a father-figure to this re-animated creature, training Adam how to talk, think, dress himself, play puzzles and ping pong and learn that “gravity” is his friend. Fessenden gets to the core of Mary Shelley’s story, this go-round the science used is more drug-related that electrical. But it also gets the folly of the God-like doctor learning to regret and fear his own creation. Alex Breaux’s performance is stunning in its physicality and pathos. Fessenden truly is a hero of mine- he has consistently made some of the most lyrical, bizarre, thought-provoking genre films. This Frank ‘N The Hood is one of his very best.
‘Depraved’ Review: Larry Fessenden’s No-Budget Delight Brings Frankenstein into the 21st Century
Indie horror maestro Larry Fessenden refashions Mary Shelley’s immortal novel into a modern story of trauma and self-interest.
Hell-bent upon finding evidence of ancient monsters in the modern world (often by exploring how they continue to be reflected in the raw stuff of human nature), Larry Fessenden launched his filmmaking career with a Frankenstein story, and he’s been working his way back to the subject ever since. Traces of Mary Shelley’s mad science can be found in many of the low-budget horror movies that his Glass Eye Pix has produced since 1985, and they’re even more apparent in the ones that he’s directed: From the ecological hubris of “The Last Winter” to the monster-is-us mythicism of “Wendigo” and the selfishness that percolates beneath all of his narratives and bubbled to the surface in “Beneath,” each of his features has dissected a severed limb from Shelley’s foundational story.
With “Depraved” — which is perhaps both his least expensive and most ambitious movie — Fessenden sews his entire body of work together. More than a masterclass in DIY cinema, the result of this deranged experiment is a fun and febrile tale that takes the moral temperature of our time with an almost invasive degree of accuracy. If Fessenden’s reach inevitably exceeds his grasp, well, whose doesn’t these days?
Shot on the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s novel (after more than 15 years of kicking around Fessenden’s head), “Depraved” wasn’t conceived as a no-budget riff on a story that’s traditionally been adapted by large studios, but none of the bigger fish were taking the bait. But Fessenden, a Dr. Frankenstein in his own right, wouldn’t let a lack of cash get in the way of his creation. And so, with the help of some talented collaborators and a very flexible Gowanus warehouse, he forged ahead on a film that resurrects Shelley’s 19th century masterpiece with a decidedly 21st century mentality. This is a Frankenstein for the “move fast and break things” era, for a time when people really can fuck with God from their parents’ basement, and every tech giant from Facebook to Theranos is flying by the seat of its pants. The world changes faster than we do, but we can always see our true selves reflected in our visions for the future.
“Depraved” begins on its most benign note of recklessness, as a couple of Brooklyn twentysomethings (Owen Campbell and Chloë Levine) have a stilted post-coital argument about commitment; she wants him to stay over, but he’s already gotten what he wanted. Needless to say, you won’t be particularly heartbroken when the guy gets stabbed on his walk home. From there, he’s dragged to a scuzzy laboratory nearby, where his wet brain is transplanted into the stapled, alabaster body that Henry (David Call) has been stitching together in secret.
With the final piece in place, Henry — a grieving but gifted field medic who’s suffering from PTSD after serving in the Middle East — is ready to flick on the lights. And so Adam (Alex Breaux) is born. A mute and mangled collage of different corpses who’s brought to life by a mysterious drug, the careful precision of Breaux’s cyborg-like performance, and also the brilliant makeup work of Peter Gerner and Brian Spears, Adam is a far cry from the lumbering green oaf that James Whale made into a Universal icon (think Alex Pettyfer’s character from “Beastly,” only much less humiliating). He’s like a reformatted computer that’s been assembled from old scraps. And Henry, who’s sweeter and more optimistic than Dr. Frankenstein ever was, can’t wait to program him. His old-money financier (“Unsane” actor Joshua Leonard as the single-minded Polidori), has other ideas. The rest is history: Men become monsters, monsters become men, everyone flies too close to the sun, and gravity takes its toll.
Despite the twisted implications of its title, “Depraved” is a rather sensitive, emotionally-driven story that’s at its best when its characters engage one another with the best of intentions. The film is seen through a woozy subjective haze (James Siewert contributes a clever lo-fi effect to get into Adam’s headspace, as colored lights fizz and pop across the entire screen to suggest his synaptic connections), and the first half in particular is padded with a gauze-like softness.
Surprised by Adam but only repulsed by himself, Henry becomes the heart and soul of the movie, and Call’s delicate performance walks a fine line between altruism and self-interest. To what extent is Henry conducting these experiments for the benefit of all mankind? To what extent is he just perverting the laws of nature in order to quell his personal grief over not being able to save his fellow troops? It’s hard to say — especially for Henry. Whether teaching Adam how to play ping-pong, or introducing Henry’s creation to his semi-estranged girlfriend (Ana Kayne), Call is always wrestling with the destructiveness of his character’s salvation, and always using one eye to watch how Henry’s worst impulses are borne out by Adam’s behavior. “Depraved” offers a skewed glimpse at what “The Social Network” might have been like if Mark Zuckerberg had a conscience.
That comparison extends itself to the film’s structure, which is linear but unstable. “Depraved” only moves in one direction, but it possesses different people as it goes along, and looks at Adam from their perspective. Fessenden’s approach reflects the shape of Shelley’s novel (at least to a certain extent), and stresses how everyone brings their own kind of moral equivocation to these grotesqueries. Polidori hijacks the story in order to show Adam some culture, and then Henry’s girlfriend slips in to show Adam some affection; the impressionable golem soaks up what he sees like a sponge, and becomes a fun-house mirror for the self-interests of those he meets. It isn’t long before strangers become potential victims (Addison Timlin, who co-starred with Fessenden in the dementedly brilliant “Like Me,” gives the movie a well-timed shot in the arm as a curious bar-dweller who’s too kind for her own good).
For the most part, however, “Depraved” suffers for pulling focus away from the fragile bond between Henry and Adam. As a caricature of start-up culture, Polidori is a poor complement to the wrenching journey that the rest of the characters are on; Fessenden wanted to make a version of “Frankenstein” where we feel empathy for both the monster and his creator, but he may have underestimated how successful he was in doing so. Henry brings the war home with him so vividly that his brewing conflict with Polidori is hard to believe in comparison.
It’s as if Fessenden, whose work has always satirized human selfishness, is a bit uncomfortable with the idea of taking it seriously. The tortured nuance of the film’s core gives way to a broad throwdown between right and wrong, and the DIY charm that “Depraved” relies on to stress how we’re all stuck in a horror movie is replaced by an overextended attempt to make this story feel larger than life. It’s possible that Fessenden — who finds a satisfying way to bring the story home — has succumbed to the same American exceptionalism that fuels so many of his characters. More likely, he was seduced by the scale of the original “Frankenstein” story. Either way, “Depraved” has the brains to survive all sorts of mottled damage to its body, and resolves as a welcome reminder that independent cinema would be a better place if everyone shared Fessenden’s ambitions for it.
What all these films have in common is that they are quite clearly Frankenstein adaptations. With Larry Fessenden’s newest film, Depraved, it’s not thrown in your face. If anything, I saw parallels more immediately to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, which itself is a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Re-Animator. It can be argued that the serial novelette of Lovecraft’s is a bit of a “re-imagining” of Frankenstein as well, but that’s a story for another time.
Depraved is the most modern interpretation of the ideas brought forth in Frankenstein and Re-Animator thus far. In the beginning, we meet Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloë Levine). A young couple in love and about to marry. It seems as though things are going to go great for them, but you go in knowing this is a horror movie, so of course, that isn’t the case. Alex gets attacked randomly on his walk home from Lucy’s apartment. He doesn’t survive the attack.
“There’s a pill called RapidX that helps speed up Adam’s recovery from…being a human jigsaw puzzle…”
We are then taken to a Gowanus Loft (that I would totally live in, in case anyone wants to give me some info on how to rent it) where Henry (David Call), a doctor who served in the Iraq war has been conducting some rather unorthodox experiments. Shortly after being introduced to this setting, Henry’s patient wakes up. The patient is of course “The Monster” or as he is called in the novel, Adam (Alex Breaux). When he first wakes up, Henry can’t believe it. He’s overjoyed with this ability to bring people back from the dead.
Henry’s partner in this venture, Dr. John Polidori (Joshua Leonard) is the one with the money that made all the experiments possible. He also works for a big pharmaceutical company. There’s a pill called RapidX that helps speed up Adam’s recovery from…being a human jigsaw puzzle. It doesn’t take too long before Adam can talk, play ping-pong, read hundreds of books, become interested in women, and have memories from the brain of its original…owner. Henry is a bit overwhelmed by how quickly this is taking place, but Polidori is incredibly excited. Henry’s girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) is none too pleased with how secretive Henry is about this work. Adam is a little bit too fond of Liz.
If you’ve seen any iteration of Frankenstein or Re-Animator, you know these things don’t usually end well for the doctor, the patient, or anyone else involved. However, in Depraved, Henry (who Polidori refers to as “Henry Frankenstein” towards the end of the film) is suffering from severe PTSD, and that is his reason for being obsessed with bringing people back to life. Polidori is the real “villain” if there is one. Towards the end of the film, there are numerous nods to the Universal film with Boris Karloff, which are great little Easter eggs.
“So if you want to see an awesome punk rock New York Frankenstein movie from the director of Wendigo, you should check out Depraved.”
The whole cast is excellent, but I particularly loved Alex Breaux as Adam. You empathize more with him than you do with any of the supposedly more human characters. Adam shows us the purity of innocence and the sadness when that innocence is destroyed. I also thoroughly enjoy Maria Dizzia as the disaffected, annoyed wife of Dr. Polidori, Georgina. She’s usually great in everything, and this performance is no exception.
There are a lot of psychedelic visuals and creepy lighting that fits the mood of the film. Overall I would refer to this as the punk rock Frankenstein movie. There’s one part where Adam is in a bar, and a girl named Shelley (Addison Timlin) tells him he looks like Iggy Pop. He then tells her his name is Iggy and The Stooges are playing in the bar while the whole interchange is happening. The film also shows the creepy grittiness of the particular part of Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal that can feel pretty scary at night. Depraved is also a grand tour of South Brooklyn. There are also some great scenes at The Met. So if you want to see an awesome punk rock New York Frankenstein movie from the director of Wendigo, you should check out Depraved. If this doesn’t sound immediately interesting to you, I don’t know if we can be friends. I’m sorry.
Larry Fessenden has always been among the most recognized and loved directors in the underground indie horror scene, with films like Wendigo and Habit, as well as memorable episodes in Fear Itself and The ABCs of Death 2, while also producing work within the genre and being a character actor in his own right.
To celebrate the 200 years of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2018, many events took place all over the world, many publications and symposiums were held, but ultimately we didn’t get a great film to cap it all off, until today. Depraved, Fessenden’s latest film, is the definitive capper for that celebration, a fitting tribute to Mary Shelley and a modern enough spin for it to be exciting.
Depraved get things into motion quickly by claiming the life of the protagonist, played by Alex Breaux, to then turn him into Adam, a reanimated corpse done by the experimenting of Henry (played by David Call) and the cheekily named Polidori (magnificently performed by Joshua Leonard), who are testing out new methods to resucitate and bring forward the brain power through the rewiring of neurones.
The first half of the film is cleverly structured around montages that show the advance in Adam’s brain: doing puzzles, reading, talking, understanding scientific concepts and, above all, a beautiful sequence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we see Polidori touring Adam around the history of art and of humanity.
Eventually the film settles into the mystery that is the life of Adam before he was killed, as he tries to piece together where he came from and how he got there. Attentive viewers will have the answers for most of these questions, and will consider this the weakest segment of the film.
But it maintains itself interesting with multiple formal choices, which are a continuation of the choices made by Fessenden to race through the usual motifs associated with the Frankenstein film: animated overlays over the action, distinct camera qualities to show memories or security footage, visual nods to earlier Frankenstein movies and classic horror, among others, which puts this film as a love letter to the genre lovers.
The succint editing and the clever points of view present in the camera angles make up for a lot of the absence in character development, which might be the film’s weakest point, as we don’t get to know too much of the two scientists that are doing the Adam project. Polidori just comes off as some knowledgeable asshole, while Henry is just a caring, loving, nervous prick that seems to change his will at the flip of a switch.
That doesn’t matter as much as the development of Adam himself, who is the star of the film. Since he’s a blank slate, we see him evolving and creating a perspective and feelings of his own, even if his monotone grovelling voice might distract, Alex Breaux is the best performer in this movie.
The film feels satisfactory because of how clever it pieces together the elements that we already know about and how it introduces technology and elements from real life to generate the definitive Prometian tale of the decade. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that speaks enough about what is humanity, while having quite a bit of fun as well.
The definitive “gag”, if there is one, is a long sequence that shows us how Adam might be in the search of his “bride”, just like in the classic novel, but a bit sadder, funnier and wittier.
DEPRAVED isn’t the first time Larry Fessenden has delved into the Frankenstein mythos. The Godfather of Indie Horror Cinema played with reanimation in one of his first films, the mad science drama NO TELLING. That was 1991 and even though NO TELLING was a memorable and powerful film, Fessenden has perfected his distinct style and delivered a stunning low fi masterpiece in DEPRAVED.
Fessenden brings Mary Shelley’s tale into the modern age, following a PTSD afflicted war medic named Henry (David Call) who pairs up with an opportunistic pharma businessman named Polidori (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT’s Joshua Leonard) to test their new experimental drug on a recent murder victim. Naming the reanimated victim Adam (Alex Breaux), Henry goes about his private rehabilitation in a meticulous and careful manner – teaching Adam basic coordination and memory skills. Of course, this isn’t fast enough results for Polidori. Meanwhile, Adam is having flashes of his previous life and urges to find a mate of his own, much like Henry’s devoted girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne). You know where this is going…and it’s going to be bad.
Fessenden hits all of the story beats we’ve seen in tons of reinterpretations of the Shelley classic. The difference here is that Fessenden distills the basics from the story and applies it to a modern tale of big pharma, lofty ambition, and the conflict between corporate demand vs. humanitarian treatment. Despite those heady themes, DEPRAVED is drenched with character and heart all around, as Fessenden imbues both Henry and Adam with sympathetic traits. Henry wants what’s best for Adam, looking after him like a child. But this treatment isn’t happening fast enough by Polidori, who is desperate to report results and make money off of all of this. This conflict is one of two in this tale, paralleled with Adam’s struggle to regain his humanity. All elements work marvelously and reflects Shelley’s tale in an intricate way that most Frankenstein tales fail.
Another thing that sets this film apart is Fessenden’s unique cinematography. Fessenden uses quick montages of images, simple overlays of color and light, and other rudimentary (but effective) camera effects that gives even more substance and style. This is a technique Fessenden has used before in films such as WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER. Though this technique has been used by other directors (Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, for example), it feels like Fessenden’s unique stamp on each of his films. I would love to see Fessenden get his hands on a big budget film. He has been behind the scenes for way too long and has been a major trumpeter for many of the best voices in today’s horror game. Maybe he is comfortable with the low budget control and personal take to all of his own films, but I’d love to see what this soulful and passionate filmmaker would do with a couple of mill. That said, DEPRAVED is truly one of the best FRANKENSTEIN adaptations you’re going to find. Be on the lookout for it.
Movie Review: DEPRAVED
DEPRAVED was written, produced, edited and directed by Larry Fessenden and stars David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloë Levine, Owen Campbell and Addison Timlin.
Shot on the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, veteran genre writer-director Larry Fessenden’s brings his unique vision of the literary classic in DEPRAVED, set in modern Brooklyn. This meditative reimagining of the novel explores the crisis of masculinity and ideas about loneliness, memory and the subtle psychological shocks that shape us as individuals.
Alex (Owen Campbell) leaves his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine) after an emotional night, walking the streets alone to get home. From out of nowhere, he is stabbed in a frenzied attack, with the life draining out of him. He awakes to find he is the brain in a body he does not recognize. This creature, Adam (Alex Breaux), has been brought into consciousness by Henry (David Call), a brilliant field surgeon suffering from PTSD after two tours in the Mideast, and his accomplice Polidori (Joshua Leonard), a predator determined to cash in on the experiment that brought Adam to life. Henry is increasingly consumed with remorse over what he’s done and when Adam finally discovers a video documenting his own origin, he goes on a rampage that reverberates through the group and tragedy befalls them all.
The opening scene of Depraved shows Alex and Lucy parting ways and maybe it’s not on the best of terms. The next thing we see is Alex being viciously stabbed multiple times in an alley and waking up in on a makeshift operating table in a warehouse where he has no memory of his former life. When he looks in the mirror he sees a horribly scarred figure that’s been stitched together. This is when Henry introduces himself and names the figure Adam. The two quickly form a close bond as the creator slowly teaches his monster the basics and then a few other characters are introduced into the mix.
Polidori is Henry’s “partner in crime” and doesn’t really have Adam’s best interest at heart, so much so, he becomes trouble. While Adam is experiencing life at a rapid pace and remembering some of his past, Henry’s own traumatic experience from the war haunts him and has left the talented doctor scarred on the inside. This becomes a major issue for Polodori because the two aren’t on the same page when it comes to Adam who finally discovers his own shocking origin. This changes everything for everyone involved and now the experiment becomes a fight for survival for all parties. – especially Adam who now wants revenge.
Okay, we’ve gotten plenty of Frankenstein movies over the years and some that even tried to give the classic story a modern-day take but what Larry Fessenden has delivered is easily the best of these modern-day attempts and he did it on a shoestring budget. This impressive slice of indie cinema is not only the best modern-day take on Frankenstein but it adds just the right amount of flawed humanity and humility to it as well as real world problems – like PTSD. Even though Depraveddoes fit into the horror genre because of some of its graphic content like body parts, blood and gore, it’s also plays like a dramatic character study that focuses on the relationship between the monster and its creator as well as a love lost story that’s playing out in the background.
Depraved is more of a father and son or brotherly relationship because Henry has to reteach Adam so many things about life while bits and pieces of Adam’s memory quietly resurfaces. There’s also some troubling outside interference that comes into play that these two characters end up having to deal with. Needless to say, not everyone deals with these problematic situations the right way but that’s what being human is all about – right?
Bottom line is,, Larry Fessenden has taken Mary Shelley‘s classic story and created something fresh for the cinephiles out there to hopefully enjoy and appreciate as much as I did. He definitely made the best out of this ambitious micro-budget production and the proof is on the screen. The small cast also did their part because all of the characters are interesting – especially the two male leads. Something else that stands out in the movie are the fantastic makeup effects that help in creating the heavily scarred monster. All in all, I’ll go ahead and check this one off as an instant classic because this modern-day Frankenstein story has a lot of heart and is Fessenden’s best work to date.
We Got This Covered
Larry Fessenden’s Depraved is a do-it-yourself Frankenstein adaptation that surges with the filmmaker’s passion for profession, material, and genre. Brooklyn warehouse districts and Manhattan’s underbelly play backdrop to a retelling steeped in its own mad scientifics. An “indie” stitched together by graverobber prosthetic effects, pop-savvy hallucinations of firing synapses, and “man or monster” duplicity rooted in Mary Shelley’s thematic prose but adaptive to relevant social climates. Empathy and tragedy befall what we’ve discovered to be the faulted human condition; ghastly designs merely a metaphor. As history repeats and civilization progresses, so does cinematic culture – with Fessenden on the forefront of depicting how to do so (on a shoestring budget) correctly.
Alex Breaux stars as Adam, a laboratory (Gowanus loft) creation at the hands of ex-military field surgeon Henry (David Call). Adam’s brain locks away his previous life – in a different body (Alex, played by Owen Campbell) – and as Henry teaches his “experiment” to become human once again, breadcrumbs of a past existence come in sudden flashbacks. Time passes, Adam’s cognitive and motor abilities regain strength, but Henry begins to doubt Adam’s readiness for public announcement despite his backer Polidori’s (Joshua Leonard) hasty desire to bring “RapX” in front of pharmaceutical investors. The more Polidori pushes, the angrier Henry gets, and the less control both men have over Adam.
Cinematographer James Siewert partners with Fessenden on multiple levels of intrigue, from black-and-white Universal Monsters callbacks to psychotropic colorization as in Glass Eye Pic’s Like Me (another Siewert collaboration). The latter reveals developmental awakenings of Adam’s mind, as green and blue pulses overtake the screen whenever Henry reaches a new milestone in tutelage – completed puzzles, ping-pong coordination, bouncing a rubber ball up and down. We aren’t treated to the most *lavish* locations, sticking to New York City back alleys and nondescript rentals, but bursts of anatomy books and neurological x-rays atop Adam’s montages do accentuate visual storytelling.
Makeup design by Peter Gerner and Brian Spears transform Breaux’s toned and slender figure into a composite of sewn together assorted limbs, sliding threads through flesh with abominable results. Crosshatches run up-and-down Adam – circling one eye and mismatching ear skin on another side – as Henry’s macabre Humpty Dumpty stays put together by modern medical marvels. In such a low-fi project, grotesqueries like splitting seams and surgeon-precise attachments aren’t always…presentable. Good thing Depraved succeeds under the scalpel, unafraid to showcase its childlike amalgamation of decomposed connectors under spotlights.
As Adam proceeds through mental hurdles to regain human features, Fessenden mirrors the rapid-fire speed in which we live our lives. Henry’s PTSD from Middle East combat leaves behind crushing guilt for every soldier he couldn’t save – hence his desire to cheat unknown powers and natural causes. Polidori – the business-blunt moneyman who takes Adam to strip clubs, feeds him whiskey – embraces the role of obstructer to Henry’s tender care-taking. Adam is brought into this world a specimen, but also an empty soul.
He’s viewed a freak, failed by those around him as intentions turn toxic, and all while he attempts to find the simplest of pleasures – human compassion. Brutishness and loneliness blur as Fessenden introduces Henry’s on-off girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne), a flirty-friendly barfly who sparks Adam’s excitement (played by Addison Timlin), and the horrors of one man’s incapability to keep stride with an ever-changing society shaped by repulsion.
It’s nothing new in terms of Frankenstein lore, but performances spark this hipster’s cadaver feature to life. Between Breaux’s metamorphosis from a mute, bewildered vampiric husk of harvested organs into a lean cut of inquisitive frustration lead astray, to Call’s representation of the best motivations becoming weaponized in the wrong hands, there exists a heavy heartbeat inside Depraved’s core. Leonard ever the over-slick worm of a conspirator who cuts right to the basest of human mistakes – hubris. As Adam learns when tossing his ball, what goes up must come down. Polidori could have used the same lesson, as Leonard’s ambitious outrage melts like Icarus’ wings. A tale old as time, updated with leather jackets, sympathetic lamentation towards a beast, and resonance in Adam’s narration of “I have lied, and they told me not to care.” Corruption, thy name is “reality.”
What traps ensnare Depraved come in the second act, as Polidori’s introduction interrupts the touchstone emotionality in the pupil/mentor relationship between Adam and Henry. Always the instigator, Polidori remains more one-note and pointed in his actions. A necessary manipulator, but Adam and Henry’s reanimation into adolescence remains Fessenden’s throughline achievement. Henry the shaken, parental, and conscious inventor; Adam this personification of male ego as the women around him become pawns or worse. Leonard takes Polidori’s arc full-circle upon Act III’s the “castle siege” moment, but compassion is Fessenden’s ally – Polidori distracts to a degree.
Depraved isn’t as the title suggests. Rather, Larry Fessenden plights the folly of man in ways that remain intrinsically human despite his main character’s living dead affliction – specific attention paid to the word “men.” Henry’s Dr. Frankenstein sports a warm nurturer’s aura and gut-shredding confliction, while Breaux’s “The Creature” molds into the monster everyone warns of, or fears, or desires. Fessenden’s methods are understated, craftsmanship authentically blistered, and status as a jack-of-all-trades auteur unmatched on the indie circuit. To any aspiring filmmaker who’s been told “Don’t wait, go out there and make your movie” – no one embodies that phrase better than Larry Fessenden. Take note.
Voices & Visions
Depraved comes to life right from the get-go. We start out with a great folk song by Elizabeth & The Catapult called “More Than Enough” with direct lyrics that might hint at themes to come. Slowly after witnessing a couple experiencing the pains and pleasures of a long-term relationship, our protagonist Adam (Alex Breaux) is violently attacked on his way home. He awakens to discover he has been resurrected by an ambitious surgeon named Henry (David Call). This Doctor Frankenstein character isn’t a your typical mad depraved scientist, but rather a war-damaged ex-soldier suffering with PTSD. The sights that he witnessed on tour have also affected him as well as his desire to stop death. Filling the more traditional corruptive villain role we have Polidori (played by the great Joshua Leonard), who is in it for the money and notoriety of the experiment. Both are self-absorbed and troubled and have very different ways of “parenting” and/or manipulating Adam. Henry chooses to give him games and culture to the point of providing companionship, Polidori provides drugs and strippers and both ultimately cause a breakdown in Adam. It is their well-intentioned but ultimately self-destructive actions that shape him which touches on the protective, conflicted importance of a parental role in this day and age.
That’s just one of a few key ideas that Fessenden wants to explore in his parable. When it comes to dealing with outside influence or attraction, Adam is clearly quite vulnerable and susceptible in ways that are recognizably human throughout. The wonderful Addison Timlin shows up later as a kindhearted, curious bar patron that wants to know Adam on a deeper level possibly. Where that scenario ends up might be familiar but also subversive since I was almost expecting the story to take us in to territory akin to The Bride Of Frankenstein. There’s also a central character named Liz (Ana Kayne) that strikes warm notes worth harmonizing with among the mostly male players here. Where it all ends up is both twisted and for the most part, quite nail-biting. Fessenden knows horror fans are incredibly aware of trappings, tropes and the glorious possibilities within the genre. Sadly, I think the very final act can’t quite stick the landing since it becomes confrontational in a way that almost feels inevitable. There’s still tension but I could’ve used a little more myself. Regardless, there’s a strong balance of pathos and empathy throughout the proceedings, that is almost audacious in of itself to not go too gory or too “depraved” as things progress.
Depraved is an incredibly thoughtful horror parable with a strong sense of morality and compassion that is rare these days. This one has definitely made me curious about Fessenden as a writer/director, since I imagine certain themes showcased here resonate throughout his career. For this particular film, I was consistently impressed by the confidence behind the camera, the ability to get assured, well-tuned performances, and to take a familiar dish while also giving its own distinct flavor and seasoning. Horror fans and fans of Fessenden’s work from the past will be quite pleased I’m sure.
Pretty much everyone knows Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a story that’s ubiquitous in pop consciousness and one that’s left a permanent mark on the ever-shifting horror genre. Still, Larry Fessenden’s newest film, Depraved, is an exciting riff on Shelley’s classic. Make no mistake though, he hasn’t merely given it a facelift, but transformed it into something wholly his own. The result highlights the primal angst and timeless poignancy of the original while showcasing Fessenden’s own skill for capturing the existential zeitgeist. With this film, Fessenden is again showing everyone how it’s done. It’s a complex dissection of human frailty with fresh visual style and psychological dread.
After a minor spat with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine), Alex (Owen Campbell) leaves for the night not knowing that his life is about to end. While walking home, he’s stabbed to death and dies. And yet, he awakens some time later, dazed, confused and in a body that’s been stitched together from unknown hosts. This version of him is named Adam (Alex Breaux), and has been created by Henry (David Call), an ex-field surgeon suffering from PTSD. For Henry, Adam’s existence holds limitless possibility, even if he struggles with the moral consequences of his experiment. As Adam slowly begins to remember his past, both him and Henry find each other at a crossroads.
In every aspect, Fessenden’s latest feels like a gift for horror fans. Rather than following trends or resorting to cheap scares, Fessenden confidently charts the emotional and psychological aspects of his story. There’s a subtle dread the underlines every scene, blending inventive lo-fi effects with striking cinematography and poetic editing. All of this puts us into the headspace of his tormented characters, each exploring the nature of masculinity, guilt, existence and hope. In Henry, Fessenden finds a character who is struggling with responsibility, good intentions and hubris. Adam presents a war between innocence and corruption. Through it all, the film highlights the contradictions that make us who we are, using restraint and a pensive tone rather than generic genre fireworks.
Naturally, the performances are a big part of what make the film work. David Call’s Henry is perhaps the effort’s anchor. Most of the film funnels through Call, and he offers a fair reflection of its twisted and unpredictable themes. Alex Breaux’s Adam is a brilliant modern version of the “creature.” Breaux gets us through most of his journey without speaking, relying on a physical performance that is piercing. There’s something in his eyes and every calculated action really sells the entire thing. Joshua Leonard adds chaos into the plot as Polidori, a handler of sorts for Henry, while Chloe Levine and Owen Campbell give us a window into Adam’s past life.
Depraved proves why Fessenden has been such a staple in the genre. He’s a gifted storyteller who’s always got a keen understanding of societal fears, and his latest is not different. There’s a romanticism that is hard to ignore, even as dark truths float to the top. No matter how much you’ve experienced the Frankenstein story, this film makes it feel new again. This is not only a welcome respite from most of horror’s most overworn tendencies, but a sharp, indisputable match between source material and director. Fessenden has beautifully transposed a timeless story to modern day. It’s gritty, moody and beautiful all at once.
The Hollywood News
‘Depraved’ Review: Dir. Larry Fessenden (2019)
Depraved Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gets a modern day cinematic retelling in Larry Fessenden’s latest movie Depraved.
Filmed during the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Depraved is a modern day interpretation of the Frankenstein story. Alex (Owen Campbell) is about to move in with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine). The pair are very much in love, but after an argument over starting a family, Alex takes to the streets to cool-off. Here he is attacked by an unknown assailant. When he awakens he is not quite himself, literally waking-up in another body, one that appears patched together with stitches. He is now Adam (Alex Breaux), an experiment in resurrection by ex-forces medic Henry (David Call), a brilliant mind tarnished by PTSD, and Henry’s old college buddy Polidori (Joshua Leonard) whom bankrolls the study. Slowly ‘Adam’ starts to learn about the world around him whilst trying to recover the Alex part of himself. All is going well until Adam uncovers the truth of his ‘birth’…
Whilst the Frankenstein story has been told hundreds of times across the world of cinema, Depraved somehow manages to feel completely fresh. Directed by genre icon Larry Fessenden, Depraved gives plenty of nods to Shelley’s work, while at the same time standing on its own. Here, our Doctor Frankenstein character isn’t a simply a mad scientist, but rather a war-damaged ex-soldier suffering with PTSD. The sights that he witnessed on tour have shaped him and his need to stop death. Filling the more traditional Doctor role we have Polidori, a man in it purely for the money and notoriety of achieving the achievable. Both are narcissists, and both have very different ways of handling Adam; Henry chooses to give him games and culture, Polidori shows him alcohol and strippers, but both ultimately let him down. It is their actions that shape Adam, shining a light on the importance of a parental role. The creature therefore is not what has become the common trope of a simpleton brute. Adam is much more the innocent wide-eyed child whose world becomes complicated when confronted with the viciousness of adulthood and the brutality of his reality.
With characters that are so deeply intricate and layered, casting is very important. These roles are so familiar that they could all too easily be played with the traditional over-the-top vigour, yet leads David Call and Alex Breaux both reign their performances back. Yes, Henry has something of a God complex, but he’s not completely mad. Call plays him as a truly broken, but still stubborn obsessive, and elicits his own sympathy from the audience. Breaux is rightly the performer of the film though, with his elegant take on the famous movie ‘monster’. His performance takes the viewer on an emotional journey of growing-up. When we first meet his Adam, he is full of innocence and wonder, but as he rapidly ‘grows-up’, we see how the world breaks his spirit. Breaux tackles the role with gusto and gives such an intimate insight into the creature that, not only is his eventual rage completely justified, he also manages to break your heart.
It’s not just Breaux and Call that shine though, Fessenden has captured a cast full of strong actors who all hold their own in their respective roles. The Blair Witch Project‘s Joshua Leonard oozes sleaze and depravity, remarking to Adam, “Depraved. That’s what we are Adam, initially depraved,” and fully living up to that mantra. Ana Kayne offers a third, more emotionally invested parent to Adam, as Henry’s ex Liz. The Ranger‘s Chloë Levine is suitably sweet as Adam/Alex’s girlfriend/heart Lucy, and Addison Timlin’s Shelley, whom Adam meets in a bar, is wonderfully tragic.
In addition to the cast, Fessenden, whom as well as directing, wrote, produced and edited Depraved, has put a great deal of thought into every aspect of the production. The setting – a warehouse turned makeshift apartment – feels equally rundown, isolated and clinical. Will Bates’ score is a haunting blend of electronics and real world noises. The creature design on Adam is simply superb. When you first see Adam in full, it’s a truly shocking sight to behold, and the work by Gerner and Spears Effects is worthy of awards. Hidden amongst their work are subtle nods to many previous Frankenstein creatures, it’s very nice inclusion, and one that highlight’s Fessenden’s clear love for the icon. The visuals are beautifully put together. There are several moments where the cinematography is perfectly layered with bright colours jutting across the screen, mimicking Adam’s neurons and synapses as he takes in the world around him. Similarly, there are shots of cloudy fluids imposed over the top of Adam’s injection sequences. These add an ethereal, almost fairy tale quality, and take some of the sharpness. Even the end credits are a delight to look at, Fessenden forgoing the usual black in favour of anatomical sketches of the human body. Finally, there is a moment during the climax where things get a little black, white and sepia in tone, which when coupled with Breaux’s performance, create the perfect throwback to the old-school Frankenstein films.
Depraved is easily identifiable as a Frankenstein story, but brings in more modern aspects, and a there’s a treasure trove of issues explored – nature versus nurture, man versus science, love versus lust, and life versus death. Somehow Depravedraises all these points without becoming overwhelming, rather it entices the viewer to watch again and again to discover new things. A film of true beauty, both creatively and performed, Depraved is anything but what the title suggests. A truly special moment in the lineage of a beloved movie monster, Fessenden has crafted the best take on Frankenstein since Shelley herself.
Movie Review: Depraved (2019)
What the Fest!?: DEPRAVED Review
Depraved premiered at this year’s What The Fest!? In New York.
In the best Frankenstein-like story since the unironically great Frankenhooker, Larry Fessenden’s first directorial effort since 2013’s Beneath marks his most ferociously entertaining feature to date. Eschewing the gothic locale of Mary Shelley’s classic for an urban loft in Brooklyn, Fessenden stitches together a tragic tale of loneliness and battered psyches.
David Call plays Henry, a wartime military medic whose time in the Middle East has given him PTSD, unable to forge lasting relationships and obsessed with rectifying the atrocities he was subjected to. The film opens, however, on Alex (Owen Campbell), a young man leaving his girlfriend’s apartment. He is attacked on his way home, leaving him bleeding out on the sidewalk, only to awaken with a new face, a stitched-up body and no memory of who he once was.
Where Fessenden’s story shines is the delicate relationship between Henry – who acts as the Dr. Frankenstein of this story – and Alex, who now goes by the name Adam. Watching Adam’s progress as Henry teaches him to be human again is fascinating and oddly heartwarming, even though we know this is a bond that’s doomed for failure.
Throughout the film, Fessenden overlays images of colored spots and synapses in the brain, mending themselves and creating new connections as Adam’s intellect begins returning to him. This is particularly prevalent in one of the film’s more visually stimulating scenes involving Adam visiting The Met and becoming overwhelmed with the beautiful art and history that surrounds him at the museum.
This sequence also happens to denote the first slight misstep in the narrative, with the introduction of Joshua Leonard as Polidori. Henry is a far more compelling character, and the act of pulling Adam away from him and placing him with this pharma bro makes for a far less intriguing sequence of events. Thankfully, Henry and Adam are brought back together, but their kinship is irreparably damaged as a result of his little field trip.
Call’s portrayal of Henry is a highlight, with the character vacillating between a sympathetic creator and a troubled, self-indulgent mad scientist, whose true motivations for pursuing the experiment never quite clear.
Depraved marks one of Fessenden’s best films to date, showcasing the director’s ability to craft a memorable, stylish and creatively astute narrative on a small budget. His status as a darling of horror and New York indie cinema has only be reinforced with this feature.
Depraved had its world première at on 20th March, 2019 at What the Fest!?
“You’re so pale. What are you, like a vampire or something?”
This is what, a good way into Depraved, Shelley (Addison Timlin) asks the taciturn, heavily scarred stranger (Adam Breaux) with whom she has started drinking in a South Brooklyn bar. Shelley is right about the ‘or something’, and her own name hints at precisely which kind of movie monster he is. For while writer/director Larry Fessenden (who enjoys a brief cameo in this bar scene) has already done New York vampires in Habit (1995), he now returns to the themes of his even earlier No Telling (aka The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), stitching together Mary Shelley’s motifs of hubristic science, errant fatherhood and learned monstrosity with more modern anxieties about PTSD, Big Pharma, and the disorientation and decline of millennials. For Depraved is one of several recent films, along with Maurice Haeems’ Chimera (2018), Lennart Ruff’s The Titan (2018) and Sam Ashurst’s Frankenstein’s Creature (2018), to resurrect the mythos of Frankenstein; or. The Modern Prometheus in celebration of the 200th anniversary of its publication.
After Shelley tells her drinking companion that he reminds her of Iggy Pop, he claims to be called Iggy. In fact his ‘father’ Henry (David Call) has given him the name Adam – a name that Henry himself acknowledges comes with Biblical associations, in keeping with his son’s prototype status, but a name that in fact has been borrowed from someone (Noah Le Gros) whom Henry briefly met while working as a field medic in the Middle East. And Adam has another, forgotten name – Alex – returning to him in frenetic flashes from the past as his mind struggles through a fog of drugs and unspeakable trauma. As all these names suggest, Iggy/Adam/Alex has an identity crisis, drifting through his days like a victim of stroke or dementia or brain damage, with little long-term memory and limited understanding of the world around him.
When Depraved begins, though, there is just Alex (Owen Campbell), a 23-year-old company web designer at various crossroads: moving in with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine), coping with an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother (Pat Patterson), at constant risk of being downsized, and reluctant to countenance even the very idea of becoming a father. None of which really matters, because birthday boy Alex is about to be brutally, fatally stabbed in the street – and the story will shift to Henry, who in his loft-based laboratory is similarly uncomfortable with paternity, but nonetheless must father the sewn-up Adam whom he has created through composite surgery, a brain transplant and a cocktail of experimental drugs. Adam is a man-child – an inquisitive yet addled adolescent in an adult’s body, utterly dependent on Henry for his care, his education and his companionship. So when Adam accidentally meets Henry’s sort-of girlfriend Liz (Ana Kanye), he is very confused by the way that he feels in the presence of this feminine other, and when Henry’s decadent financial backer Polidori (Joshua Leonard) decides to take Adam out for a day – and night – on the town, Henry is prematurely introduced to some very negative habits, tastes and attitudes. Adam’s coming of age is also his becoming depraved, and the lessons that he learns from Polidori – about the desires for sex, violence and destruction that drive humanity – will make this innocent as conflicted as his body parts are mismatched.
Alex, with his precarious employment and strong sense that he is a disappointment to others. Henry, the war veteran and damaged idealist who just wants to fix things. Polidori the sociopathic venture capitalist running down his father-in-law’s tab while ruthlessly, relentlessly pursuing a corrupted dream. These characters all represent recognisable if different models of millennial experience, and the toxic combination of their influence makes blank-slate Adam who he is: a nineteenth-century monster turned twenty-first century man, divided in his urges and lost in his fragmentation, as he swaps an ‘incel’ childhood spent at home – playing games, listening to music or sitting in front of a screen alone – for a blink-eyed life outside in a world where he may never properly fit.
In many ways, Depraved is a film about a brain. Alex’s is transferred into another body, but it continues to guide the film’s perspective, blending Adam’s waking experiences with mixed-up memories and dreams. At times we even see, superimposed over these, CG representations of his synapses firing and flaring in response to physical or pharmaceutical stimuli. So the film is, quite literally, cerebral – but it is also emotional, focused very much on Adam’s emerging feelings of frustration, alienation and yearning. The obvious paradigm of Shelley’s novel, here introduced very self-consciously (at one point the nominal coincidence between Henry and the doctor from James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation is expressly noted), tells us that Adam will end up doing terrible things, even if this monster is a construct – and product – of others’ monstrousness. By the end, Adam is just a figure in the crowd – just another lost soul in New York – looking to reinvent himself in much the way that Depraved reinvents the Frankenstein myth for our own times. Adam’s fate is deeply moving (Will Bates’ gentle score certainly helps modulate the melancholy), and handled by Fessenden with due gravity (a key word in the film) – but Adam’s story is also about us, and our place in an atomised, synthetic world of streaming sensations, wounded history and broken identity.
WHAT THE FEST!? 2019 – DEPRAVED Premieres [REVIEW]
A disillusioned field surgeon suffering from PTSD makes a man out of body parts and brings him to life in a Brooklyn loft.
Larry Fessenden’s DEPRAVED takes a spin with the conventions of a tried and true Frankenstein story in American culture’s current moment. What would otherwise be a tired reinterpretation of something we’ve seen a hundred times, DEPRAVEDprocesses the relationship between trauma, technology, and the pharmaceutical industry in light of the Iraq War.
DEPRAVED is about Harry (David Call), a former army field surgeon suffering from PTSD, who brings a man he calls Adam (Alex Breaux) to life in a Brooklyn loft. The drug he uses to sustain Adam—along with the various body parts required to build a man—are supplied by the eccentric Polidori (Joshua Leonard), a pharmaceutical executive. Blinded by his trauma, Harry looks the other way when the parts needed to build Adam are procured through illegal means. While Harry struggles to accept his creation, Adam’s brain starts to piece together its past life. At times deeply reflective, DEPRAVED tells a complex story while keeping the tone relatively even keel.
Besides the main players, the cast of characters in DEPRAVED is rather large. Like the vast majority of films, some casting choices work in these roles and some feel out of place. Alex Breaux, in particular, is absolutely fantastic in his role as Adam/The Monster; he is tender and his gestures are carefully calculated. Chloë Levine, who plays the girlfriend of the man who provided Adam’s brain, also brings a high degree of measure to her performance. Meanwhile, Joshua Leonard doesn’t really sell his parts of the script. Leonard has been quite strong in past performances (Bates Motel comes to mind), which means that he probably was miscast or trying to lean into some Philip Seymour Hoffman thing that just wasn’t working. Despite the casting inconsistencies, the acting in DEPRAVED is neither painful nor overwrought.
Written, directed, and edited by Fessenden, DEPRAVED is about as auteur as a horror film can get these days. The editing is perhaps the best thing Fessenden brought to the film. Here, there is a playful use of color and overlays that add nuanced layers to the internal experiences of the characters. Aspects of the script and the overall design of the movie, though, could have used a bit more tweaking. The more philosophical parts of the film, especially those about art, come off as far more polemical than they need to be. And the obvious changes in the grain of the film in certain spaces like The Met and The Strand bookstore left me wondering whether the production was actually allowed to shoot in these locations. Also, why are there so many lamps in this loft and how are these people covering up their misdeeds if they’re leaving a literal trail of blood behind them? I’m all for style, but many choices had me too hung up on what should have been mundane details. I never reached the point of frustration where I took a break from the film, but clearer collaboration on future projects would actually give Fessenden more control over his craft.
Clocking in at just under two hours, DEPRAVED moves quickly and goes down easy. While it sometimes misses the mark, it is a far better re-mything of Frankenstein than anything big-budget Hollywood has brought our way in the last decade or three. DEPRAVED premiered last night for the opening of this year’s What the Fest!? and sets the bar pretty high for the rest of the festival.
The Pop Break
Review: Larry Fessenden’s ‘Depraved’ is Genuinely Great Horror
There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The latest, Depraved, premiered last night at New York’s What the Fest!? Written, directed, edited and produced by filmmaker Larry Fessenden (likely best known for his acting work in small-budget horror films), it somehow manages to take the familiar story and make it feel new.
Mainly, Fessenden does that by making the “monster,” not his makers, our protagonist. The film starts in modern day Brooklyn with Alex (Owen Campbell), a commitment-phobe who throws a tantrum when his longtime girlfriend, Lucy (Chloe Levine), obliquely mentions children. He’s a bit of a bore and the prospect of spending more time with him isn’t terribly enticing. Thankfully, he’s quickly murdered by a mysterious figure only to wake up in a new body the next day. That body is “Adam” (Alex Breaux), the freakish medical creation of a traumatized Iraq War vet, Henry (David Call). Unfortunately, though the doctor has managed to bring Adam to life, Alex’s brain has been damaged in the process and we spend the film’s first act watching him achieve adult-level consciousness again.
Though that learning process could easily become tedious, Fessenden manages to make it interesting both intellectually and visually. As Henry explains to Adam, though his brain may not be able to restore the broken connections caused by the trauma it’s experienced, it can create new pathways. While Adam listens to classical music or completes various puzzles, Fessenden uses James Siewert’s visual effects and animation to rather cleverly convey those regrowing pathways with a sort of light-show overlay special effect. In bright colors, we see synapses grow and expand as Adam learns. Fessenden uses the same technique throughout, but one of the most striking is the sort of synesthesia effect created when Fessenden uses blooming colors and kaleidoscopic shapes to emphasize Adam’s emotions in any given moment.
That said, those moments perhaps wouldn’t work if Breaux didn’t perform them so well. Rather than reduce Adam in those early scenes to some bumbling dunce, Breux makes him seem both childlike and unnervingly sophisticated. His brain is, after all, an adult’s, just uniquely damaged. So, those blooming colors don’t just seem like an effect, we buy that Adam may actually see them because of the way his brain is rewriting its pathways. Even more impressive is Breaux’s physical performance—which is subtly and skillfully aided by Gerner and Spears’s make-up effects and creature design. Not only do Adam’s shambling gait and stiff movements emphasize that Adam was recently dead, but his seeming unfamiliarity with his limbs suggests the disturbing sense of body dysmorphia he’d likely feel after suddenly waking in a new body.
However, while Breaux is the film’s most impressive performance, the rest of the cast is pretty good too. Call is clearly suffering as Henry and while the character’s behavior can sometimes seem erratic, we hear enough about his PTSD to mostly accept it. Most of that helpful–and occasionally clunky–exposition comes from Ana Kayne as Henry’s ex-girlfriend, Liz, a therapist who works with veterans and takes pity on Adam. Admittedly, as much as Kayne commits to her role, there are moments when she can’t quite sell her relationship with Adam. Particularly notable is a scene where she walks in on him naked and not only doesn’t ask him to cover up, but allows Adam to caress her. It’s a compelling moment to be sure, but Liz knows Adam is a living corpse and should be more repulsed even if her and Henry are on the rocks.
The worst offender of all, though, is Joshua Leonard’s John Polidori (a reference to the writer of The Vampyre, which arguably started he vampire genre), the mysterious benefactor behind Henry’s research. He’s an overconfident douche who can’t wait to profit off of Henry’s achievement and Leonard plays him that way—almost to the point of camp. Perhaps the film’s chunkiest scene comes when Polidori brings Adam to The Met. As they view various pieces, Polidori goes on and on about human nature and while the moment is meant as foreshadowing for the turns the film will take later, it’s also too obvious in laying out Fessenden’s central thesis. It’s a disappointingly inelegant sequence in a film that’s otherwise pretty sophisticated.
Still, regardless of that scene’s weaknesses, when the film delivers on its promises in the final act, Fessenden really dials up the horror. It’s difficult to say exactly how without spoiling everything, but suffice to say Depraved manages to deliver an ending that’s scary, disturbing and emotionally satisfying. Fessenden maybe hasn’t made a perfect film, but it’s genuinely great horror.
What The!? ’19: Depraved
Alex, an obnoxious Brooklynite, is about to be murdered, but he will be back—at least a piece of him will, as a ghostly remnant within the hulking body Dr. Henry (surname cagily not identified) has stitched together from body parts. Occasionally, the new life form dubbed “Adam” experiences flashes of Alex’s memory, but not enough to help him make sense of the world.
His name is not intended as a Biblical reference. Instead, it has more personal meaning for the former military doctor turned mad scientist. This Dr. Frankenstein is not as blinded by vainglory and hubris as his cinematic predecessors. His desire to conqueror death was kindled by his service performing battlefield triage. Unfortunately, he largely lost his sense of perspective in the process. Needless to say, his financial backer, the entitled hipster Polidori was not a constructive influence.
Depraved looks like it was filmed in a shuttered Gowanus industrial building, because it really was. The is definitely the grittiest, least tweedy Frankenstein riff that openly advertises itself as such (for the record, there is an even grimier film involving a Frankenstein-like mad doctor on the festival circuit, but its Modern Prometheus connections are supposed to come as a surprise revelation). Regardless, Fessenden’s film definitely feels like it came straight out of Gowanus, with all the attitude and industrial waste that implies.
As Adam, Alex Breaux brings to life (so to speak) one of the most doleful movie monsters since Universal’s glory years. With his awkward hesitancy and confusion, he resembles a more nebbish Lon Chaney Jr. Likewise, David Call’s portrayal of Henry is unusually morally conflicted by genre movie standards.
Joshua Leonard (returning to his Blair Witch horror movie roots) is abrasively annoying and convincingly petulant and immature as Polidori. Yet, Addison Timlin might be who genre fans remember most, combining humor and pathos in her all too brief appearance as Shelley, the Iggy Pop listener Adam kind of-sort of picks up in a hipster bar. It is a very well-written and well-played sequence that serves as an analog to the Karloff monster fatally throwing the little girl into the lake.
As viewers should be able to tell from many of the character names, Depraved often alludes to the original novel and traditionally gothic films in sly ways. In what will be a relief to many, the film is not at all as lectury as one might expect, despite Henry’s military background and the fundamental folly-of-playing-god-theme (especially compared to Fessenden’s The Last Winter). Altogether, it is a pretty impressive work of ultra-indie auteurist horror cinema. Highly recommended for Frankenstein and Fessenden fans, Depraved had its premiere last night, as part of this year’s What The Fest.
Voices From The Balcony
DEPRAVED (2019) – What The Fest?!
With an astounding list of credits as an actor, (The Mind’s Eye, We Are Still Here) writer, (Wendigo, The Last Winter) and producer (Stake Land, I Sell The Dead) Larry Fessenden is a legend in indie horror circles. As a writer and director, he’s given us the likes of Habit and The Last Winter. He hasn’t directed a feature since 2013’s poorly received Beneath which he didn’t write. He seems to have learned from that, and he’s written the script for his latest directorial effort, the modern-day Frankenstein tale Depraved.
Alex (Owen Campbell, Super Dark Times) has a rough night with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine, The Ranger), leaving after an argument over having children. It’s about to get a lot worse though as he’s attacked and brutally stabbed as he walks home. He comes to, but in a body he doesn’t recognize. One that looked stitched together from assorted pieces. That’s because it is, he is the brain in Adam (Alex Breaux).
Adam is the creation of Henry (David Call, Dark Was The Night) a brilliant but PTSD damaged surgeon. Things become tense as Henry’s less than ethical partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project, Teenage Cocktail) seeks to cash in on the research behind Adam’s creation.
Those looking for a traditional monster movie are going to be disappointed. Depraved is more of a drama in the style of films such as Bride of Frankenstein. The real monsters are the humans, most obviously the manipulative biomedical CEO Polidori. Henry is manipulated by Polidori and is clouded by his PTSD but he’s still far from a good person. He refers to Adam as “it” to his face, talks about ending the experiment when he can hear it, etc. He’s even willing to be a party to murder.
The film has much to say about the medical industry and its ethics or lack thereof. There’s a scene where Adam sits quietly as an ad for one of the drugs he’s on plays on the radio, listing a long litany of side effects. It’s a quietly effective reinforcement of the greed and disregard for people’s actual health we’ve already seen from industry figures in the film.
We actually feel sympathy for Adam. He’s confused, haunted by memories he can’t understand and has no real understanding of who or what he is or how he came to be. At least not until he finds a tablet full of videos of his creation. After seeing them even the cocktail of drugs they feed him can’t restrain him and he breaks out. With violent and tragic results.
The final showdown does have elements of a traditional horror film and is fairly exciting. But that comes late in the film’s just under-two-hour running time. And the final sequence is actually very poignant. But Fessenden has never directed typical horror films so we shouldn’t be expecting one here either. Depraved is much more of a dark drama with horror elements than an all-out fright film. And it’s much better for it, his talents would be wasted on another generic “creature on the loose” film.
Depraved makes its world premiere on the opening night of What The Fest!? You can keep posted on other screenings via Glass Eye Pix website.
Anyone who’s read my reviews knows that I am a HUGE fan of anything Filmmaker Larry Fessenden does. When I interviewed him last year (read that interview here), we talked about his newest project, Depraved, a contemporary tale based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Larry had mentioned his affinity for the monster, the lonely, misunderstood creature that terrifies us in horror movies but may just be the most sympathetic character in any film. In Depraved, we get a look at Frankenstein’s monster in the way that Mary Shelley always envisioned… a desolate, confused creation rebuilt out of other people’s parts that only reacted to what he had learned in his short, miserable life.
A disillusioned field surgeon suffering from PTSD makes a man out of body parts and brings him to life in a Brooklyn loft.
Depraved was written, directed, edited, and produced by Larry Fessenden (Jug Face 2013, We Are Still Here 2015 – read our review here, The Ranger 2018 – read our review here). Other producers include Liz Astor (Drugstore Lipstick 2018), Chadd Harbold (Most Beautiful Island 2017 – read our review here) and The Ranger’s Jenn Wexler (read our interview with her here). Composer Will Bates (read our interview with him here) created the beautiful, heartbreaking score. Stake Land’s Peter Gerner, Brian Spears and Ashley K. Thomas worked together once again to create the special FX and prosthetics for the film.
Depraved stars Alex Breaux (Bushwick 2016), David Call (The Sinner TV series), The Blair Witch Project’sJoshua Leonard, Chloe Levine (The Ranger 2018), Owen Campbell (Super Dark Times 2017 – read our review of the film here), Odd Thomas’ Addison Timlin (read our interview with her here) and Ana Kayne (Another Earth 2011).
I actually watched Depraved a few weeks ago, but it’s taken a bit for me to find the words I needed to describe what I had seen. On the surface, the film is about a broken doctor named Henry (Call) who gets in over his head after agreeing to try out his friend, Polidori’s (Leonard), reanimation drugs on what is essentially a pieced together cadaver. He has this being before him that he is pressured to teach the most basic bodily functions and how to respond in society, all in the quickest way possible. Imagine being in his situation, one of responsibility and doubt, pressured to do more by his peers but feeling deep sympathy and even love for his subject.
But dig deeper and you find the tale of a paradigm who has no one in the world that he can relate to. Adam (Breaux) has memories of things he never did and people he’s never met. He looks in the mirror and sees a shattered face – both literally and figuratively – that he does not recognize. His body is pieced together, and not one of those pieces are originally his. Adam is a full grown man who has no control of his bodily functions or even the simplest tasks, like a newborn baby in a man’s body. He was never born; he just became. His wretched heart knows no mother or father, no name or identity. If you’re made up of other people’s parts, who are you? Is the brain in your head even yours? Do you even have a soul?
There are so many nuances in this film that I loved that it would take me pages to write them all out. However, there are a few standouts that I want to mention. I was very impressed with the fabulous use of lighting. Whenever Adam was relaxed and happy, his world turned soft and sepia-toned, but once his emotions geared up towards anger, fear or frustration, he saw the world in clinical white light, exposing everything round him in stark details. I loved all of the nods to previous Frankenstein films, especially the lightning storm scene. The attention to detail was near obsessive, especially in regards to Gerner, Spears and Thomas’s effects, which were were jaw-droppingly astonishing. Adam’s skin was piebald and patched together like a quilt made out of scraps. His cuts healed a little bit at a time, his stitches came undone, and his hair grew. I can only imagine how many different versions of each scar was created, even if only for a few seconds of screen time.
I applaud Alex Breaux for his role in Depraved. Not only was his acting absolutely perfect, but he also managed to whittle his body down to a ghastly thinness, making the prosthetics all the more gruesome. His dedication to this role is highly commendable, on par with Matt Damon in Finding Private Ryan or Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch (read our interview with him here).
It was pure torture seeing what Alex’s character had to go through. However, I did still feel for his father figure, Henry (Call), a troubled young man who just wanted to make amends for his sins on the battlefield. He was bullied by a fame-hungry Polidori to partake in this experiment, creating for himself an even bigger weight of sin than what he carried when he first came home from the war. He wanted to be a good role model for Adam, teaching him how to be a good person. But Polidori scoffed at Henry’s affections for “it,” thinking of the man as only an end to a means. When he did participate in Adam’s upbringing, it was only to show him things that he was far too immature to see, events that eventually lead to Adam’s downfall. I have a feeling that Polidori may be named after John William Polidori, the man who wrote the 1819 novel, The Vampyre, written over 50 years before Bram Stoker’s breakout novel.
One of the best scenes in the film happens near the beginning. Young Alex (Campbell) has just left his girlfriend, Lucy’s (Levine), house. As he walks home, he’s accosted by a man in shadow who stabs him to death. That few minutes reminded me of the shower scene in Psycho... the closeup shots of Alex’s face and of the knife stabbing into his body as he grunted and fought for his life; the rain pattering the ground like water droplets from a shower head. It was a perfect homage to the 1960 film. Speaking of Chloe Levine, I loved seeing her in the role of Alex’s girlfriend, Lucy. She’s such a fantastic actress. I’m hoping Larry takes her under his wing as his new Lauren Ashley Carter (read our interview with her here).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the song that plays during the final scene. It’s called “More Than Enough” from the Elizabeth & the Catapult album, Like It Never Happened. It was so very perfect for the scene. It’s such a beautiful song… I downloaded it as soon as the film credits rolled.
What Doesn’t Work
I loved so much of this film, and it breaks my heart a bit to admit that there were things I didn’t like. After the seriousness of Depraved’s storyline, it was a little weird and out of context to show the jerky, cartoonish, almost garish lightning bolts in between scenes. It felt like a totally different film and took me out of the story for a moment,
Depraved broke my heart. I now realize that science is the most destructive and gruesome type of horror. Never again will I see Frankenstein’s creation as a monster, an entity bent on destruction. This being was made into a monster. He had no choice about what he became. He reacted like anyone would once he found out what happened to him, and to me, this makes him as human as anyone else. As Adam breaks away to struggle through life alone, I can only image what his continued existence would entail. Can he grow stronger? Will he get older? Can he die? What will happen when he stops taking the red pills? Only Larry Fessenden knows, and he’s not telling.
Father Son Holy Gore
Father Gore (a.k.a C.H. Newell) recently got the chance to sit down for a phone call with New York filmmaker Larry Fessenden, whose newest film Depraved— a 21st century re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein— premiered last night at What The Fest!? in Manhattan.
Fessenden’s career started in the late 1970s with a short called Jaws, then several other shorts in the ’80s as he moved into longer works. In the 1990s, he remade one of his earlier films (Habit) and also gave us No Telling (another Frankenstein-inspired project leaning towards condemning animal testing). He brought a new style to horror, concerned with personal truths that lead towards the universal— those microcosms which help us understand the bigger picture.
Fessenden’s 2006 film The Last Winter kept with the spirit of No Telling in its aims of exposing how little humans care for the natural world and what repercussions that lack of care brings upon us. Now, with Depraved, he does more of the same again tackling the personal and universal truths that bind us together, and, many times, also tear us apart. Although the seeds of this story began in 2003 when Fessenden originally wrote the screenplay, it’s a relevant piece of writing in 2019, for many reasons.
Warning: This interview does contain spoilers for Depraved.
Father Gore: Without descending into fanboy territory, Larry, I really loved Depraved. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to chat about it with me.
I’m a Master’s student here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and my area of study has involved John Milton and also Mary Shelley. It’s always fascinating to see contemporary iterations of Frankenstein make it to the screen. Obviously Shelley’s novel has made a significant mark on you, from this new film, to the 2014 music video you did, “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped” (by Life in a Blender), to the choice of Halloween costume in your “N is for Nexus” short in ABCs of Death 2, to your earlier film No Telling— what is it, fundamentally, about the story that’s grabbed hold of you all these years?
Larry Fessenden: First of all, thank you for knowing all my obscure little videos and stuff because I do love the iconic creature. I can’t help myself. But also, did you notice the cameo of Milton [in Depraved]?
FG: No, I didn’t actually. I’m a horrible Master’s candidate, apparently.
LF: There’s a moment where the Monster’s speaking with Liz, the woman who tries to be kind to him, and he says “I read a lot of books.” It’s a series of flash frames, and I always thought to myself, the true nerd would actually freeze on those. It’s a bunch of pages from my favourite novels, and I like to imagine the creature reading these books. The last one is Paradise Lost, and the camera goes in on the name Adam. You know— from that other book [Fessenden laughs]. And as you know that’s what the monster in Frankenstein reads. So it does seem relevant, and I did pay tribute to that whole sub-plot of the novel.
Back to Shelley’s novel, I just find the story so ripe for reinterpretation, like some of our greatest mythologies. As you know, the Frankenstein story is based on Prometheus, or it makes nod to that in the subtitle. And I just think there’s some great stories that have been told over and over through the ages that really somehow crystallise the human experience. What’s so amazing is this eighteen-year-old girl in 1818 wrote a story that crystallises so many human dilemmas: the dilemma of loneliness and alienation that the monster experiences, and then the dilemma of human hubris and overreach which is what the doctor [in my film] represents. Then you take a simple concept like those and you update it into the modern vernacular, and that’s what I tried to do.
FG: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about social horror, as if it’s something new. Horror’s always been, to my mind, a perfect vehicle for social issues. In a day and age where we’re seeing a lot of monstrous men being exposed for their behaviour, there’s something poignant about Depraved focusing on themes of fatherhood and the potentially destructive ways fathers, whether surrogate or otherwise, pass down their values. Was that a focus particularly for you in today’s social climate?
LF: Well, Chris, you couldn’t possibly be saying more relevant things for me. You’re the perfect viewer because you’re reading into the story the way I would like it to be understood in this context.
Of course it’s about fatherhood. It’s all about how we pass on knowledge and how the little flaws and our preoccupations are taken in by the child. I wrote this back in the day, but you know George Bush, our President down here, was very affected by his father and he clearly went into Iraq to get revenge. I was writing this under that context, and I don’t have to tell you our current President clearly has daddy issues because his dad was mean to him. I really think Western civilisation, and just life in general, human activity, is all about the knowledge we pass on to our children, and if we don’t raise them right they’re going to come out all upside down and screw up on their own.
That’s what this story is about: parenthood. You see that the doctor, Henry, has been wronged by society. He was sent to war, an absolute brilliant surgeon, ready to do good, ready to do the right thing, and it all got twisted and distorted by the [Iraq] mission. It was a lie. It’s sort of implied— I don’t get into anything specifically, I hope you can extrapolate when you watch a movie like this, because it has no specific agenda, but it is trying to suggest how we get into this mess.
Then obviously Polidori [Josh Leonard’s character] has a very much more narcissistic agenda. I love scenes in which he asserts he was very important to the experiment, and “You couldn’t done this without me.” And all of the sort of sad little desperate things that nasty people say, you realise they’re also motivated by a deep, deep sense of insecurity. Polidori says at one point to the Monster, “Well father’s are never around when you need them” or whatever. So, yeah, that’s the theme of the movie. It suggests that if our society doesn’t raise people right they’re going to go wrong, and the Monster becomes a murderer and he cannot be redeemed in the end. He kills the only nice person in the movie [Fessenden laughs]. He kind of has to self-exile.
If you do want to look at it as sort of the #MeToo year we’ve been through, even though I obviously wrote it before, I always say I’ve been making feminist films for a long time because I feel that, the problem is the patriarchy— it’s destroying the world, these Western impulses. I like to make movies about that. My film The Last Winter is about how we’re destroying Mother Nature, if you will. There again, because of people’s egos. That’s the problem with humanity: it cannot rise above its own shortcomings.
“I love the image of the 1931 classic
with Boris Karloff
as the Monster.
Jack Pierce’s makeup is just indelible.
Truly one of the great pop images
I mean, compared to what— Elvis?”
FG: I love that you bring up Polidori, because the real Polidori’s story, or at least the male narrative, is Byron and Polidori were part of the genesis of Frankenstein. But Mary Shelley is the singular genius who wrote it, or, in this case, birthed it into existence. There’s an interesting dynamic where my academic brain sees something very Byron and Polidori about the characters of Henry and Polidori in your film, too.
LF: Oh, I agree, man.
FG: They’re more concerned with who created what rather than the state of the actual creation itself. So in that sense it fits in with the rest of your themes, where if we don’t think about how we’re raising our children, the next generation, then it doesn’t matter who made them or who created them, they’re going to be fucked up.
LF: This is a movie about responsibility. It’s not enough to simply bring life, and that is impressive, there’s no denying— the iPhone is fantastic— but what are the repercussions of our technologies? And the spiritual repercussions. The only person who speaks of that [in the film] is Liz, and she’s ultimately marginalised and destroyed. Everybody ends up making fun of Liz. Another girl says, “Oh you’re trying to save the vets, shouldn’t you be there?” And Liz says, “What the fuck? You can do it with a pill, so why should I bother?” But point being, if we marginalise spiritual healing and connection, are we really going to be a successful society? Are we really going to make it through? Because in the end, it’s only that sort of community outreach that’s going to save us, or so the movie presumes.
And as you say, the ego isn’t involved in impressive creation. There’s something so beautiful, above so many other things, about the fact that Mary Shelley, an eighteen-year-old girl, wrote this seminal work on which so much machismo is based—monsters parading through the streets of fake European towns and all that goofy shit from the ’30s and ’40s, and I love every moment of those movies but it’s also preposterous, the male ego run wild across the streets—but it all came from her own despair and clear insight. Obviously her mother was a very interesting lady during her time, as a feminist. It’s so many legacies in one. I wanted [my film] to evoke history and those legacies. I show The Rape of the Sabine Women, which was a trick where the men of Rome said, “Come to the public square we have free bon-bons or whatever” and they kidnapped all the women. So [history’s] an endless parade of Harvey Weinsteins.
FG: I love that scene where Polidori takes Adam to the museum of art. It brings out this dichotomy between the creations of man— on one side is the beautiful art, and on the other are the instruments of death, the weapons of war. That’s another great example in the movie about how we have a choice, to either use what we create for good or for evil, and what the repercussions are when we allow these creations to go off the rails, whatever they may be, whether it’s a man pieced together out of other dead people or an AK-47 or a high-tech computer.
LF: Absolutely, and that is, I think, the dichotomy of humanity. I always use dichotomy, or whatever you want to call it, dualism— funny, that’s very yin and yang versus the triumvirate of Western literature. In the structure of my movies, I always have the good guy, who’s never quite as good as he should be, and the bad guy’s never quite as bad as he should be, and it’s the idea that in life you have to choose a path. That also has to do with parenthood, again.
So, yes, humanity has tremendous invention, and beauty, and access to spiritual things, but also this obsession with violence. Obviously medicine can bring you health and life, but then [Polidori] says “From the blade to the bomb, humanity does love destruction. We are depraved.” Also, I like that the villain is quite melancholy as he basically describes all the aspirations. He says, “This is a mausoleum to the aspirations of man,” and then single-handedly goes through each painting and says, “Well, this guy was worried about morality, can you imagine? I married my wife for her money.” And it’s just this sad thing. Same as being over-educated: you can be educated, but are you necessarily moral? No, morality’s a separate thing from knowledge, and that’s what I’m trying to show. [Polidori] has this contempt for aspiration. Then he says, “Let’s go to a fucking strip club.”
FG: I like how Adam’s story parallels with how it is to be young in today’s cold and indifferent world. I’m wondering, is the visual technique you used to show Adam’s synapses firing and reconnecting a method of drawing the viewer into his point-of-view, to make the movie more subjective?
LF: Well, listen, the whole premise of the movie is that, I propose, I’m going to tell the Frankenstein story from the Monster’s point-of-view. From there, what’s the whole deal with this Monster? What’s the archetype? His brain’s been taken from one place and put into a body made from other parts. Then I’m like, this is about the brain. Then you think all the obvious scientific speculation, and if you see the world as a physical place, then brain, personality, memory is very much your identity, and it’s all in this little organ working very hard, receiving impulses.
I always joke there’s no electricity in the film. [The Monster] doesn’t come to life through a lightning storm, but, in fact, it’s all in the brain, this electricity. Everything’s in there— that’s where the entire Frankenstein cliche is happening, inside this amazing little organic object. I wanted us to be reminded of the physicality of experience, which is that we’re simply receiving input. That brings us back to parenting and sounds and [the Monster] listens to Bach and gets his mind together. Then he listens to the blues and finds another oomph. So I wanted to really remind people we’re just these physical creatures experiencing the vast array of— good lord, I have no idea, I just thought it looked cool! [Fessenden laughs]
FG: It does look very cool. It’s also a very existential look at Frankenstein. It’s deep, when you really dig in there.
LF: I appreciate that. You hit the nail on the head. Because I was thinking, what is the agenda here? It was to be subjective, and to talk about subjectivity, which is one of my favourite observations [about life]. But it is very existential, because it’s not about the doctor playing God and all the usual sort of blasphemy scenes. It really proposes that we are masters of our own destiny, and it’s our responsibility as people to do the right thing and to find the right way.
To reiterate, we’re just creatures of the flesh and our brains are fantastic but there’s a spiritual dimension we have to tend to. That doesn’t mean a Lord, it means a responsibility to each other. That’s why my movies are all about loneliness, because it’s like whatever Sartre said, or whoever: “We are alone. We live as we dream: alone.”
[Edit: Larry’s actually quoting from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad]
“I always say I’ve been making feminist films for a long time
because I feel that, the problem is the patriarchy—
it’s destroying the world…”
FG: I want to quickly jump back to your earlier work, specifically No Telling. I have the collection of your films released a couple years ago—
LF: Oh, thank you.
FG: No, thank you, it’s great. In the collection, you wrote briefly about No Telling and wanting to explore a story more like the 1970s in movies, where a happy ending wasn’t necessarily a given. Did you have any change of heart since? Or do you kind of perpetually lean towards realism in that way, that there’s no guaranteed happy bow tie on the end of every one of life’s moments?
LF: Look, I’m a real sentimentalist. I like all kinds of movies. I like Love Actually— I love telling people that because it makes them fall back in their chair. But that’s a place for what I call aspirational living, where “Oh that’s so sweet” and you can marry the right person and everything can be fine, you can love your kid. It’s all true, life has many textures.
But as far as my movies? No, I want people to walk out feeling very unsettled, like they haven’t quite figured it all out, the story isn’t totally finished. And I hope, some silly dream, that they might then finish the story by bringing about the happy ending themselves. They’ll get rallied and excited. Like I made this movie, The Last Winter, and it’s totally devastating: the world is going to end! But I’d love it if people came out of the theatre and said, “We’re going to change this.” I do think it’s effective for people to be unsettled. And as for Frankenstein, you can’t make a happy ending out of that mess. There’s just no way. Just as death will come. Your job in life is to come to terms with death, and to make it part of your spiritual journey rather than just be afraid of it— I’ve been afraid of it for fifty-five years, so I have both sides.
FG: Do you find horror cathartic in that way?
LF: No question. It’s why I love the genre. I think it’s cathartic in that it actually deals with something everyone thinks about and knows about, but our societies are built on this bullshit denialism where as long as you have the right deodorant, all is well! As opposed to actually saying: “I’m scared. But you know you are too, so let’s raise a glass, let’s have fun tonight. It matters. It could be our last.” That’s more my approach than, “Well, if I have the right deodorant and a big diamond ring, I’ll be better than them and somehow that keeps me alive.” That’s a ridiculous way to live.
FG: Before we finish, I just wanted to say I’m a massive fan of yours, you’re hugely inspiring to me and many others, and Depraved may be your best film yet. Again, thanks for taking the time out of your day to chat with me. A great talk that I’m excited to share with our readers.
LF: Fantastic, man. I really appreciate it. And thanks for looking at the movie.
FG: My pleasure. I’ll have an article up on it soon after the festival premiere. Hopefully you’ll get your eyes on that, too.
LF: Cool. Be nice.
Thanks, dude. Take care of yourself out there.
What’s the most influential and timeless story in the history of horror literature? If you said Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus you wouldn’t get much argument. Always ripe for adaptation/reinterpretation, the 1818 novel is at a giant of the genre. Enter Larry Fessenden, genre auteur and respected all-around badass responsible for the criminally underrated films Wendigo and Habit.
Henry (David Call; The Sinner) was a combat medic in the War on Terror. His best friend, John Polidori (Joshua Leonard; The Blair Witch Project), works for a massive pharmaceutical company run by his father-in-law. Together they’re secretly testing a new drug (nicknamed Rap-X) with the ability to reanimate and repair the dead on a homemade and homespun cadaver. Inside that cadaver, named Adam (Alex Breaux; Bushwick), is the brain of Alex (Owen Campbell; Super Dark Times). Alex was murdered in a random street crime on the way home from a night spent with the love of his life, Lucy (Chloë Levine; The Ranger). He awakens to find he’s now The Monster, haunted by memories of a former life and trying to understand a world that fears him.
The story of Frankenstein is a funny one. The dominant imagery in popular culture is of The Monster; bolts in his neck, laced with stitches, ghoulishly green and terrifying. The source material, however, is about Victor Frankenstein and the consequences of playing God with creation. What Fessenden has done is focus on the monster that everyone is so obsessed with and let the hideous light of his misfortune shine a light on the real monsters – the men who play God with reckless abandon. It’s a subversion to return to the original source and plays wonderfully with a familiar tale.
Depraved wins you over instantly with a stellar cast. David Call echoes all the frenzied, passionate energy of Colin Clive in the 1931 film (with a nod to the Henry name!). He’s tormented and determined, a sympathetic force who’s ultimately corrupted by the representative of big money in Polidori. Joshua Leonard knocks it out of the park – he’s greasily charismatic and despicable. His own wife can’t stand him, and you won’t be able to either. The standout is Alex Breaux as Adam a.k.a. The Monster. He’s a physical presence, sure…but as his childlike beginnings are shaped in the images of his creators, your fear for him combines electrically with a lovely sense of mounting dread. You know the snap is coming, and you know it’s going to be bad.
Larry Fessenden doesn’t produce work prolifically (his last movie, the absurdly fun Beneath, was in 2013), but when he does, he damn sure makes it count! He’s throwing everything at you (proverbial kitchen sink included): sexual tension, grisly gore, trippy VFX, smooth musical accompaniment, and imagery that sticks. He also gives you raw, real characters without a hint of cliché in extraordinary situations, and that is where great horror starts.
He also doesn’t shy away from the not-so-subtle. There are moments of subliminal beauty, like Adam’s physical transformation from truly horrific creature to reasonably attractive man then back to monster or the childlike wonder of his ride through the Big Apple. Soon enough, you’re slapped with scenes like Adam’s night of strip club partying with hedonistic Polidori, which is a day-glo sleazeshow as the pulsing music proclaims, “I am alive!” It’s a dizzying mix, and the near two-hour runtime blows by.
By giving you the experience through the captive brain of poor Alex in the patchwork body of poor Adam, Fessenden insists that you ask yourself if it’s really nature or nurture. The interpretation is entirely yours, but you will get both sides of the coin for close examination.
Depraved is Fessenden’s strongest creation to date and one of the best takes on the tale of the Modern Prometheus ever produced. The question is this: does even Larry Fessenden himself realize the power and relevance of the monster that he’s created?
DEPRAVED opened 2019’s What The Fest!? in New York with a sold-out showing. As the other festival-goers and I queued up on 6th Avenue outside the IFC Center, a trombonist and a drummer began playing upbeat music. The cast and crew milled around enjoying the festivities; director Larry Fessenden posed for photos below the marquee.
After a brief introduction and the ceremonial hanging of WTF!?’s giant pink eyeball, the night began. A short film by Fessenden highlighting the Frankenstein mythos from the early 1900’s to present self-consciously asked the unspoken question: do we really need another Frankenstein movie?
The modern retelling of the story follows Henry, a young veteran who is trying to prove the effectiveness of a radical new medicine. With the help of his boss Polidori, Henry gives Alex (randomly chosen for their experiment) renewed life with a patch-work of limbs and a new name—Adam.
The experienced cast of DEPRAVED, many of whom attended the screening, includes David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne and Maria Dizzia. There is nuanced acting from all involved, but Alex Breaux steals the show with his performance as the captivating, tortured monster.
A few of the nods to the original Frankenstein are corny: there’s a character named Shelley, certainly named after author Mary Shelley, and Polidori refers to himself as Igor to Henry’s Dr. Frankenstein. But self-awareness is key, and with fresh themes of parenthood, ethics, sex, art, and philosophy,DEPRAVED stands apart from previous adaptations. Watch for a scene which takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Polidori briefly explains the history of humanity and art, it’s just stunning.
Overlays of brightly colored blurs beautifully depict Alex’s brain synapses firing. Stylish stop-motion photography and anatomical sketches flashing across the screen blend seamlessly with the other camerawork. Frequent flashbacks are used to show glimpses of Alex’s old life. All of the technical aspects are great, from the gruesome makeup to the excellent sound design.
Watching Adam rediscover the joys and agonies of life is moving, a reminder of just how easily one can lose everything. The third act is a bit rushed and over-explained, but the movie overall is gloriously creepy.
As it turns out, we absolutely do need a film like DEPRAVED. Leave it to Fessenden, a seasoned actor, producer and director, to craft a modern-day love letter to the historic legend of Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic Frankenstein has been retold so many times, it is hard to find a new and interesting way to retell it. With Depraved, they have found a reason to resurrect this story, even now on its 200th Anniversary (well, it’s been close to 200 years).
Depraved follows Henry, a field surgeon played by David Call who makes a man out of various body parts and brings the creature to life in a Brooklyn Loft.
The new twist they put on this 2019 adaptation are the military elements and the motivation which drives Henry to create life from scratch. I would not want to spoil these differences by elaborating on them here.
This movie is well crafted, much to the credit of Larry Fessenden (“Beneath”, “Habit”), who wrote/directed/produced and edited Depraved. I must admit that I have been a fan of his work for many years now.
Through his production company Glass Eye Pix, I was first taken by their horror/dark comedy Bitter Feast, and have continued to enjoy other productions such as Body, Like Me and their low budget indie take on Jaws called Beneath. I urge genre fans to look at what Glass Eye Pix is doing, and has done for years.
The cast is rounded out by Alex Breaux (“Bushwick”, “The Blacklist (TV)”), who plays Adam, the name Henry gives his creation. Breaux feels like he was made to play this part, with his tall, athletic presence and innocent, clumsy demeanor. Much of the movie’s humor comes from the awkward way Adam navigates through this new world he wakes up in.
I fully believed every stitch of this creature as soon as Adam appeared on screen. This is thanks to the superb prosthetic work from the special effects team on Depraved.
Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”, “StartUp (TV)”) plays Polidori, the reckless business partner who bank rolls Henry’s experiment. Leonard and David Call are very convincing as these two war veterans with very opposing viewpoints.
Much like the creation of Adam, the true value of Depraved is the sum of its parts. The intriguing dream sequences and composited visual effects caught my attention early on. The emotionally charged acting reminds us that this is a tale worth telling over the centuries. Unique editing and film making techniques kept me interested throughout the narrative. Depraved is a unified vision from Larry Fessenden, his cast and crew. A well executed patchwork of style and tone.
The New York setting was used to great effect, which we would expect since Fessenden was born in New York City. Also, do not let the title fool you, Depraved in not a slasher or hard core horror film by any means. It stands up well as a thriller, with drama and a love story mixed in.
In a strong piece of writing, some parts of Adam’s body has a history which lingers. The only negative I can find was the lack of conflict in the first half of the story, but this kicks into high gear near the end when action builds and the stakes are raised.
With a total run time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, Depraved did not feel that long, which believe me says a lot these days. The best way to describe the this movie is to say, think Re-animator or Frankenhooker but it takes the subject more seriously (and I love those movies). Depraved is set to start its release on March 20, 2019 so look out for it.
Curt Wiser is the Writer/Director of the suspense movie Cam-Girl. As a filmmaker he is happy to watch and review the work of other artist.
Glass Eye Pix is the master of hiding a punch of heart in the most unexpected places. Those imagining a re-vamped Boris Karloff creature-feature may be sorely disappointed. Instead, we get a true, modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel. After some rough performances in the opening act, the story quickly recovers once we move into Adam’s narrative. The film delivers some fun, practical scarring and suture effects denoting Adam’s gruesome origins. The “horror” tag otherwise feels a bit unwarranted, though there’s certainly no shortage of substance in this thought-provoking tale. The run time, coming in at just under two hours, feels a bit longer than it needs to be, but the film is well-paced, which helps move the story along. Depraved is a gripping, heartfelt little gem.
DEPRAVED frustrates me. It is so damn close to being a great film I want to scream. It is at times one of the most thoughtful riffs on Frankenstein you’ll run across and at others its just an okay inde film.
A young man leaves his girlfriend after a fight. As he walks the streets he is set upon by an unknown person and stabbed to death. Waking up in a new body and unsure of who he is Adam has to relearn what it is to be human as well as deal with Henry his creator and the madness of Polidori his “assistant”. As Adam learns more about who he is and how he came to be the stage is set for a grand tragedy.
Writer director Larry Fessenden has made a intriguing film. Updating Mary Shelley’s tale to modern day Brooklyn, he shades it not just with a mad genius trying to usurp god but with thoughts of trying to help those left broken by war. Henry’s trying to heal those killed and hurt in our current wars. In doing so he truly makes us debate the notion of what Henry is doing on a more practical level than almost any other version of the tale.
This being a Frankenstein film we also get the requisite riffs on what it means to be human and the struggle to truly discover who we really are. Fessenden’s takes have unexpected resonances and get the mind working in ways that most of us haven’t considered before.
This is also a film that is often visually delightful. There are short montages and overlays that add a sense of what Adam is thinking. Adams look is also incredible. While I’m uncertain about how or why some of the scars are there it still looks impressive.
As much as I like the film there are things that bother me.
While I appreciate Fessenden treating the proceedings almost as if it is a drama, the tone of the film never quite feels right. There is a strange lack of suspense because on some level we know how this is going to go. As a result there is a lack of engagement as I was intellectually invested but not emotionally.
I’m also not sure about the Polidori character. The dark soul pushing Henry and events, he is the one character who seems out of place.Where pretty much everyone else seems, for the most part, to be or could be a real person (and I am including Adam) Polidori feels out of place. I don’t know if it is the performance or the role, but he feels like he exists simply to push events along. It weakens things more than it should.
The film also has a problem with pacing. The film feels every one of it’s 115 minutes with some bits feeling a little too long. There was a point around the half way point when I realized that there was still another hour to go. It’s never fatal but it gave me time to think about some of the problems of the film instead of being carried past them by the momentum of events.
Don’t think I hate the film, I don’t, but I am frustrated because what is here is good enough that I should have loved it instead of just liking it.
Worth a look for fans of thoughtful rethinks of classic tales
PSYCHO DRIVE IN
Mary Shelley’s timeless classic, Frankenstein, has been made, remade, parodied, franchised, animated, commercialized, infantilized, and deconstructed over the past 109 years, and now indie auteur Larry Fessenden (who founded independent film production company Glass Eye Pix in 1985) brings us an updated and somewhat self-aware version with the little-to-no budget feature Depraved. Filmed during the 200th anniversary of the novel’s release, Fessenden has taken the beats of the Universal Pictures original and crafted a film that works best when leaning heavily into the relationship between our Mad Doctor, Henry (David Call), and his creation, Adam (Alex Breaux), but doesn’t hesitate to embrace the gore and gothic horror that lies at the story’s heart.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Depraved, is that it in no real way attempts to live up to the salaciousness of its title. I was actually expecting something a little more in the vein of exploitation, and instead got a serious and sober exploration of isolation and emotional damage. Henry is a Middle East veteran and military surgeon who witnessed the atrocities of war and took inspiration. With the help of an experimental drug, provided by his partner-in-crime, Polidori (Joshua Leonard) – named after the English writer and physician who was also there that magical night when Lord Byron, Mary, and Percy Shelley entertained themselves by writing horror stories – Adam is born. Or reborn, rather.
Adam’s two dads have conflicting approaches to parenting, however. While Henry teaches the childlike Adam games, plays him music, and tries to take his development slowly, Polidori drops Adam in the deep end of cocaine, strippers, and booze. In fact, the titular “Depraved” is all of humanity, according to Polidori, which provides some insight into just where Fessenden’s narrative loyalties lie.
As might be expected in a scenario like this, Adam’s introduction to women is hamstrung by his dads’ own emotional issues. Henry’s ex-girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) tries to provide a compassionate influence, but instead ends up a tragic symbol of what Adam can’t have and leads, unknowingly, to a heartbreaking and violent encounter with the wonderfully friendly and enticing, Lucy (Chloe Levine). As the film follows the 1931 original’s narrative beats, you can figure out where the story is going, but the over-the-top melodrama of the final twentyish minutes came as a bit of a shock after the subdued drama of the initial hour and a half.
I suppose there was no avoiding it, really, but the finale of the film seems like another, schlockier, project entirely. Especially given the fantastic performances by literally every actor involved – particularly Chloe Levine and Adam himself, Alex Breaux.
Despite this, Fessenden’s writing is otherwise insightful and smart, his direction is confident and deftly handled. The cinematography by James Siewert and Chris Skotchdopole, combined with Will Bates’ haunting score, help to make Depraved feel like a bigger-budget project than it actually is. Pete Gerner and Brian Spears do amazing work with the prosthetic effects, making Adam both a truly breathtakingly beautiful – and disturbing – creature to behold.
All-in-all, Depraved is a noteworthy entry in Fessenden’s oeuvre, building on his history of reimagining the classic Universal monsters (Habit, Wendigo, The Last Winter, Beneath). In fact, though this film probably had one of the lowest budgets of any of his features, it may be the most impressive from start to finish.
Writer/director Larry Fessenden’s Depraved is a gory, thrilling modern adaptation of the Frankenstein mythos, replete with commentary on today’s society and many of its shortcomings. Like the majority of Fessenden’s directorial efforts, it’s a thinking person’s horror film, but one that pulls no punches in the visceral shocks department.
Alex (Owen Campbell of Super Dark Times ) leaves the home of his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine of The Transfiguration  and The Ranger ) after a post-coital argument in which he makes clear his not being ready for fatherhood, as their plans for moving in together soon are obviously more than he can handle at the moment. He is fatally stabbed on his walk home, after which the story moves to the makeshift laboratory of Henry (David Call), a military veteran suffering from PTSD who is going through decidedly more bizarre fatherhood issues of his own, as he is creating a life out of piecing dead body parts together. His creation, Adam (Adam Breaux), now houses Alex’s brain, but though Adam has the body of a fully grown man, his mind is basically that of a baby’s, and Henry plans to teach Adam how to be as normal an adult human as possible.
Henry’s reasons for his experimentation are far more altruistic than those of his partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard), the money man of the pair. Although Polidori wants to prove to investors as soon as possible that the experimental drug the pair is working on is ready for the big time, Henry wants Adam to develop slowly. As Adam’s intellectual growth matures, so do his feelings for the opposite sex, including Henry’s girlfriend Liz (Ana Kane) and friendly, talkative Shelley (Addison Timlin, who starred opposite Fessenden in Like Me ), who he meets in a bar.
A highlight of Depraved is the relationship between Henry and Adam, and the fine portrayals given by Call and Breaux, respectively. The father figure tries to raise his makeshift son to the best of his abilities, sheltering him from the outside world — a world where Adam loses his childlike innocence once exposed to it. Call’s Henry is an understated approach to the mad doctor pedigree, with concerns, frustrations, and psychological issues that bring immediacy to the proceedings.
Fessenden’s screenplay masterfully examines the fears and foibles of today’s twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, such as meaningless encounters in search of something “more,” the drive of id over superego and the resulting disappointment of the hollow promise of instant gratification, and so on. He nails modern troubles with equal attention to horror, and indeed, addresses modern terrors — from the paranoia of not being able to walk safely on the street to letting down one’s guard to allow strangers into one’s life — both psychologically and with visceral special effects, including Peter Gerner and Brian Spears’ outstanding makeup work on Adam.
Depraved is low-budget, independent horror filmmaking at its finest, and this may be Fessenden’s best directorial work to date. The movie is currently on the film festival circuit, and is essential viewing for scare fare fans of all stripes.
Depraved had its world premiere screening at What the Fest!? on March 20, 2019, at New York City’s IFC Center.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress after serving in the Middle East, a doctor decides to create a man with different parts of corpses.
Mary Shelley’s novel has benefited from an excessive number of adaptations, some more subtle – we remember Roy Batty wanting answers from his creator in Blade Runner – while others are more superficial.
Now the independent film king Larry Fessenden decides to try his luck with a minimalist approach and he’s doing pretty well. His latest Depraved was recently premiered at the What The Fest genre film festival !? from New York. Anchoring his reinterpretation of history in a contemporary Brooklyn, the filmmaker who also signs the script, takes the opportunity to season a whole study of paternity, where the creator develops a deep filial link for his creation.
We are very far from dozens of adaptations that focus the action on the fear and horror caused by the monster. Here, we are introspective in the psyche of this being that is brought into the world and whose main purpose is suffering. Fessenden questions the procreation and scratches the stakes of education. Many interesting questions are raised by this small independent production. That said, the horror is missing and the geeks will rightly point out that Shelley’s novel was terrifying.
At the realization, the man shows a real expertise to create an atmosphere, but also in his direction of actors. His camera crosses with no mouse the austerity of this industrial loft, where the laboratory is built, and knows how to be forgotten to give the attention to the actors. Affectionant particularly the psychological horror, the filmmaker lingers on the looks and the hesitations, to create touching passages. Qualifying himself the make-up of his human creation as an encyclopedia of Frankenstein, the informed fan will recognize several tributes, which he underlines amicably.
If all the distribution is adequate, it is yet Alex Breaux (Bushwick) who impresses the most by embodying a Frankenstein (although it is called here Adam) completely bluffing.
The release date of Depraved, which is currently continuing its festival tour, is still unconfirmed at the time of publication.
I wrote the following capsule review of Depraved, a new film by Larry Fessenden, just after viewing it, in part to spur on ideas for a fuller review:
Immediately ensnaring and narratively circuitous on levels literal, mesmerizingly visual, and metaphorical alike, Depraved is not a mashup, rather a pastiche of essentially all you might hope for it to layer, paste, stick, piece, and yes, oh yes, stitch together — from film and literary references to production values, chronologies, political critiques, and philosophies. Its enigmas run deep. Its puzzles are many. And especially with its setting in Brooklyn, it’s also a holistic embodiment of multiple forms and histories of DIY ‘life.’
But then something different took shape instead.
My colleague, Hyperallergic Weekend editor Thomas Micchelli, viewed the film as well. In a brief exchange we had right afterwards, he said that he also found Depraved compelling, and that he had some thoughts about it. So I sent him my initial thoughts in my capsule, and he then had more thoughts.
So then what we thought was this: Given that the film itself is all layers and multiplicities of disciplines, inputs, and chronologies, it could be more interesting to present a layered, multiple-voiced exchange between the two of us — a kind of review-qua-pastiche or pastiche-qua-review, not unlike the pastiche that is this film.
Below is an edited version of our exchange.
— Paul D’Agostino
Paul D’Agostino: It seems you too were flooded with thoughts after watching Depraved. Were you also flooded with thoughts as you watched it? I was, and I had so many and jotted them down so sloppily while watching, eyes wide open, in the dark, that at one point I actually turned a low light on my notes to make sure I’d be able to reread them later. I saw already that would be a challenge. Anyway, you too? And what were your initial thoughts, i.e. before I sent you the capsule? And after you read the capsule?
Thomas Micchelli: No, I never take notes. I just let my responses pile up, with the hope that the better ones will stick.
My reaction to the first frame usually presages my opinion of the entire film, and the first frame of Depraved — the overhead shot of a vinyl LP spinning on a turntable — seemed to be ushering in a movie that would be fatally arch and not terribly original.
But this was one of the rare times that the first-frame test failed, maybe because it belonged to a different movie, the five minutes of rom-com tease that you mentioned when we talked on the phone. I did think, though, that the way the overhead shot continued across the half-finished meal and ended in the voyeuristic glimpse through the bedroom doors had a refreshing earthiness to it.
We will be getting into the specifics of the movie’s pastiche of every Frankenstein imagining and then some in a little bit, but overall, the film that it evoked most strongly for me was Beasts of the Southern Wild(2012), with the first part mesmerizing and inexplicable, and the second part surrendering to the demands of plot. The first half-hour was especially persuasive — the sound design was brilliant in its ability to communicate the monster’s disorientation in his new world. The use of his point of view, including the deficiencies in his eyesight, was a device that I think could have been used more and explored further.
PD: Well, I don’t always take notes either when watching films to review, but I do at least try to jot down quotes that strike me as piquant, revealing, maybe meaningful for what might follow. Or if they’re particularly stupid. Anyway, I like your description of the first-frame test. I should try that. I do something that’s less of a test than a search for an entry into a bit of writing, again if I’m watching something I might review: I look for how much the director has attempted to pull me in, all the way into the visuals and the narrative, in the first few minutes. It’s less of a gauge of the film’s entirety than your method, but useful for me for reviews.
At any rate, Fessenden does more in those first five or so minutes than I was prepared for. But I was excited by it. It was a true jolt. As you brought up, the film opens in such completely mundane, maybe rom-com-cum-drama ways, that you’re hardly ready for what’s next. It goes from that slowish pan over some unfinished meals in a living room, into a bedroom where the couple has retreated to burn off dinner with the dessert of coitus, to a moment of happy, maybe post-coitally enlivened chatter in the living room, only to then quickly transition into an argument out of nowhere, punctuated by a claim of, “You keep setting me up to be a disappointment,” barked by Alex, whose identity won’t remain exactly that for very long.
All that’s in the first few minutes, after which a brutal murder comes almost out of nowhere, and it is extreme in its immediacy and intensity — i.e. already a different genre of film, in a sense — before then transitioning into some of the near-campy, classic sci-fi-ish, a bit flashy but also not overwrought digital overlays suggestive of electrical pulses and cerebral flashes, and so on. It’s so fast, and so suggestive already of the film’s many layers yet to come. It’s already a pastiche, and it would become much more of one — much like we already know the ‘monster’ is as a ‘thing’ pieced together into ‘life.’
Early on I began thinking of films like Memento (2000) and Primer(2004) as kindred works. Further on I thought a lot about Matthew Barney’s films and art. We can come back to some of that, but I’m interested in what you say about the monster’s eyesight. True, that did come up a lot. Similar in import, and that we can infer as elaborated throughout, was the refrain, “Gravity is your friend,” which were essentially Adam’s — at this point the monster’s name is Adam — first words, to the great astonishment of Henry, Adam’s ‘Dr. Frankenstein.’
TM: I’d like to return to your initial take on the film, its stylistic use of pastiche as a mirroring of Adam’s bodily pastiche. As opposed to a movie by Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, in which the film-geek references are subsumed into the cinematic flow, a pastiche lets its edges show, like the scars on Adam’s body. The citations pull you out of the moment and divert your attention to themselves.
The references in Depraved seem out of the blue, such as the twisting camera angle when Adam breaks loose and roams the streets, which brought to mind The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), or the close-up of Polidori’s mouth eating a piece of steak, a reference that’s eluding me but I know I’ve seen. (Caligari, which revolves around a carnival barker and an unnaturally tall somnambulist, seems as much of a touchstone as James Whale’s or Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein films, especially given the number of times Henry tells Adam how important it is for him to sleep.)
There were a number of narrative holes, some that bothered me (there was no setup for Adam’s discovery of his backstory, making it feel rushed and contrived), and others that I found fascinating, such as why Adam has been created out of multiple parts in the first place. If the idea, as we find out later, was to find a way to bring the freshly killed back to life, there seems to have been no need for Henry to sew together an Übermensch, other than to satisfy the director’s desire to make a 21st-century Frankenstein movie. And in that light, the monster’s pastiche of dead parts seems like a critique of the enterprise.
Still, I wonder why we are talking about this movie in particular. What makes it compelling enough to single out for discussion? I can’t quite articulate it.
But then, yes, so do many other films out there to see. But it does make sense, given its internal multiplicity of points of view, its interdisciplinarity, to address the qualities of Depraved from multiple points of view. The film festival presenting it [WHAT THE FEST!? at the IFC Center in Manhattan] seems like it could feature a number of other pictures that have similar efficacy.
I can say that it was that latter aspect that initially got me intrigued. Fessender brings quite a mix of experience in filmmaking to the table and has worked alongside many of the greats in indy film, so I was curious to see how an art-horror director whose work is shown at MoMA, and who has worked on projects with Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch and Guillermo Del Toro, to name a few, might handle Mary Shelley’s classic text.
There’s also of course a very circumstantial aspect to my interest: I happened to see It’s Alive, the Frankenstein exhibition at the Morgan late last year, and it was exhilarating in so many ways. I could go on, or probably we could both go on for a while about how great it was, but that’s a different review. For now it’s worth noting that I particularly enjoyed the ways the exhibit conveyed the interdisciplinarity of Shelley’s brilliance, and the prodigious wealth of creative enterprise and expression her story has continued to generate.
Moreover, one part of It’s Alive! that I found hardest to budge from, in addition to that jaw-dropping suite of paintings by Henry Fuseli, including “The Nightmare” (1781) and “Three Witches” (1783) — and it seems that Fuseli and Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, according to the exhibition notes, had some manner of amorous rapport (what a detail!) — was the section detailing the impact of Shelley’s novel on the history of cinema.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a story that can seem destined to be envisioned and reimagined in so many ways, through so many mediums and genres. In itself it’s everything from allegory to Bildungsroman to gothic horror delving into sci-fi, and so much more.
So those are just some of the things that got me intrigued in this movie in the first place, which then got me watching those first five minutes that had me all-in, electrifyingly so. For certain, one thing that’s worth noting before turning to your Übermensch point is that Depraved had me constantly marveling at Shelley’s prescience in telling her story. By way of one of the most effective and broadly transmittable media of her time, she told a kind of pastiche of a tale that could be enjoyed just as well at any single level of its narrative or critique, or at all of them at once, and remain just as cogent, just as potent. To watch Depraved is also to be consistently reminded of the monstrous critical importance of Shelley’s creation.
This brings me right to your point about the Übermensch, and maybe also about the critique of the enterprise: PTSD and the wars of the day are regularly dropped into all kinds of films and streaming series these days, not often necessarily or effectively, other than as constant reminders of just how long certain wars, particularly US-led or ‘fed’ campaigns, have gone on.
Here, the references to the wars become relevant to the story in ways that make sense — from the variably stilted, jarred, dazed cognitive states displayed by the film’s protagonists and graphic effects alike, to the intuitable critique of the military-industrial complex, so interested in the successful creation of this monster.
PD: Yes, he’s working through his own mental trauma. Meanwhile, instigator Polidori seems to simply regard it all as a game, another puzzle for Henry to give Adam to solve in some kind of venture-capitalist-funded experiment in “extreme sports biology,” a telling claim.
Also telling is that moments after Henry says to Adam, “I want you to be safe,” we see him tucking Adam into bed by covering him in a blanket that looks a lot like a quilt, which at that early point in the film is also what Adam’s body already looks like — a stitched-together quilt of flesh, limbs, materials, memories, traumas.
On that note, I think we’ve covered things well enough. Let’s put this critical monster to bed, and maybe awaken it some other time for some other film or whatever else.
In the meantime, let’s test our prescience. Brooklyn DIY trend of the future, ‘artisanal A.I.’? I can see it already: “How to Make Your Own Person at Home in Seven Easy Steps.”
And forget the references to the doctor. The conceptual origin and possible prototype should just be called ‘Mary’s Monster.’
Depraved, written and directed by Larry Fessenden; produced by Larry Fessenden, Chadd Harbold and Jenn Wexler; Executive Producers: Joe Swanberg, Edwin Linker, Peter Gilbert; Co-Executive producers: Andrew Mer, Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent; presented by Glass Eye Pix and Forager Film Company; starring: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloë Levine, Owen Campbell, and Addison Timlin
Film School Rejects
The sinew that ties horror’s unquestionable importance to the rest of the cinematic arts is the ubiquitous feeling of fear. It’s one of our most universal and earliest learned emotions that, despite however much we may say otherwise, is an integral part of our lives. So many of our life decisions are dictated by fear, from career changes, to moves, to one of the most relatable — having children. And while films like We Need To Talk About Kevin directly illustrates the fear of what our kids could become despite our best efforts, Larry Fessenden‘s brilliant new film Depraved takes the anxiety of raising a child and strains it through the structure of the Frankenstein story — bringing new depths to Mary Shelley’s classic while having a refreshingly original take on a tale that’s been told for ages — to indirectly ask the untold truth parents may think, but never reveal: what if I made a mistake?
Alex (Owen Campbell, Super Dark Times) and Lucy (Chloë Levine, The Ranger) are recent college graduates on the cusp of moving in together in Gowanus, an industrial and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. After an offhanded expression of how good of a father he’d be, Alex becomes upset and decides to walk back to his own apartment on the desolate canal where he is accosted and repeatedly stabbed.
After having hallucinatory visions of his grandmother and girlfriend — told with Fessenden’s brand of hypnotic, dreamy visuals and startling shocks of vibrant animation — Alex wakes in a rudimentary lab. But his body is filled with cuts and stitches, one eye clouded with blood smeared on his arms. He finds a mirror, but it isn’t the Alex we just met: it is Adam, played with knowing precision by Alex Breaux(Bushwick). Alex lives on in Adam, an amalgamation of body parts constructed by Henry (David Call, Tiny Furniture) an ex-military field doctor now being funded by a mysterious corporation through his fellow doctor and money man Polidori (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project).
Adam may be the Frankenstein’s Monster to Henry’s Doctor Frankenstein but Depravedstrips the story to only its bare essentials. Fessenden smartly eschews the trappings of Shelley’s original tale that’s been told ad nauseam. We’ve seen what happens when The Doctor instantly regrets creating The Monster, casting him out before hunting him down so it’s refreshing to see Henry instantly want to help and care for Adam. We watch through their mutual frustration and joy as Henry teaches Adam about emotions, basic motor functions, and table tennis.
And it’s in this early decision that we see Fessenden focusing on an aspect of the story that rarely gets further discovery: the father/son dynamic between Doctor and Creation. We know what this story is like when The Doctor struggles with the moral and ethical dilemma of creating life, but never one where that creation has a strict bedtime.
This riff intentionally mimics the struggle of single parents raising a child that I think will resonate most strongly with parents of children on the autism spectrum. Henry has to find new ways to help Adam learn, like using music to focus his mind. He is clearly filled with empathy and compassion for the person he created, but he also becomes understandingly exasperated and overwhelmed by what is now his responsibility. This isn’t a story about a doctor playing god, but rather a man trying to be a father.
But that doesn’t mean that Depraved is completely detached from previous versions of Frankenstein. It does hit familiar beats that humanized the creation in James Whale’s original run of Universal Films, like the monster eventually demanding a mate, leading to Adam encountering the cheekily named Shelley (Addison Timlin, The Town That Dread Sundown) whose fate gives this Frankenstein’s Monster shades of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Visually and aurally Fessenden’s film is a feast filled with animation and sound design meant to embody the multitudes that reside within Adam. These soundscapes of noise and reverse speech illustrate the conflicting dualities within him as his present mind tries to understand how to speak while his past mind struggles to remember who he once was. The film’s lighting is washed in warm reds and greens to give Depraved an almost E.C. Comics-esque color palette juxtaposed with Fessenden’s aesthetical camera work (shot by Chris Skotchdopole and James Siewert) imbued with his early 90’s DIY spirit. As his films are character studies as well as genre pieces, Fessenden gets the most out of his talented cast but especially Call and Breaux, who embodies this version of The Monster with a quiet intensity, unlike any other iteration we’ve seen before.
Fessenden has been creating genre films with a message for years. In the director’s notes for the film he elaborates, saying “I have always been deeply moved by the archetypes of horror, and have made it my mission to breathe new life into these stories by grounding them in our contemporary world.” His works are emotional journeys, weaving you through unexpected territories until the rug is pulled from beneath you and you are left with the films emotional core. Or maybe it’s better to describe it as a pit, like the one each of his characters eventually have in their stomachs. He does this with every one of his films, from Habit’s commentary on alcoholism through the lens of vampirism to The Last Winter, his Eco-chiller using the Wendigo legend as a proxy for the destructive nature of climate change.
For lack of a better term, I’d argue that he is our sole Activist Horror filmmaker, starting all the way back in 1991 with his ostensible debut No Telling. The film, a dark romance about a love triangle and ethically ambiguous animal testing, has a clear lineage to Depraved when viewed in tandem. But while No Telling ends on a visceral gut punch, this film leaves us with a modicum of hope. Fessenden is a director that is constantly evolving, finding new ways to let his voice be heard, and in a career of home runs, Depraved stands out as the film where his voice can be heard the clearest.
Depraved comes to us by way of genre staple writer/director, Larry Fessenden. It also happens to be the first film he has completed in 5 years. All hyperbole aside, I’ll gladly wait another 5 years if his next work is even half as exceptional as Depraved. Here’s why.
The film is a nuanced interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in modern day New York. Stylistically, it has a fairly muted color palette juxtaposed against beautifully colored overlays of synapses and brain function. This can seem excessive at first, but it becomes a non-verbal means of expression from our “monster”, Adam; played impressively by newcomer Alex Breaux. Additional standouts include David Call, Joshua Leonard, and Chloë Levine who (next to Breaux) gives the most emotionally demanding performance–especially considering how little they both actually speak.
Depraved is extremely successful in both modernizing the narrative and avoiding the “monster in all of us” trope. Rather, this is a subversion of that concept and realistically makes every character fully accountable for their actions/inaction. It’s visually remarkable and emotionally devastating twist on the literary classic that replaces the “mad scientist” with a damaged war veteran determined to retroactively save those that he lost on the battle field. It’s a startling sentiment to consider, and the themes addressed will stay with you long after viewing.
What Luca did for Suspiria, I believe Fessenden has done for Frankenstein. It’s easily one of the best (and to me definitely the best) adaptions of the source material ever atempted. We’ve always known the “how”, but there’s never been such a visceral exploration of the “why”–and that’s Depraved’s greatest strength. The reason for doing something so horrible never stays the same, and the journey is just that. So here’s to a new world of Gods and Monsters. Check this one out at soon as you can.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has remained one of literature’s greatest stories. It almost poetic that a story about life after death should continue to be so relevant and relatable some 200 years later. The mad doctor’s creation, though tragically monstrous and very un-human, spends his short life experiencing the most human of emotions: alienation and loneliness. It’s that life-experience that has helped The Creature become the most universal of all monsters. Every generation understands the isolation of The Creature. Every generation feels the desperate need for understanding of The Creation. And every generation has re-told the story of The Monster, pieced together from details of their own world.
Larry Fessenden’s Depraved might be the definitive modern Frankenstein film. Yeah, sure, that’s going to change in a decade when another incredible adaptation comes along that perfectly captures life in 2029, but for the time being, Depraved is where it’s at. Fessenden does more than cherry pick slice-of-life moments to update Shelley’s classic story. He makes use of our technological advancements and understanding of the human brain to tell a story from and for a 2019 audience that has grown up with the Frankenstein mythos firmly embedded into our culture.
After an emotionally charged fight with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine, The Ranger), Alex (Owen Campbell, Super Dark Times) wanders home alone through the dark city streets. Distracted by his phone, he doesn’t see an attacker running toward him with a knife until it’s too late. What feels like seconds later, Alex wakes up on a surgical table but when he finds the strength to look at himself in the mirror, he doesn’t recognize the face looking back at him. It’s a bold move, and only one that we fully recognize after a hundred years of freshly dead brains placed in the skulls of patchwork cadavers. As moviegoers, we’ve all memorized the instruction manual for the Do-It-Yourself Home Reanimation Kit. The knee bone’s connected the hip bone, be sure not to use the brain of a homicidal maniac, and bake at 3600 degrees (preferably with lightning) until alive.
The construction of The Creature is always such a centerpiece in Frankenstein films because the story is told from the perspective of Doctor Frankenstein. Unlike it’s predecessors, Depraved is told entirely through the eyes of The Creature, played by Alex Breaux. We don’t see his construction (the surgery) because he was never conscious for it. It’s a choice that completely upends our understanding of Frankenstein but it allows you to see a familiar story through new eyes. Someone else’s eyes, even…
Oh, and P.S.- If you thought The Creature was a tragic character who didn’t deserve anything that happened to him, just wait until you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with him while he has his heart broken, comes to grips with his own existence, or feels the weight of his creator reject and betray him.
Henry, our “Mr. Frankenstein“, is a very different type of mad scientist. He is as desperate to conquer death as every iteration before him but his mania comes from two violent and brutal tours in the Iraq War. As a battlefield medic, he slowly perfected his methods after many unsuccessful attempts to save the lives of young men and women shot down in action. Suffering from PTSD, Henry (like so many men and women returning home from the war) is essentially the closest our world has come to a living, breathing Frankenstein Monster. His brain has suffered a severe trauma, and he can no longer associate himself. Sure, he isn’t running from an angry, pitchfork-carrying mob, but he is very much alone, and scared of the world around him.
A surprising moment that sets Henry apart, is that when he first sees his creation, when The Creature suddenly comes to life and is standing before him, his first reaction is to give him a name. There is a good reason why he is only ever referred to as The Creature, or Frankenstein’s Monster. No one ever names him! From birth he is rejected by his father and cast aside to find his place in the world alone. Henry, on the other hand, protects and takes care of his creation. He struggles with the weight of that responsibility, but it isn’t until the introduction of Henry’s financial backer, Polidori (Joshua Leonard), that The Creature, growing in strength and intelligence, becomes an uncontrollable burden to Henry.
Every previous creature was made to feel shame and disgust as soon as they came into existence. The creature in Depraved finds some degree of acceptance, but only long enough for him to be able to fully understand the depths of darkness that exist in the hearts of man. But this creature also has something that no other creature before him had: Henry’s lab recordings. Think about that for second. In the moment that he finds those recordings he becomes the only living creature to witness its own creation. That’s an existential crisis I don’t even want to get into, but seeing his previous self carelessly discarded and salvaged for parts utterly destroys him.
Depraved is a Frankenstein story, but it is a very different Frankenstein story. Of course, if a classic creature-on-the-loose feature is a must, know that Depraved slowly evolves into a picture-perfect, thunder & lightning, gothic tale. Sure, the film’s budget is visible at times but no expense was spared on the design of the monster himself. Every scar, every stitch is realistically gnarly and a roadmap of references and homage to every monster that came before him. Depraved is a unique film all its own with characters and set pieces unlike any other before it but The Creature (the true core of this story) is your connection to the past, stitched together from over 200 years of artistry to create something that walks it’s own path.
Depraved celebrated its world premiere at What The Fest!? 2019 with worldwide sales rights picked up by Yellow Veil Pictures (Luz, Starfish). Depraved is written/directed/produced/edited by Larry Fessenden and stars David Call (The Magicians), Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia (Piercing), Owen Campbell (Super Dark Times), and Chloe Levine (The Ranger). The film is not currently scheduled for future screening but will no doubt be making appearances at a film festival near you.
Horror hero Larry Fessenden makes his welcome return to the director’s chair with Depraved, which naturally he also wrote, produced, and makes a small cameo in. The flick is a Frankenstein story for the modern age, replete with ruminations on humanity and sexual deviancy, and sprinkled with plenty of gross-out body horror. It’s rough around the edges but scrappy and inherently likeable — much like the great man himself.
The story begins with a young couple, Lucy and Alex (The Ranger‘s Chloe Levine and Super Dark Times’ Owen Campbell), having sex, dinner, and eventually an argument about whether or not they want to have kids some day. He storms out, leaving her to clean up through tears, only to get jumped and stabbed almost to death on the walk home. Next thing Alex knows, he’s waking up on a makeshift operating table, with different body parts sewn onto him.
Alex is then rechristened Adam (but not for the reasons you think), as actor Alex Breaux (Bushwick) takes over from Campbell, by his ostensible creator, Henry (The Magicians star David Call). The two develop a sort of father-son relationship as Henry teaches Adam how to eat, speak, think, and act like a real boy. Er, man. But what’s the end game here? And what does your man from The Blair Witch Project have to do with this “project”?
Depraved does quite a lot with very little. Most of the action takes place in a glorified warehouse but, although Henry is impatient with Adam, Fessenden doesn’t rush through things to cover his low-budget tracks. The makeup and SFX are hugely effective, from the gruesomely real stitching on Adam’s sewn-together body to his one milky Marilyn Manson eye. Fessenden’s Monster kind of looks like Richard O’Brien, at least at first, but Breaux’s movements are too robotic to ever flirt with dance.
As is standard with these kinds of stories, Depraved is more about the mad scientist behind the creation than the creation itself. Fessenden establishes an interesting good cop/bad cop dynamic with Breaux and the dastardly Polidori — a name so strikingly odd it must be a reference to legendary vampire enthusiast and physician John William Polidori — played by The Blair Witch Project‘s Joshua Leonard, looking even farther from his most famous character than he did in last year’s Unsane.
Here, Leonard ditches the nerdy glasses and adopts a mop of sandy-colored hair. He’s wide-eyed and pompous, hoovering up lines of coke and pawing at poor Adam in a strip club to ensure he’s having the proper physical reaction to his new environment. Henry’s nerves are deadened by PTSD, but he wants to do the right thing, at least on some level. Polidori, on the other hand, is completely unhinged.
When things do eventually go off the rails, the blame should be placed squarely at Polidori’s feet, even if he’s not the type to ever take responsibility. Throughout Depraved, Fessenden utilizes splashy graphics to signify Adam’s brain-firing activity. For the most part, they’re not strictly necessary, but when Polidori forces his creation to snort cocaine with him, they illustrate the effects of the drug to a disconcerting, fascinating extent.
This is a very different role for Leonard, even though he’s still technically playing the villain. He’s a captivating, and intriguingly strange screen presence and it’s nice to see him given more to do here than even in Unsane, which was an equally great showcase for his unique talents. Breaux, too, does a good job playing a damaged man torn between his morality and his cause. Nobody in Depraved is 100 percent good or bad, but everybody is human.
I almost wish we’d spent more time with Alex and indeed Lucy (Levine is wasted here, but it’s still great to see her onscreen regardless) prior to the big transformation, because once he becomes Adam, there’s very little connecting The Monster to his previous incarnation. The creation’s struggle to understand his place in the world would have had more emotional weight if we knew his past life a bit better — particularly considering Alex goes from discussing kids to, essentially, regressing back to being one himself.
Depraved draws obvious comparisons to Bernard Rose’s devastating, and criminally underrated, Frankenstein from 2015. There, Xavier Samuel played The Monster with an uncanny sadness. Fessenden’s Adam is a shaggier creation, but his plight is no less compelling for it. His story hints at a greater mythology and a darker world just beyond the edges of society where all kinds of untold horrors likely exist.
With any luck, the great man will get to explore some of those threads next time he heads behind the camera. Hopefully, we won’t have too long to wait.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
DEPRAVED had its world premiere at New York City’s What the Fest!? on March 20, 2019.
The modern indie horror scene would be nowhere without Larry Fessenden. The actor and filmmaker has become something of a mascot and godfather of the scene, whether through his innumerable cameos and supporting turns, or through his production efforts with his company Glass Eye Pix. He’s seemingly everywhere, to the point that it’s sometimes easy to forget that Fessenden is a director himself, and a heavily influential one at that, exploring the grittier, more humane side of horror since his 1991 debut NO TELLING.
DEPRAVED marks Fessenden’s first feature length film in six years, following his 2013 made-for-Chiller-TV killer fish flick BENEATH. Like many independent filmmakers with a notable following, his projects began to trend slicker and more mainstream, with Fessenden working with big(-ish) stars like Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, and James Le Gros on THE LAST WINTER before graduating to making an episode of Fear Itself the short-lived NBC sort of-spinoff of Masters of Horror. With DEPRAVED, Fessenden has returned to his more indie roots, with an empathetic, personal, and emotionally devastating modern take on the Frankenstein mythos.
Fessenden’s breakout came with his second feature, HABIT, which found his alcoholic lead seduced by a big city vampiress. Much as he refracted Dracula myths through a grimy, downtown New York vibe, finding a grungy humanity in the lives of these aimless miscreants, he does so again with his loose riff on Mary Shelley’s tale. Here, the monster is now Adam (Alex Breaux), tall, lanky and handsome despite the patchwork of scars crisscrossing his body. When Adam awakens, in a grubby loft somewhere in Soho, surrounded by make-do lab equipment, he’s a blank slate: wide-eyed, silent, staring at the world with uncomprehending eyes. He is, in other words, a baby. His “father” is Henry (David Call) a brilliant former Iraq War medic who invented a pill that can reanimate dead tissue. He wants to perfect it for use in saving lives.
Initially, it was only able to bring back to life dead, severed limbs, arms reattached as if nothing ever happened. But Henry wanted to move onto bringing whole humans back wholesale. With the help of doctor buddy turned wealthy investor Polidori (Joshua Leonard) setting him up in his white-tarped secret lair, supplying him with body parts from fresh cadavers, Henry has stitched together his own undead prodigal son. But the cruelties of life are unable to be escaped–or to be prevented from sneaking their way into an innocent’s burgeoning mind, no matter how hard Henry tries.
Fessenden never treats Adam as a monster in DEPRAVED. If anything, he’s the film’s hero–a stumbling, ostensibly sweet, confused, and shambling shell of a human, reacting to what’s around him, at first, with a doe-eyed credulousness before the haunting, despairing truths of what it means to be human encroaches on his rapidly healing (re:developing) brain. Nor is Henry a villain; he’s a concerned father, trying to guide his “son” through life in the best way he knows how, even if it isn’t always necessarily the best way in general.
DEPRAVED works best when it’s focused on Adam and Henry, and, to a lesser degree, the hedonistic, cynical, and vaguely amoral rich kid Polidori, who acts as a kind of ne’er-do-well, bad influence uncle in this vague family unit. For most of the movie, Fessenden doesn’t even treat his material as a horror film, using the framework of Shelley’s story to get us to see through Adam’s eyes. Fessenden even approximates a sense of wonder at times, as Adam’s rapidly escalating mental prowess begins to expand and take in the world around him. One of the film’s best sequences has Polidori bringing Adam out for a night on the town, visiting a strip club and museum; as Polidori expounds on his cynical philosophies, Fessenden shows Adam taking it all in a flurry of bright color and emotion.
Fessenden, in fact, carries that experimental streak throughout the film. The director shows Adam’s progress, the way that his synapses are firing and building, via a simple visual overlay of brightly flashing, amoeba-like swirls designed to represent the electricity of the cells. Fessenden does this trick in a very low budget way, which causes a sort of disorientingly cheap effect at first, but one that comes to eloquently and visually convey Adam’s arc.
Fessenden is smart enough to know that there are no villains or heroes in this story; Adam is the closest thing to a hero here, but even he is capable of horrific violence, and Polidori is the closest thing to a villain, but he is also more of a craven coward desperate to keep his science project alive–a project with the intent of saving lives. Fessenden loosely keeps the structures of Shelley’s novel and, to a degree, the James Whale-directed version of FRANKENSTEIN as he charts Adam’s journey from naif to “monster.” That said, at two hours Fessenden dawdles too much; scenes of Henry bonding with Adam get repetitive and there’s a wealth of extraneous characters, including Addison Timlin in a contrived extended cameo role designed to replicate a key scene from Whale’s original (in addition to some narrative beats from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and a subplot involving Chloe Levine that does not tie into the film well, nor has the emotional impact that Fessenden clearly thinks it has. Scenes like these could have been trimmed, with the focus clearly placed on Adam and his journey. But these are minor quibbles. Because Fessenden has returned to the screen, and returned to his roots, with an empathetic portrait of a monster. Welcome back, Larry.
MUCH ADO ABOUT CINEMA
Cracking open Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in high school probably seemed like a chore. Flipping through pages of dense prose, mandatory class discussion, and inevitable reading quizzes sucked the enjoyment out of such a rich novel. There have been plenty of adaptations of the tale, but now Shelley’s masterpiece has received a 21st-century makeover in the form of Larry Fessenden’s latest film, Depraved, a deeply-sad horror film that speaks to our societally-ingrained selfishness.
Don’t worry, there’s no need to dust off those old, crinkled copies of Frankenstein from your parents’ basement to enjoy Depraved. Even those unfamiliar with the plot will enjoy Fessenden’s contemporary interpretation. Adam (Alex Breaux) is Depraved’s Frankenstein’s monster, a young man put together from different parts in a dingy lab built in a warehouse in New York City that resembles any New York millennial’s apartment. Scientist Henry (David Call), employed by Polidori (Joshua Leonard), has finally figured out how to resurrect the dead. But Henry is a veteran suffering from PTSD, trying to use his findings to help future soldiers. So on top of caring for himself, he must take care of Adam and teach him how to be a human, from eating and speaking to reading and playing ping pong. Adam floats through the world in a strange limbo of vague understanding, absorbing the world with an innocence only experienced by the blissfully naive. Yet, this all starts to fall apart as Adam begins to regain memories and learn that he is nothing more than a science experiment, meant to bring fame and fortune to Polidori’s pharmaceutical company.
James Siewert and Chris Skotchdopole’s cinematography is a disjointed and creates a hazy state that is reminiscent to just waking up in a strange place and trying to remember where you are. It captures the confusion, yet vague realizations, felt as you slowly regain memories. This gets us into Adam’s head, letting us identify with him more closely than Henry or Polidori; this is ultimately Adam’s story and we are meant to sympathize with his frustration, confusion, and anger at being trapped like a lab rat.
Adam’s emotional impact would be nothing without Alex Breaux’s performance, who plays a man relearning how to a man with such conviction, you’d think Fessenden had truly resurrected a corpse. Breaux captures Adam’s innocence and conveys his sense of wonder that lends itself perfectly to the film’s emotional impact. He and Call have such a devastatingly lovely chemistry, playing a demented father-son duo that slowly dissolves as truths are revealed.
While Depraved is beautifully shot, it jumps quite suddenly from the hazy, dream-like state of the makeshift Brooklyn hipster lab to sudden violence as Adam breaks out onto the New York City streets. The film has two distinct halves that, while mirroring events in Shelley’s novel, are still rather jarring. The second half feels more like a horror movie as blood spatters walls and bodies seem to pile up. Fessenden tries to hold onto the emotional stakes from the first half, but they fade into the background as the violence begins.
Underneath the violence, this ultimately is a story about the loss of innocence, of Adam slowly realizing that his world of wonder is only contained in a shabby warehouse. He begins to see the selfishness of those around him, and how they could never teach him anything but how to be selfish. Depraved is a horror movie that does not aim to scare; it aims to make you feel some profound sense of loss or even terror at our obsession with ego. From the film’s score to watching Adam regain his memories, this is a film that conveys a constant state of loneliness that doesn’t seem to have a cure. Fessenden’s latest cinematic venture proves that horror can be more than scary; it can encourage us to truly feel something, be that fear or sadness or frustration. It is a genre that forces us to think and Depraved is a prime example. It fits in nicely with other recent releases such as Us that challenge audiences to look past the label of “horror” and delve deeper into ourselves. Frankenstein, and humanity as a whole, has never looked so sad or so lonely than in Depraved.
Last weekend, Larry Fessenden’s latest film had its world premiere at NYC’s What the Fest?! A meditative reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Depraved, which was shot on the 200th(!) anniversary of the book, brings the narrative to the 21st century in some bold ways. I’d always wondered how a filmmaker would tackle a modern retelling of this classic story and make it believable. But Fessenden succeeds, mostly by incorporating modern day fears and keeping the focus squarely on the characters.
In a cold open, we’re briefly introduced to Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloë Levine) who are having a post-coitus argument about their futures. Lucy had made an off-handed comment about how Alex would make a great father and Alex takes Lucy’s compliment to mean she wants to have kids. Right away, the themes of fatherhood is immediately established as Alex lashes out in anger. He’s not ready to be a father, even though Lucy says that’s not what she meant.
“We got tomorrow,” Alex wryly says, after they kind of make up. But that ends up being the last thing they say to each other because Alex is shortly stabbed quite viciously to death on the way home, an apology text almost sent.
Alex wakes up on an operating table in a warehouse/loft; except it’s not quite him. It’s a different person. Or persons. Stitches hold parts of his body together. He’s bald from brain surgery. As the man stares blankly at his face in a mirror, Henry (David Call) enters the room, in awe that his creation has awakened. Henry names him Adam (Alex Breaux) and almost introduces himself as his father but trails off.
He then sets off to reprogram Adam, who has the mental and physical capacity of a newborn. Time passes. Henry teaches him basic logic and visual puzzles. Works on his motor capabilities via playing ping-pong. Synapses fire in his brain. He starts talking. His hair starts to grow back and the scars start to lessen.
Except the reason Adam was created isn’t exactly altruistic. Henry’s colleague Polidori (Joshua Leonard) has been funding the research in hopes of selling a new drug to pharmaceutical companies. Polidori (a nice homage to author and friend of Mary Shelley, John William Polidori) is hedonistic and Fessenden uses him almost as the id of Adam’s development, as he takes him on a whirlwind tour of NYC, with stops at The Met and a strip club.
Then there’s Henry’s on-and-off-again girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne), who works as a therapist at the VRA and ultimately becomes concerned with Adam’s emotional state. Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with the text knows, things don’t go as plan when man tries to play god. Adam keeps having dreams and flashes of his life as Alex. And of Lucy. The roles of monster and man flip; you know the story.
But what Fessenden does best is focus on the intense character work. Depraved is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Henry and Adam. Fessenden smartly recontextualizes Henry as a veteran who served as a combat medic, performing triage in the Middle East. Henry saw his friends and fellow soldiers maimed and killed and he couldn’t help them. The problem is, as Liz tells him at one point, “you brought the war home with you.” David Call is fantastic as Henry and brings empathy to a role that is often callous and concerned more with the scientific implications than the moral ones.
Unlike most adaptations, Depraved is almost entirely seen through Adam’s eyes and Alex Breaux performance is fantastic. His lithe and toned body, accentuated by the makeup design by Peter Gerner and Brian Spears imbues this version of the creature as a waif, held together by mere thread. His perspective is further strengthened by cinematographer James Siewert, who incorporates exploding synapses and colorful images to show his progression.
While it’s easy to see Mary Shelley’s influences in the film, Fessenden seems more interested in the seminal movies by James Whale. By naming our doctor Henry, he immediately brings to mind Whale’s Henry Frankenstein and as the movie hurtles to its inevitable conclusion, Fessenden and Siewert bring flashes of the Whales classic, with stark black and white imagery, lightning and stormy weather and Gothic sensibilities, to the climactic moments. At just under two hours, Depraved might feel a little overlong. But it’s spent serving the character developments and establishing the emotional center of the classic tragedy.
Call it Depraved; Or, The Modern Prometheus as Fessenden truly brings this 200 year old work of science fiction to the modern era.
Larry Fessenden has plenty of fans. A versatile producer, director, writer, editor, cinematographer, and actor in dozens of low-budget flicks, he’s left his mark for more than two decades on the horror genre. Since he’s heavily influenced by the classic Universal monsters, it is not surprising that his latest entry, Depraved, is a soulful, Brooklyn-based retelling of the Frankenstein legend, some 200-plus years after Mary Shelley birthed the beast and many dozens of films after Thomas Edison unleashed his version in 1910.
Boris Karloff, step aside for Alex Breaux.
But first, briefly get acquainted with the 20-something web-designer Alex Clerval (Owen Campbell), a sweet, dorky, sorry-to-disappoint guy on the verge of moving in with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine), who is constantly expecting more from him. After leaving her place in a state of emotional discontent, he doesn’t get far before being brutally, and most fatally, stabbed.
Fessenden, feeding on that bloody event with a constant array of phantasmagorical images, begins a psychedelic march into hell for Alex, who awakens with one milky eye, a totally new look, and an assortment of new body parts (yet, seemingly perfect vision). Still, something else is off – his memory. Covered in nasty scars and incision splices, nothing is familiar. We know, of course, because this is a mad scientist movie and, doh, his brain’s been transplanted. But for the “infant,” he initially just goes along for a drug-induced lethargic ride. He accepts his new name, Adam (quaint!) when instructed. In his first steps, it’s obvious that Mr. Breaux is portraying a monster in training, but one who will steady himself as the film progresses. Man, is he bald-headed ugly! But, oh, is that makeup so cool!
As for the good, young doctor who created him, that’s Henry (David Call), a surgeon who’s had too many visits to the Mideast war circus and suffers a untreated case of PTSD. Wait, where is that huge electric storm and chain trolley atop of the old European fortress we remember from the 1931 Frankenstein? Well, the big shock of rebirth in Depraved is that the budget, apparently, didn’t allow for such pyrotechnics, so you’ll just have envision that on your own. Instead, Fessenden flavors his film with plenty of frightening, multiple-exposure montages, fractral designs, and fractured memories (the better to show off his editing skills), including brief thoughts of Lucy. There’s a sprinkling of Lovecraft in the script (by Fessenden, who also did producing, directing, and editing).
Poor Adam is just a misunderstood newborn, who has to rejuvenate his life and social skills. He’s a very quick learner, courtesy of the medicinal regimen centered on a big red pill called RapidX concocted by Henry and his benefactor. That would be Henry’s uncle (Joshua Leonard). In a nod to 19th-century author John William Polidori (famous for this story “The Vampyre”), this relative carries that writer’s name and a boatload of predatory characteristics, as well as a greedy, big business appetite for blood-and-guts bucks in the re-animation market. (Be assured that no vampires were harmed in the making of this film.) Greed consumes Polidori’s character in his entrepreneurship run amok scenario. Think King Kong, with Polidori being a crazed variant of Carl Denham. All he sees are dollar – not stop – signs. The show must go on.
Fessenden fashions his character-driven film in segments. The first half hour showcases the monster’s arrival, healing (his hair grows, his bad eye clears), and education. That’s followed by the man-child’s coming-of-age awareness of the avaricious world that has created him, thanks to the all-too-avaricious Polidori. Whiskey, cocaine, and sex clubs are part of Polidori’s too playful introduction to the darker side of life – and you’d think the businessman would want to be a little more protective of his pet project. Inhibitions be damned as this chapter moves forward. At the hour mark, the one-month-old Alex learns his origin, becomes an amateur detective, and turns tormented man-on-the-streets. He also remembers more about Lucy, from artifacts that should have long been discarded by his mentors (but which allow the holes in the screenplay to be plugged). The last 40 minutes are part mass cover-up and some earth-turning, out-in-the-remote woodsy suburb surprises. And it wouldn’t be such a deliriously bloody ending without a well-worn thunderstorm.
Fessenden has a good cast to play with, particularly Breaux, who shows a distinct fierceness in how he portrays the “monster.” At moments his character’s brooding pot-about-to-boil personality seems like a young Christian Bale, on the verge of some outrageous action. One scene that is particularly effective is when the fish-monster-out-of-water gets chummy with Shelley (another homage-to role, played nicely by Allison Timlin), a young woman in a local bar. Their brief friendship showcases some of Fessenden’s best writing as Shelley comforts his wounded soul and his awkward dialogue. This morphs into a strange re-imagining of both the little girl sequence of the James Whale Frankenstein and the hope of a monster’s bride-to-be.
It’s not a great film, but it is nice to see how Fessenden has put a nice off-kilter spin on a classic story.
HORROR NEWS NETWORK
Modernizing a classic work of literature or cinema is often times an unenviable task. You can hit a home run but still be second-guessed, or you can completely miss the mark and damage both your reputation and the original at the same time. This was the mission presented before horror genre favorite Larry Fessenden, who took on the Frankenstein mystique with his current film Depraved. Luckily, Fessenden nails the tortured soul saga for today’s uncertain and violent times.
Depraved, which had its premiere at last week’s What The Fest!? at the IFC Center in New York City, presents an interesting take on Mary Shelley’s 1818 literary masterpiece. By bringing it to the big screen with an independent budget, Fessenden (who wrote, produced and directed the Glass Eye Pix production) accomplishes something few other films were able to pull off in recent times: a worthy version of a beloved horror work. What comes to mind to me is the 2010 Italian remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks called Museum of Wonders. Both films can be considered noble successors, though in updating the material to make it more relatable to today Fessenden should be commended. There are dueling messages from the limits of modern science and the race to mimic God, to the horrors of war and the impressions left by those veterans returning to a life considered normal.
The film hits the ground running from the opening scene, and looks back only to fit the pieces together for both the creature and the audience. David Call (USA Network’s The Sinner) plays Henry, a former military field surgeon who suffers both from PTSD as well as maniacal manipulation at the hands of his friend and colleague Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Together they hatch a both a curious and devious plan to create a new living human out of the parts from deceased people based on Henry’s experiences on the battlefield. While teaching the new creature, played by Alex Breaux (Bushwick), is learning how to act and live more each day he is shaken by both his creator’s personal life and the nightmares rocking his head nightly regarding a past he can’t quite remember. True to the Frankenstein lineage, the events unfold in a disturbing manner which bring about a flood of self-doubt and violence that leave many in its wake.
The locale on display in Depraved is both a blessing and a curse, as it is known to embody the best and worst of our society. Set in present-day Brooklyn, very little of the action takes place outside of a few-block radius until the climactic sequences, giving an intimate look at the area that only a local or transplant would normally encounter. In this way, Fessenden does a brilliant job of showcasing the plot with his use of gloomy skies and darkened laboratory spaces. Only a Ferris Bueler-type night out on the town can brighten things a bit, though the repercussions of this prove to be monumental. It is also not accidental that Henry’s apartment doubles as his mad lab as well, further cementing this struggle at playing both boyfriend and God at the same time. There are moments of lighter fare as the creature, appropriately named Adam (though NOT because he’s the first man, as is theorized) and Henry bond over learning to be alive and function on a normal level; however, those quickly give way to the mental and physical struggle of what makes a man human and understanding his place with nature’s counterpart, the female. Fessenden tugs and pulls just enough at his audience to elicit both emotions in equal measure.
Breaux is commendable as Adam, as tortured a soul as there ever was. This isn’t a baby born into the world, growing up and learning from its environment. Adam is a creature made in a lab and thrown into adulthood with no footing on where his place is in such a cut-throat society. The scars and wounds that envelop his new body, made from other people, ironically piece him together when the true and most damaging scars lie inside his mind, trapped by amnesia. The only emotions the creature can portray are rage and love, and Breaux does this admirably. Call and Leonard act perfectly, and fittingly, as the angel and devil in this scenario. Though both are equally at fault for playing God, their self-possessed place in the entire mess could not be more different. Their unfortunate love interests (Ana Kayne as Liz and Maria Dizzia as Georgina) are just pawns in the grand design, as the creature tries to separate reality from interpretation. They play the parts well. Again, Fessenden’s minimalist take on both locations and even outside characters creates an insular world that both Adam, and his creators, still find difficult to navigate.
The one criticism I have with Depraved is regarding the sequence of events. While the movie starts off with a bang (literally), and the action moves along briskly, where it picks up is a point of contention. We start with the creature waking up for the first time, alone and confused, with as many questions as the audience has. In Shelley’s iconic novel, as well as Universal’s film adaptation from 1931 (along with countless other remakes and re-imaginings), the audience is treated to the creation before the fall. In Depraved, Fessenden decides to pick up just after creation, and revisit this moment of truth later in flashbacks that help both Adam, and the audience, piece together exactly what happened. While this works, I can’t help but feel that it robs us a bit of the big moment when the doctor (or in this case Henry) yells “It’s alive!” at the creature beginning to animate. Is this enough to sink Fessenden’s work? Absolutely not, as the entirety of the work easily overcomes this case of nit- picking.
Depraved is an honorable successor to Mary Shelley’s vision, and Larry Fessenden should be recognized for his blunt portrayal of PTSD and the consequences and mayhem caused by God-like ideas of grandeur. It’s an ugly world, and in order to survive you have to accept that fact. As Adam is reminded many times throughout the film, he is not real and doesn’t really exist. This is truly a message hammered home, and one he must own in order to walk among everyone else. Depraved is a very good film, and should surprise quite a few outside of the horror genre as well when it is released on a wider scale.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL
Depraved, the first film that Larry Fessenden has both written and directed since 2006’s The Last Winter, is a smart, borderline scholarly take on the Frankenstein story, honouring the literary “borrowing” of the Mary Shelley novel as well as the sociological, post-WWI concerns driving the James Whale adaptation of the same. Adam (Alex Breaux), its monster, is, eventually, articulate, literate–a romantic figure in the Romanticist sense, yearning for meaning in the arms of a woman. Adam is also the walking wounded from one of our interchangeable forever wars, mirroring the walking wounded from WWI mutilated by the teeth of mechanized warfare who survived at the hands of improved medicine. There’s also a subplot about a pharmaceutical industry run amok and, in the appearance of a little silver charm, a cookie for the Fessenden fetishist who might remember a similar totem from the filmmaker’s masterpiece, Wendigo. There is, in other words, a lot. Enough so that Depraved spends more time digging its basement than it does wiring its house–a deficiency shared by Fessenden’s first run at the Frankenstein story, his principled but didactic 1991 feature debut, No Telling.
The best moments of Depraved see Fessenden getting experimental. A late sequence where Adam goes nuts is prefaced by a beautiful, partially-animated introduction that reminds of Bernie Wrightson’s ink-sketch adaptations of Frankenstein. Throughout, little green blobs appear like a biological warning light when Adam needs a hit of the red pills that give him life. Fessenden uses high-speed montages to provide exposition (pool balls/a flash of a cue/the chopping of cocaine) and images of branches as they occur in nature (rivers, trees, lightning) to mirror Adam’s synapses doing their best to rewire, and the lovely closing shot pulls it all together. He’s a filmmaker who aspires towards the sublime; Wendigo is the movie it is because it’s told almost entirely as expressionistic poetry. But Fessenden is also a filmmaker whose intelligence sometimes gets in the way of that poetry. Depraved is tidy. I think it would have been astonishing if it were messier. The Fessenden I love and admire is a Romanticist, inspired by nature in all its unmanageable force and philosophical about how man’s actions are tied to carnality. I worry that he is too concerned, at least in the case of Depraved, with dissecting his sources. I wish its title referred more to the actions of its beast than to a dry, if well-taken, shot at the greed and inhumanity driving the beast’s masters.The creator, Henry (David Call), is a battlefield medic dealing with his own raft of PTSD issues while his benefactor, Polidori (Joshua Leonard), represents the sociopathy of the very wealthy and powerful. A pair of women, Liz (Ana Kayne) and Georgina (Maria Dizzia), feel like expository crutches whose fates, at least in the case of Liz, are never much in question. I do love the brief time spent in the company of barfly Shelley (Addison Timlin), who “picks up” Adam for a lonesome conversation before making a couple of bad decisions. For Fessenden to write a character called Shelley and then make her a potential “bride” for his monster is Depraved in a nutshell: It knows how to be light and fast with this material, yet rather than push its chips to the middle of the table, it errs on the side of almost parental caution. Almost six years have passed since Fessenden’s last film, the unevenly-received Beneath. In the interval, he’s been a devoted and nurturing producer of independent cinema who, when we last talked, worried about how his attention on others has limited his own production. Depraved exhibits some of that rust, I think. It’s workmanlike where it would have benefited from being roughshod; careful where it should be lawless; and reasonable when berserker rage seems more appropriate. The picture finally lacks confidence. It’s not a bad toe back in the water, but I hope its follow-up comes soon and with a vengeance.
Film School Rejects
Along with Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, Larry Fessenden and his company Glass Eye Pix is one of the most well-respected staples of New York City genre filmmaking. From Habit to Beneath, Fessenden takes well-worn tropes and spins them in the way only a grizzled New Yorker could. What could ostensibly be seen as Fessenden’s attempt to reignite The Dark Universe (#TeamMummy), Depraved can also be referred to as Fessenden’s Frankenstein. Adjacent to the toxic sludge of the Gowanus Canal, a field surgeon suffering from PTSD concocts life out of discarded body parts in his Brooklyn based lab. While I want to make a joke about hipsters, gentrified Brooklyn, and already being the walking dead, if I know Larry’s work, he’ll have the satire in spades. – Jacob
Biff Bam Pop!
2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. It was also when Larry Fessenden put his adaptation of the classic work, Depraved, into production. Five years after the book first hit the stands, the first adaptation hit the stage. It was also the year that Shelley’s name actually appeared on the book, as it was originally published anonymously. Since then, it has been constantly adapted and reinterpreted by scores of artists. Frankenstein has been adapted faithfully as a tragic horror story, the science fiction angle has been played up and played out. It has been infused with gore and terror, parodied, softened for children’s consumption, re-imagined across a wide array of times and places. It has been made sexy, and repulsive, but few have had the ability to break the heart of a viewer so beautifully as Fessenden’s Depraved.
Depraved moves the story to modern-day Brooklyn, beginning first with Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloe Levine), fresh out of college, moving in together, and beginning their life. After a little fight, Alex is on his way out. They have a sort of awkward make up and he says, “We always have tomorrow.”
“When he leaves the girl at the beginning,” says Fessenden, “he says, ‘we always have tomorrow.’ And that’s one of my favorite ideas, you actually can’t be sure of that, so every day is precious. Then he goes out and gets murdered and that haunts him through the whole movie.”
This is a Frankenstein film, so it’s no spoiler to tell you Alex wakes up a blank slate with a strange face (played in monster form by Alex Breaux). He meets Henry (David Call), his creator/father. Henry was a combat field surgeon who faced down death and tragedy but had a breakthrough on the battlefield when he actually defeated death. He came home and shared his secret discovery with a college buddy named Polidori (Joshua Leonard), who worked in pharmaceuticals. Together they set out on this journey, which led to the walking pile of scars they built. It’s left to Henry to name his creation, Adam, and to try to exercise his brain, building him up from a baby primate to a facsimile of a human man. And again, this is a Frankenstein film so it’s no spoiler to tell you tragedy ensues.
Breaux embodies the monster so well you will forget he’s acting. He can swing between gentle giant to terrifying beast with the naturalness of a lounging panther that suddenly takes down some passing prey. Playing against Call and Leonard, they create an interesting look into the damaged male psyche. The contrast is the women in their lives, Henry’s estranged wife, Liz (Ana Kayne) and Polidori’s wife Georgina (Maria Dizzia). While the two women are each devoted to their man’s cause, Liz is an empathetic soul who’s as scared for what the world might do to Adam as she is of what Adam might do to Henry. Georgina possesses a cold pragmatism, backing her husband’s play, no matter how dark the path gets, as long as it serves her.
Fessenden builds upon the bones of Shelley’s seminal work, hitting familiar beats, but usually with a twist. References to other Frankenstein films are there, but the director of such indie masterpieces as Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter brings gravity, empathy, and soul to the tale rarely seen in even big studio productions. Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, but this is Fessenden’s Frankenstein and he makes it his own the way Johnny Cash took Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and left an indelible mark on the song. He made it a Johnny Cash song. And like that version of “Hurt,” Fessenden creates a weathered, world-weary, haunting and beautiful masterwork that is, ahem, alive.
It was an honor to get on the phone this week with The Fess himself, ahead of Depraved’s debut at What The?!? Fest Wednesday night. It was just announced that Glass Eye Pix will be partnering with Yellow Veil Pictures for distribution. I can’t stress enough, if Depraved plays near you, don’t sleep on it. If it doesn’t, buy the Blu-ray. Larry tells me they shot a great behind the scenes doc for an eventual release and I can’t wait to add it to my library, because I know this is a film I’m going to watch again and again.
Tim: Where does your love of Frankenstein begin?
Larry: It was the movies which I do remember watching, and by that, I mean the black and white films from Universal. Not only the three films with Karloff but even with Lugosi playing the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Glenn Strange had a pretty cool look and the monster actually became more robotic and that was so terrifying to me as a child. I always felt the monster was going to come into my bedroom at night. And then I bought all the toys and models. To this day, I’m still entranced by the image of the flat-top monster. Of course, then you move on to all the different versions; Christopher Lee, Robert DeNiro. Which is amazing because I love Robert DeNiro. I don’t think that’s a great movie, but I always love the story being told, just like your mother singing a lullaby, no matter the version, there’s something to it. I was very influenced by a weird movie, a TV movie Frankenstein; The True Story with Michael Sarrazin as the monster and that’s a very, very weird one because he’s very handsome and then he starts to decay. And there’s a little of that in my film. Not the decay so much, but that he presents fairly normal at first. So many great versions. Even now, they’re still making great versions. Penny Dreadful had some cool Frankenstein stuff. Yea, life long affection for it. But at its core is this beautiful origin story that was written by this eighteen-year-old girl, suffering from, obviously, her overbearing husband and these dandies from that time, thinking they were so fancy. And she wrote one of the greatest stories ever put to paper. I think that’s a fucking great story too.
Tim: The theme of fatherhood was, of course, heavy in the original novel, and Victor not being a good father to his creation, but with yours-you seem to have a lot more on your mind when it comes to fatherhood. Are you making a broader statement about how we raise our sons in this day and age?
Larry: Absolutely. I think that’s really important and I used the idea of society being a father of sorts. In other words, the example we set in public discourse, in our history, that’s why they go to the museum. But also, this is the slight change in my film: you have two fathers, the doctor who is driven to this by his genius and then he suffers from a certain remorse, and then the other guy, Polidori, named after the character from the same weekend that Frankenstein was written, that character is more of a modern villain. Sort of a corporate shill, who is trying to make money off of this experiment and who clearly had his own version of bad parenting. He says at one point, ‘fathers aren’t always there for you.’ And you can tell he has a bitterness and he’s grown up sort of wrong. I think that’s the theme of the movie. It really does matter how we parent. And it’s society’s obligation and individual parent’s obligation and it resonates throughout and you can damage someone to the point that they, in essence, become a monster. And the monster, Adam, in the movie becomes threatening when he’s rejected. In that, it’s just like the original, but I don’t play up the physical revulsion, it’s more the guilt and the PTSD Henry suffers. So it’s a lot of the same themes but looked at with slightly new eyes.
Tim: Henry was always willing to play games or sit Adam down in front of a TV screen, but he never told him what he can and can’t do with his dick.
Tim: Kinda like the worst weekend dad.
Larry: Well look, to me, and I appreciate you bringing that up, you know at first he plays the games and you can tell he’s bored and frustrated. The monster isn’t quite as engaged as he’d like. That have that one moment with the music where they do sort of connect, but then you see Henry’s aggression coming in. He’s competitive and he’s got his own problems and the monster feels it. And clearly Henry can’t deal with this relationship and he hands the ‘kid’ an iPad and from there he lets the TV do the work and he’s absent. He comes in and says, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here today,’ and you realize he abandons his monster. Of course in the old story, he looks at the monster, he’s grotesque, and he goes ‘get away!’ But it’s this subtle way we abandon our children I want to explore here.
Tim: Getting to Polidori, before the halfway point, Henry and Adam are getting to know each other and Henry says, ‘You probably think I named you Adam, because of the Bible, if you even remember the Bible, but that’s not it at all.’ It seemed like we’re going to dispel the visual aspect of the story and focus on the existential dread, but then after we meet Polidori and he takes Adam out, instead of it being God with his creation, it’s the Devil literally giving Adam The Big Apple. Am I reading too much into it?
Larry: Yea, exactly. You know there’s an interesting moment about religion in the movie, is that the monster stares at a picture of Christ and he’s completely drawn in and Polidori just walks by and, “Phbt.” You realize that Polidori is a modern man, who is contemptuous of knowledge and spirituality. He’s really about the money, the pharmaceuticals, and all this damage, but there this one moment when I really punch in on the Christ figure and show that the monster is somehow identifying with this image. I’m not saying my movie is religious, but one is drawn to that story no matter who you are, even if you don’t know what’s going on. And there is an image of Paradise Lost in the movie, where Liz asks him what books are you reading and I flash to it and you realize he has been reading it. As for Polidori, he’s a villain. I didn’t give him a cloven hoof, but he is the corrupting element. I think all those things play. I think that’s why literature and the Bible are intertwined. These are our most important stories, it’s not a matter of reading too much into it, it speaks to your access to what I’ve put out there. That’s perfect.
Tim: Can you get into the story structure? The way you approached the adaptation?
Larry: In a way, it was my cage. I refused to change the structure because I love the subjectivity of life. And that was what it was about. That you’re the monster for half the movie, but then you’re the doctor and he’s been through a lot himself. It’s sort of like taking the story and switching it around in the middle of the film. It was just an experiment I wanted to try because I believe life is so subjective that you forget that someone is going through something really quite different. They’re in the same story, but they’re having a very different experience. I think that’s valuable to be reminded of in life. And in the movie it’s sort of a cool structural design, I thought.
Tim: I noticed the hand brace on Adam. Was Karloff your main point of reference for Breaux’s look?
Larry: But I tried to touch on all of them. The white eye is from the Christopher Lee version, he has a dead eye. The actor’s face reminded me of Karloff. He has a heavy brow and I just thought it’s amazing that that comes out naturally through his physique. That was appealing to me. We were always referencing Karloff above all, but there are nods to some of the other designs from over the years. Obviously, the bald head is in a lot of the Hammer films and some of the recent ones, which is natural from the brain transplant. The scar on the back of the head, that’s in some of the movies, because that’s how you actually access the brain, you flop the skin over. Much affection for all the different versions. It was really amazing to do the scar scenes. It would take four or five hours to put that makeup on and slowly, thank goodness, we got clothes, which diminished the time.
Tim: What would be your desert island Frankenstein film? I’ll give you two!
Larry: Yea, you have to give me two, because there’s absolutely no question it’s the first Frankenstein film. People mention Bride of Frankenstein, that it’s the better movie, but I always thought the little bit of humor that was introduced did some disservice to the monster. Even the talking didn’t appeal to me. I still like the makeup, but the fact is, Karloff was hungry and thin when he made the first version and you feel that. And you know the indented cheek is because he had a fake tooth in there and whatever else. So that’s my favorite. I like, well, I liked it at the time, I don’t know what I’d think of it now, but Frankenstein; the True Story and I don’t know. It’s never quite right. You almost can’t have this conversation without bringing up Young Frankenstein. Then there’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They’re all interesting. Then you can get into things like Ex Machina, of course, they do make Frankenstein movies without the name. I think it’s unbelievable how important the legacy of this one book is.
(Thank you, Larry, it was a pleasure!)
The Hollywood News
Larry Fessenden is one of the hardest working men in genre cinema. He runs his own production company Glass Eye Pix which has produced gems such as The Ranger, Most Beautiful Island, and Stake Land. But that isn’t all, Fessenden also works as an actor, appearing in films like You’re Next and We Are Still Here, a writer, being one half of the writing team on PS4 BAFTA winning game Until Dawn, and a director of films including Wendigo and Habit.
His latest project Depraved sees him equally busy as he works as director, writer, producer, and editor. The film is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein in which a young man Alex wakes up to find himself the brain in a reanimated creature known as Adam. Brought back to life by ex-forces medic Henry, Adam must learn to navigate the frightening world around him. Depraved gets its world premiere at What the Fest?! in New York and is sure to get people talking, it’s easily an equal to Shelley’s novel, and is simply brilliant. Given how much we enjoyed it, we were thrilled when we got to sit down with Larry ahead of the screening.
The film deals with parenthood. Being a new first-time mother, the film really resonated with me.
Well I’m the parent of one child, and I do believe it’s a very significant activity. I think a lot of my sensibilities were involved in that. It’s funny, a lot of my movies have that element in them. Before I had a kid, I made a movie about a seven year old and the family around him. It’s just somehow very important, the father figures around you. In my family, my parents are very sensible and kind and stayed together, so it wasn’t coming from drama. Maybe it was because I appreciated what it looks like. I see so many people who are racked with despair over their parents. You realise how intrusive the parent can be in the child’s forming. That was part of my thinking.
Depraved was filming during the 200th anniversary of the Frankensteinnovel, what do you think it is about this story that still is so relevant?
Well it’s just an incredibly iconic story about a lot of important things. Of course the old eighteen hundred version is the question of playing God, and our technologies are getting away from us, and that’s still relevant today. Look at our communication technologies, they are actually causing tremendous harm. It’s a fantastic new object in our lives, but do we actually know how to handle it? I think there’s always that anxiety and that’s what a horror movie does, is express anxiety in a creative way.
Then there’s the idea of being an outsider. When you see the movie from the monster’s point of view, which is how I start the film, you realise how alienating life is. Waking up in someone else’s body, which is how we all sort of feel. Also the difference between the physical and the mental, and how they are very much related. That’s why I have so much brain imagery. I just try to remind everyone that we’re just physical creatures and yet we have these high aspirations towards art as represented in the museum, and towards lust as represented in the strip club. So all these things at once, and then we’re looking for direction and we turn to our father figures. In this case, they’re both narcissistic, damaged people. You realise what a soup life is, trying to negotiate all these different threads.
You’ve been working on the project for a few years, what took so long getting it made – were you waiting for that 200th Birthday?
No (chuckles), I wish I’d gotten it out a year before, it would have been more en vogue, now it’s almost passe. Look, you know there’s many ways to make a film. You usually have a script and then you try to get it in front of a famous actor who will generate financing. I think that Frankenstein seems a little low-brow in a lot of people’s minds and people weren’t able to commit. No actor would do the part, and these are tricks of fate and whatever; my reputation wasn’t enough to compel them and then admittedly I was raising a kid and I do have a stable of kids – people I work with, all the young filmmakers – and I try to produce their movies and that takes time. There’s a lot of things. Guillermo Del Toro says ‘the natural state of a film is not getting made’, that’s very profound. It’s a real struggle. People don’t understand. It a long time and actually eventually I just gave up on getting famous people. I had auditioned the monster and I really, really like Alex Breaux’ sensibility and we decided to build the movie ourselves. I used my small crew of people, Jenn Wexler, the producer whose worked for me for years. We made it the old-fashioned way, my way, which is sort of DIY.
Typically the Frankenstein films either hone in on the creature being the ‘monster’, or the doctor being the ‘monster’, but in Depraved the lines are much more blurred. Was that the hook that got you into the story initially?
Yes, I mean that’s my sensibility. I like to see what motivates the villain. I like to show that the hero isn’t really all good. That’s what I’ve done in all my films. It’s really just finding nuance and a sense of reality in characters. When you’re dealing with what I might just call a cliche like Frankenstein, or vampire movies, or anything of the horror tropes that I’m affectionate towards, I like to say, ‘well what would it really be like?’ ‘how would this really play?’ ‘let’s take away the cardboard cartoon character and let’s insert a real person.’ You’ll see their villainy or their vulnerability, but you have more to chew on and relate to. Therefore you bring the story alive again.
The creature design is really impressive. Being an indie film, it won’t have the same budget as a bigger film, how did you guys work to get that design?
Well naturally it was a priority. You can’t make a Frankenstein film without being aware of your predecessors. To some degree that was the most important thing in the movie after some sort of script was there. I worked with Brian Spears and Peter Gerner, my two pals who we’ve done movies together for over a decade. It’s funny, we didn’t really have as much time as we would like. Even though it took ten years to put together, I only decided to make the film in like a month long from start date.
We wanted to approach it realistically. We looked at pictures of war veterans. This is also coming from the world of the Iraq war and all the Middle East activities that we’ve been ensnared in. We wanted to evoke real wounds and not try to create a creature that looked like the beloved Karloff version. Someone who could walk amongst a crowd. I wanted to humanise the whole story and still have the glory of, there’s a number of references in the make-up to different designs over the years from Christopher Lee, to Karloff to the De Niro. That was also motivating us. Always with me, it’s form and content sort of playing off of each other.
As you mentioned there are little nods to previous versions of Frankenstein, but what does Alex bring to the role?
Well I had auditioned through a lot of people. Some would play him more like a monster, which is an understandable direction, but I really wanted to have… Alex was seen to be able to access a sense of confusion and trying very hard to connect. I think that gives a pathos to the role. The thing that was hard was we had to really track his development. It’s really a story of adolescence. You’re seeing a child grow from maybe a six year old to a twenty-five year old over the course of just two hours. We would very much say, ‘this is when he’s finding his teen years’, ‘now he’s interested in going out and meeting women and trying to understand what that is all about.’ Whereas in the beginning he’s quite content playing games. That was the really exciting thing is, to work with Alex to track the development. Then in the end he has to be angry, but I always wanted to insist, not just a display of rage, but also a resignation as to that the world is bad or is going to do him harm, and that’s how he reacts. These are all great things to discuss with an actor. You’re talking about philosophy and psychology, and Alex was up for all of it. That’s what makes for a great partnership in creating a character.
You worked on the film as writer, director, producer, editor, you have a little role in there – how do you manage all of those different jobs at once?
Well I find film making completely immersive and although I deeply, deeply believe in collaboration, I also tend to see it all as one job. I mean you can’t shoot a movie without thinking about the edit. Of course you can have someone sensible come in and tell you, ‘you don’t need this scene,’ or ‘this shot might go here’, and I’m not opposed to that. I had many helpers on the script. Many people gave notes and advice. The shape was always the same, but many things came out of it. Polidori used to be older, almost like a mentor / teacher figure, and that changed. That was a wonderful development. Lots of things like that. But it was always the same shape because I wanted this passing of the baton structure. From the kid who becomes the brain, to the monster, to the doctor, to Polidori, back to the beginning with the girl. A kind of book-end vibe. Some things stay the same, but it’s all very organic.
The colours of the movie, I would get colour swatches and talk to my production designer, ‘I want this look’, a lot of the props and objects are from my own house. I believe in this immersive three dimensional way of making movies. Especially when you’re making cheap film, part of the point is that this isn’t a corporate enterprise. This is actually very much from an individual. I do believe the cliche that the director is the last welcome dictator in the world. There is ONE vision, but everyone is welcome to participate. I also say that a good director steals from everybody from the set. Somebody has a good idea and you quickly make it your own (laughs), so it is a collaboration, but it’s a hierarchy.
And you even stole some of your cast from previous films that you’ve produced as well.
Oh absolutely! Chloe Levinë, Owen Campbell and Addison Timlin, all fantastic comrades from previous movies, and of course Josh Leonard has been in a Glass Eye film. So the whole gang, and the DP’s are from previous films, so it really was a family affair. I run my tiny, tiny, little company as a little community organisation so that’s how we put this movie together after ten years trying to get Hollywood to help me. That’s the reality of it all.
Stepping away from Depraved briefly, I have to ask if there are plans for any further games, or maybe even a film around Until Dawn?
A film? It’s funny you mention it. We actually tried to do that almost right out of the gate, and we had the blessing of everybody, but it didn’t happen so far. Graham [Reznic] and I are the writers, we work with Supermassive Games which made the game and they are fantastic. We actually made several subsequent games that don’t fit directly in the model. The newest one is coming out – Man of Medan. That’s the closest to Until Dawn you’ll find because it’s got a bunch of kids in a serious amount of trouble (laughs).
Netflix did the Black Mirror: Bandersnatch recently. There is an appetite for a chose your own adventure sort of film, so maybe now would be the time to push it back out there.
You’re right. In fact, I’m gonna get off the line and I’m gonna go pitch it! You’re absolutely right, that is a good reminder that we were going to make it a straight film, but maybe if we had a little more juice behind the pitch we could get a little further with it. That’s interesting. I tell you, making that game was the most popular I’ve ever felt (laughs), never mind Frankenstein, we love video games.
Are there any plans to bring Depraved onto the UK festival circuit?
I certainly hope so. That’s always the plan. I love going over across the pond even though you guys have to sort out your Brexit problems. But I would love to come over there and share it with everyone.
Frightfest turns twenty this year and that would be the perfect place to screen.
Tell Frightfest! (Laughs) Get all hands on deck!
It’s been six years since the creative genius that is Larry Fessenden has graced fans with a new film. A renowned horror auteur, with such films as Habit and Wendigo, many of us were excited when it was announced earlier last year that Fessenden would be directing and writing an upcoming horror film titled DEPRAVED, centering around a contemporary reimagining of Mary Shelley’s timeless classic, Frankenstein.
For the World Premiere of DEPRAVED, which took place on March 13 as part of the What the Fest!? Film Festival, I had the chance to speak with Larry about his newest film. During our talk, we discussed everything from modernizing Frankenstein’s monster, the effects of human depravity, and the commentary the film has on the state of the world.
Hi Larry, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with me today. To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about your newest film, DEPRAVED?
Larry Fessenden: DEPRAVED is a modern take on Frankenstein, set in Gowanus, Brooklyn in the present day. A field surgeon suffering from PTSD is back from the wars in the Middle East and atones for losses on the battlefield by making a man out of body parts in a makeshift lab.
What inspired you to want to do a contemporary re-telling of Frankenstein?
LF: I have always loved the iconic monster from years watching movies (the old Universal black and white films), reading comic books and fanzines, building models, drawing the monster, staring at posters and contemplating the themes of the story.
You touched on this a little, but there is a lot to unpack with this movie. On its first viewing, I found that the film was a commentary on how the world is today in regards to overprescribing medication, PTSD, war, etc. Can you elaborate on why you wanted to show that?
LF: In order to update a classic tale in my view, you have to connect it to contemporary concerns and trends so you are able to revitalize the stale cliches of the story and give it a new vitality. I am hardly the first to do this. Frankenstein is perhaps the most re-imagined story out there, not just the adaptations but the greater riffs on the idea: everything from Robo-Cop, to Ex-Machina to Species and on and on, they are all Frankenstein stories. With bio-tech today, there are many parables to make about technology getting out of control. But I wanted to go back to the classic notion of a body sewn together with a brain implant and think about the way we’d have to supplement that with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals.
I loved how emotions were displayed through the use of colorful graphics. What was the reasoning behind that?
LF: I wanted to show how the brain is an organ where our thoughts and emotions emanate from, all art and science and nature are connected in organic patterns: lightning looks like veins, which looks like tree branches and the aerial views of rivers and streams, all these systems are what makes up the world and it’s all in the head. Emotions and memory all based in physical systems.
The film highlights the depravity of humans but also shines a light on the good. Did you enjoy playing with both of those themes? Are we to believe that the actions of Adam at the end of the film are due to how he sees humans behave around him?
LF: Yes, the film charts the small psychic shocks that shape Adam and we see how the people around him and arbitrary events lead to his destiny and exile. It is an origin story of a monster, he is an outcast at the end. That is the strength of the story, you can see a whole life from innocence to corruption in a concentrated tale. In all my movies I examine how people behave, good and bad, villains and heroes and try to understand the psychology behind people’s actions.
Lastly, what do you hope people take away from DEPRAVED after they see it?
LF: You can’t control how people take in art. The movie belongs to the viewer. Each audience member comes at the film from their own perspective. If you love Frankenstein, you will be looking to see if it honors the mythology you love; if you want a social parable you will judge it from that view. As a character study or work of cinema, how does it measure up? What I have tried to do is create a world that is immersive and allows for contemplation and ideas and emotions and color and sound to percolate into a satisfying whole.
This week, the Second Annual What the Fest!? arrived in New York City. The five-day showcase of genre films kicked off with the world premiere of Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, which was shot on the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Fessenden’s contemporary take on the literary classic, the Vienna castle is now a Brooklyn loft and the reanimating lightening bolt a miracle drug that’s not yet FDA approved, while the monster—still very much cobbled together from various body parts—is similarly on a profound quest to learn what it means to be human.
Depraved opens with a twentysomething couple, Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloë Levine), making love in their Brooklyn apartment and then immediately squabbling about their future plans together. Then the film abruptly plunges us into a far more frightening scenario with Alex getting stabbed in a frenzied attack while leaving Lucy’s apartment. He wakes up in his new Frankenstein body with only his brain having made the transfer. This monster named Adam (now played by Alex Breaux) has been brought to life by Henry (David Call), a surgeon and war vet suffering from PTSD, and his accomplice Polidori (Joshua Leonard), a deviant who’s out to cash in on their experiment. Henry is the “father” of the two, “raising” Adam by way of toy blocks, children’s books, a ping-pong table, and a rubber ball—Adam’s first word is “gravity.” Polidori, the “uncle,” has mostly nefarious intentions, taking Adam on a joyride to a strip club, introducing him to cocaine, and generally keeping him hooked on a cocktail of his so-called miracle drug, opioids and meth. But when Adam happens on secret videos documenting his reawakening in a Frankenstein body, he goes on a vengeful quest in search of meaning, which costs the lives of many around him.
Anthem joined Fessenden and Call at B Bar and Grill in Manhattan this week to eavesdrop on this exclusive 1-on-1 conversation and for our photo shoot before Depraved’s premiere at IFC Center.
What The Fest!? runs from March 20-24. For more information, head over this way.
DAVID CALL: I guess I have to interview you.
LARRY FESSENDEN: Well, that’s novel.
DAVID: It is. I haven’t done this yet.
LARRY: I’m just gonna sit here—yes and no answers.
DAVID: We’re gonna sit here and stare at each other. So you like horror movies, huh?
LARRY: [Laughs] This is where we met.
DAVID: This is where we met. This is almost the exact booth we were sitting in.
LARRY: This is where it all began.
DAVID: I guess that sort of brings me to, where did it begin for you with this?
LARRY: When I was a kid, I just always liked this movie Frankenstein. I read the book eventually. Of course, it’s traditionally a bit of a disappointment for a horror geek because it’s so much more a thoughtful book than you’d expect. Of course, as life goes on, you realize how profound it is and you learn that it was written by an 18-year-old girl. It really has an amazing legacy. But it all came from the early Universal Pictures and that creature designed by Jack Pierce with the flat head and the bolts—it’s crazy. I always find it worth mining this story, and I wrote the Depraved story like 10 years ago. It was coming out of the current events and that’s why there’s the Middle East veteran aspect of it, and just the way technology and medicine has gotten more and more sophisticated. All of that intrigued me and seemed to play into all the themes. Then the loneliness, the monster, and all that. It’s a rich soup.
DAVID: Yeah, the loneliness of the modern age and whatnot. Something that struck me while we were shooting and noticed when I saw the rough cut was that you have such a hodgepodge, unique mixture of cinematic language. You almost created your own in certain places, which is really exciting. What were some of the influences?
LARRY: My base instinct is to very much design every sequence based on, “Whose perspective is it from?” and “What is the emotional thing?” I ad nauseam refer to Hitchcock because he was very deliberate in his design. From there, the agenda was to tell it from the monster’s point of view, so that sets up certain rules. Then of course halfway through the movie, we fracture it and it’s then from Henry’s point of view. It already had a very specific structure. It was sort of a passing of the baton. I think subjectivity is worth highlighting in this story because it really reminds you that everybody comes from their own specific place, especially if we think about politics now. Everyone’s being influenced by their own news media of choice and so they have a very specific take on reality based on their influences. Our story is supposed to highlight that. Also, I’m telling a story about how the brain is really where it all starts, which is obviously from the Frankenstein story, and since you’re making a Frankenstein movie, you wanna talk about the brain. Then we brought in all kinds of strange imagery. James Siewert did all these animations and you’re sort of highlighting all that. I felt that the story could sustain all that. It’s all about how you take in information. There’s also imagery of art and books that he’s read. It’s about the whole enchilada, you know? It’s about what it is to be alive. There’s so much stimulus coming in. I felt the form of the movie could actually handle that because the story, in a way, is so simple and familiar.
DAVID: One of the things that I loved and drew me to it was the ways in which you sort of departed from other cinematic Frankensteins. I mean, how many have there been now?
LARRY: It must be dozens. Then there are ones like Frankenstein like Species and Robocop.
DAVID: When I read the book after we met, I was really taken aback with how lyrical it was and how you switched perspectives between the doctor and the monster. I thought our version sort of hewed the most closely to the book, even though it was modernized. Is that something you tried to do?
LARRY: I always say that I didn’t re-read the book to write this script. I just internalized it over the years. But one thing that both Frankenstein and Dracula, the books, do—I think it was a trope of literature at the time—is that they tell the story through letters, which is so interesting. You realize it was a very modern idea that one thing is from the diary of the captain who discovers the doctor off in the wilderness and brings him home and then he tells his story. Then you build the monster and the monster tells his story. You keep going into these subjective worlds. In a funny way, the way we made the film, it is that kind of structure where you’re first with the kid who then becomes the brain and then you’re with the monster and then the doctor. It’s kind of a tradition that’s baked into the telling of the story and it was fun to find a modern way to do that.
DAVID: Why do you think no one has done that before?
LARRY: You could say that Frankenstein, the 1931 James Whale/Boris Karloff movie, established a certain trope that the monster is sad, but he’s gonna be scary and he’s gonna attack the town and the villagers, and then you’re gonna get your torches and burn down the windmill. In a way, it was so potent that that’s the way the story is told. I don’t think people were dealing with identity and the way the brain works and some of the things that became interesting to me. There were two books that influenced me: one was about a person who’d had a stroke and how they could reconnect their brain [My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor]. You have that whole speech in the movie where you’re going, “Synapses!” and all this stuff. The horror fans love that! [Laughs] Whatever. The other book was called On Call in Hell[by Richard Jadick], about a field surgeon that really advanced medicine in Iraq by making the triage portable. He would bring the hospital to the soldiers and we’d save a lot more people that way. So I just thought about that kind of medical genius and what he would maybe want to do when he came home and felt bad for himself. That was part of it.
DAVID: One of the things that struck me when I was reading the book is the parallel between the creation myth and the ways in which the doctor’s plight is similar to that of an artist’s or a filmmaker’s in the sense that a film is realized into the world outside of your control. Did you feel a certain kinship?
LARRY: Well, everything is going to come back to that process. It is a creative process making a monster and making a film. Also, the thing I did add to the story was the idea of the jealousy between the two creators. In other words, you’re the artist and Polidori is your financier. I think their squabbling is very much about an artistic dilemma: who owns the rights to it? My favorite line that Josh [Leonard] delivers is, “You couldn’t have done this without me! I was in the room!” How many times have two writers, or a writer and a director, said to each other, “I came up with the cool part of the story!” I do think I wanted to capture that aspect. It is about creativity. The whole movie is about human enterprise and where it goes astray. I’ve done that in other movies where I suggest that the arts is the best way to express boundless ambition, as opposed to in a world where it’s going to do harm. Keep ambition in the arts!
DAVID: One of my favorite sequences from the film—granted, I’ve yet to see the finished product, but from what I saw—
LARRY: Oh, that’s been cut. [Laughs]
DAVID: The museum. Is that all still there?
LARRY: Of course.
DAVID: The Polidori character takes the monster to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and basically introduces him to art.
LARRY: The history of the world.
DAVID: The history of the world through art. I loved it because it seemed like the creature after that has got in touch with his more human instincts.
DAVID: And also became more of a pronounced individual.
LARRY: I really feel that’s true. In the beginning, he’s sort of like an infant. He’s learning puzzles. I love the scene where you’re sort of impatient with him, like many fathers that don’t quite get their kid until they grow up and start to be more cognizant. Then we have the ping-pong where he’s learning the idea of competition and all of that. But Polidori introduces him to, literally, the history of ideas and emotions and morality and so on. After that, he’s kind of an adolescent. So the thing I liked about the story is that you get to sort of tell an entire lifetime of development in this one succinct allegory. Of course the sad thing is, once you’ve been educated, comes your awareness of duplicity and moral collapse and narcissism like everybody. Then things go terribly wrong, unfortunately. You learn that your parents are vulnerable. That’s all in one little story.
DAVID: Much like an adolescent, the creature starts lashing out and disrespecting seniority.
LARRY: Goes to the titty bars! [Laughs]
DAVID: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
LARRY: As you would do.
DAVID: As you would do as a teenager exploring New York City.
LARRY: Exactly, and things go horribly wrong. His uncle gives him cocaine. It’s a real shitshow.
DAVID: You grew up in New York. Did you always want to set the story here?
LARRY: When I was first talking about it, I called it my Rock ‘n’ Roll Frankenstein. I just pictured a bunch of badasses sitting around in a loft. It was always the conceit to set it in an everyday place. In those days, Brooklyn was more mysterious. I started thinking about this story in the early 2000s. The idea of Brooklyn—who knows whatgoes on in all those lofts? Now I can tell you what goes on there: drinking IPAs and Tweeting! [Laughs] In the old days, it was a little more mysterious and I loved the idea that somebody was building a creature somewhere.
DAVID: There are still some parts of Brooklyn where you could probably get away with that.
LARRY: We chose Gowanus, which is great because it has the most toxic stream in America.
DAVID: I could see a creature crawling out of that.
LARRY: Yeah, well, that’s a whole other movie. In fact, I don’t want to overplay because we didn’t really use the canal enough.
DAVID: You could do a swamp thing.
LARRY: Oh, absolutely. Don’t get me started. I’ll do Creature from the Black Lagoon: Gowanus!
DAVID: You could turn that into a whole trilogy.
LARRY: Don’t give out all of our ideas here! Holy shit.
DAVID: I know you produce an awful lot. Do you have another thing you wanna direct?
LARRY: What I mostly wanna do is direct. I’ve got two movies I’m trying to get financed and made, but then I really wanna go back to directing because it takes too long between projects. Part of it is that I get distracted and enthusiastic about producing, but it’s not even my forte. I’ve had the luck to meet a lot of great filmmakers and try to usher them into the world, but it took me a long time to make Depraved and I was very happy to be doing that. That’s my passion, not producing. The only reason I’m a producer is that I always wanna get everybody excited about their work, and help them find their vision and be truth to it. So I do find that it’s mostly a mentorship or just sort of encouraging them. I’m not good with numbers. I hate dealing with agents.
LARRY: It’s terrible. Thank god for the producers on Depraved: Chadd Harbold and Jenn Wexler.
DAVID: Who are awesome.
LARRY: Liz Astor… I’m very lucky to have that kind of support system. So yes, I’ll be directing more. As for what, I’m always secretive until it’s really happening.
DAVID: That’s probably a good idea.
LARRY: You don’t wanna be too huffy puffy and then it never happens. Good lord.
LARRY: My most famous movie never got made. The Orphanage, a remake of a real movie.
DAVID: Is that dead?
LARRY: Well, it’s still on IMDB. That’s the point. You can’t erase these things anymore. But that was a great experience. I wrote with Guillermo [del Toro]. As I say, onto the next thing.
DAVID: You’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m hopefully gonna be directing my first feature in the next year.
DAVID: Thanks. Is there anything you learned on this that you hadn’t learned previously? Also, is there anything you’d like to impart onto me?
LARRY: No. It’s just the greatest privilege to make a movie and to get the team, you know? You really want a team that’s making the same movie with you and understands the scale that you’re able to work at. That was sort of my big thing. I tried to make a movie on a bigger budget for a long time and you need name actors to do that. I got good actors instead. It really is true that, as long as everybody’s making the same movie, you can be so creative and get the shots you dream of. In a weird way, there was no compromise on Depraved, but on the other hand, certain things could’ve been done differently. You really have to not fight that aspect. You have to embrace what you have. You’re gonna shoot in the Northwest?
LARRY: That’s incredible.
DAVID: You shot back there before.
LARRY: Most of all, you have to work with what you have. I always say, let fate be one of your partners, then your limitations become your strength. That’s really the pep talk I give because you can sit around and moan and groan that you don’t have enough time. The funny thing is, even the big movies—Scorsese never had enough time to do Silence. It took him 20 years to get it made.
DAVID: And I’m sure there’s still stuff that he wishes he could’ve done.
LARRY: Oh yeah. Film is always gonna haunt you and there’s always something that you might’ve done differently, but you have to be in the moment. Then it becomes thrilling and you’re riding a wave. You just want good partners who understand the mission and then it’s a blast. It is what we had with Depraved. I felt like everybody was in it to win it.
DAVID: When you feel like you’re all playing on the same team, it’s a much more enjoyable process, even when things are going badly. Having worked on a few bigger-budget things, it just gets so demoralizing so quickly when it feels like most of the people are not there for any reason other than to get the paycheck.
LARRY: That’s no way to make art. If you care about what you’re doing, especially if it’s gonna be your script, you realize you really want everyone to bring their passion and their A game. Then the budget isn’t the point. It’s about the amazing discoveries you make with every detail, every shot, and every acting choice. It’s fantastic. It couldn’t be better. It’s such a privilege. I made this movie on a raft on a lake with a giant rubber fish and some kids on a boat, and whenever the crew would complain, I was like, “You know—people your age are in Iraq right now.”
LARRY: “There are people digging trenches. They’re fighting. You should be just having the best time.” That’s the thing about making movies.
DAVID: I completely agree.
LARRY: That’s all we’ve got.
Notes from the director, March 2019
I have always been deeply moved by the archetypes of horror, and have made it my mission to breathe new life into these stories by grounding them in our contemporary world. DEPRAVED is a modern interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shot on the 200th anniversary of the source material. I have been captivated by the iconic Monster since childhood, and the themes that draw me to the story remain vital. On a fundamental level, Frankenstein is a coming of age tale, in which a bewildered and innocent protagonist learns the harsh realities of the world. This story explores ideas about parenthood, loneliness, memory, and the subtle psychological shocks that shape us as individuals.
Of course there are also themes about science and human hubris; the book, after all, was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.” The 1931 James Whale adaptation of the story introduced the idea of the brain transplant to explain the monster’s behavior. In that telling, the hunchback Igor procures the brain of a criminal, rendering the monster “bad.” But in DEPRAVED, we have met the character whose brain ends up in the monster and he isn’t identifiably bad or violent. It is his circumstances throughout the film that turn him. I saw in this setup an opportunity to explore the theme of nature vs. nurture. Do our circumstances make us bad? Of course, beyond all that, the movie imagines the horrific implications of the question “what would it be like if you woke up a monster?”
A book called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor in which a brain doctor (Jill herself) suffers a stroke, charts the many ways in which the brain can recover by re-wiring itself, yet certain traits can be dead forever, such as the ability to feel anxiety or conflict. I wanted the Monster in DEPRAVED to have a detached quality, an other-worldly quality; I imagined some of his brain might have died in the trauma of being harvested. Always I am looking for the relationship between behavior and brain science, between the physical and the metaphysical, a trick the author Oliver Sachs does so deftly in books like The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
Frankenstein in the story also deals with education and parenthood. In today’s society, with narcissism, vitriol and lies celebrated in public life, we seem to have forgotten that the example we set matters to the health of our children and society. The film follows the monster’s increased alienation from the two parental figures that created him, as he comes to learn of their weaknesses and blatant self-interest. Adam must break away from these two, as the next generation must…
In most versions of the story, the doctor is repulsed by his creature and rejects the thing he brought into this world. Since I don’t deal as much with physical deformity in the portrayal of the monster, I focus on Henry’s ambivalence about his responsibilities after proving he is capable of creating life. It seems we rarely anticipate the repercussions of scientific advancements; we simply pursue them regardless of consequence. And our wars leave collateral damage in their wake: veterans with PTSD, societies ravaged, environments wasted.
Structurally and thematically, I wanted to fracture the narrative by telling the story from different points of view. Cinema lends itself to the subjective point of view. The audience follows first Alex, then Adam, then Henry, then Polidori, then Lucy, like a baton being passed. Structure and point of view are essential tools of the filmmaker. I wanted to make a version of Frankenstein where we feel empathy for both the monster and his creator.
The ambition of DEPRAVED was to adapt a classic from the Western canon, to pay tribute and respond to one of the great icons of cinematic horror, to analyze where Western culture has succumbed to narcissism and collapse and to tell a personal story of being alienated simply by being conscious in an in different and arbitrary world. An existentialist’s Frankenstein for contemporary times.
It seems to me that in this cultural moment we should remember what horror can do: represent the human experience not through specifics that inspire tribalism and social disconnect but through the metaphors and allegories which explore universal truths.
DAVID CALL, “Henry” – David Call is an actor and producer, known for Tiny Furniture (2010), James White (2015) and Gabriel (2014).
JOSHUA LEONARD, “Polidori” – A filmmaker, writer, and actor, Joshua Leonard has made an indelible mark on independent film and television throughout his career. He first came onto the scene in 1999 with lo-fi sensation The Blair Witch Project, perhaps one of the most talked about indie films of all time. As an actor, Leonard continues to work on projects that push the envelope, including 2009’s Independent Spirit Award-winning Humpday, HBO’s acclaimed series “Hung,” “True Detective,” and The Duplass Brothers’ “Togetherness,” in addition to roles in the films Higher Ground by Vera Farmiga and If I Stay by RJ Cutler. Leonard’s directorial debut, The Youth in Us premiered at Sundance in 2005; he followed that with the doc, Beautiful Losers. He made his narrative feature debut with The Lie (Sundance 2011), a devilish morality tale adapted from a story by acclaimed author, T.C. Boyle, which Leonard co-wrote, directed and starred in. He recently wrapped production on his sophomore feature as a director, Behold My Heart, starring Marisa Tomei and Timothy Olyphant, based on a script that he co-wrote. In addition, he’s developing a one-hour television series for EPIX entitled “Liberty,” which he created and will EP alongside Cary Fukunaga.
ALEX BREAUX, “Adam” – Alex Breaux started his college career at Harvard University where he was a wide receiver/punt returner for Harvard’s varsity football team and two-time Ivy League champion. While still at Harvard, Breaux auditioned and was accepted into the Drama Division at The Juilliard School in New York City. In addition to acting, Breaux writes for film, television, and theatre.
ANA KAYNE, “Liz” – Ana Kayne is an actress and writer, known for Another Earth (2011), The Creek When He Came Back (2016) and Uncertainty (2008).
LARRY FESSENDEN, writer/director/producer/editor – Larry Fessenden, winner of the 1997 Someone to Watch Spirit Award, and nominee for the 2010 Piaget Spirit Award for producing, is the writer, director and editor of the award-winning art-horror trilogy HABIT (Nominated for 2 Spirit Awards), WENDIGO (Winner Best Film 2001 Woodstock Film Festival) and NO TELLING. His film, THE LAST WINTER (Nominated for a 2007 Gotham Award for best ensemble cast), premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Fessenden directed SKIN AND BONES for NBC TV’s horror anthology FEAR ITSELF and the feature film BENEATH for Chiller films. He wrote the screenplay with Guillermo del Toro of ORPHANAGE, an English language remake of the successful Spanish film EL ORFANATO. He is the writer, with Graham Reznick, of the hit Sony Playstation videogame UNTIL DAWN. Fessenden was awarded the 2007 Sitges Film Festival Maria Award for his work as a producer, actor and director in genre film, and he won the 2009 Golden Hammer Award for “being such an inspiring force in the industry.” In 2011, Fessenden was inducted into the “Fangoria Hall of Fame” and was honored by the UK’s Total Film as an Icon of Horror during the Frightfest Film Festival.
JAMES SIEWERT, cinematography – Known for his work on LIKE ME and THE RANGER. At the age of 13 James Siewert made his first film, in which the camera enters the main character’s eye. Now at 26 he has directed 3 more films where camera enters various bodily orifices. Along the way certain useful skills were acquired: how to build stuff, how to light stuff, and how to narrowly avoid a psychotic break during a week of shooting overnights. His main goal in life is to be able to keep making weird movies that some people care about.
CHRIS SKOTCHDOPOLE, cinematography – A writer, director and producer living in New York City. He works with Glass Eye Pix, an independent production outfit lead by director Larry Fessenden. Skotchdopole most recently served as co-producer on Jenn Wexler’s punk thriller, THE RANGER, starring Chloe Levine and Jeremy Holm. Previously, he worked as associate producer on Mickey Keating’s DARLING (SXSW) and Rob Mockler’s film LIKE ME (SXSW), starring Addison Timlin. He has produced several music videos and shorts for Glass Eye, including James Siewert’s THE PAST INSIDE THE PRESENT (Slamdance, Flordia Film Festival, Fantastic Fest). THE EGG AND THE HATCHET is his first short since graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2010. Chris is currently developing a feature with Larry Fessenden.