“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”-Frankenstein’s Monster
After hearing about the new Fessenden Frankenstein pastiche I thought I knew what I was in for. Fessenden has made a career of reworking old horror tropes into new and relevant material. Whether it is through directing/acting in classics like Habit in the 90’s or shepherding new talent through producing movies like The Ranger (one of my favorites from last year) Fessenden has earned his stellar reputation. Depraved was written and directed by Fessenden and in many ways captures so much of what is unique about this horror icon.
The film starts by introducing us to the lovers Lucy (played by the incomparable Chloe Levine) and Alex as they work through some of their issues. The relationship feels genuine, mostly because it feels complicated. It’s not perfect and while the film only gives us a few minutes of it is enough to sustain the entire movie. If the audience did not buy it as a legitimate relationship as the movie looks to leverage it later the movie wouldn’t have the emotional stakes that make it so effective. Soon after Alex leaves Lucy’s apartment he is stabbed and we wake up later with him in someone else’s body (er rather lots of other peoples bodies). Our modern Frankenstein is named Adam and is the result of our mad scientist, Henry. Adam and Henry’s relationship is perhaps the most interesting as Henry helps Adam rediscover his humanity while also questioning his own.
Much like US-China relations in the 1960’s (a phrase I am excited to use in relation to a horror movie) the two bond over Ping Pong. Alex Breaux plays Adam with such pathos we can’t help but connect with him. He is isolated in a city of millions of people and that isolation feels particularly relevant to folks who suffer from depression or anxiety (myself included). While the movie plays out in a traditional way Fessenden seeks to adapt the story to a modern day sensibility. We get small psychedelic nuance which leads to us to question the camera as a reliable narrator. In the final moments the movie makes a choice about its heroes and villains and in many ways it tries to offer the denouement that Shelley story never could.
The plot while feeling pretty traditional gives rise to a set of themes and ideas that feel squarely rooted in this moment in time. Henry’s creation is a hybrid of Big Pharma and an ongoing war that he has been unable to mentally come home from. As much as Adam is dealing with the trauma of having his brain and body transplanted the trauma that Henry is working through is the real driver of the plot. Henry came home from the war a different person (while we don’t know which war he was fighting in we get a lot of dessert flashbacks that give us a clue despite Fessenden never giving us a name). He was a medic who despite the best training and incredible talent still lost friends. As a result he has dedicated himself to bringing those friends back no matter the cost. At its core Depraved is a story about post-traumatic stress and the perpetual scars it causes. Not unlike Adam’s scars Henry’s will eventually fade but they ALWAYS be there shaping the person he becomes. These scars also prevent him from connecting with others around him. Depraved is unabashedly an antiwar movie and as we have generations of soldiers fighting the same war it seems the movie is particularly germane to our current situation.
The practical effects of Adam’s scars and transplantations let us know Fessenden is leaning into the Frankenstein comparisons. The psychedelia, themes, and ending let us know Fessenden is aiming for something larger. The movie isn’t a little r or big R romantic film, although the relationship we witness in the beginning is often used a way to represent Adam’s desire to get back to the way things were, whatever that was. It’s this complicated nature with the source material that makes the movie so interesting. Is it a love story,….maybe? Is it a creation story…..maybe? Is it a monster story….ABSOLUTELY. Although I am less convinced the movie wants to explore that in the same way other Frankenstein movies do. Sure, Henry created Adam but the story wants even less to talk about their relationship than to talk about how the two exist together. They are tethered at the beginning of the film but every minute from that original moment is a moment they move farther apart. In that way it parallels an actual parent/child story and makes the fact that Fessenden’s son, Jack, appears in the film even more poignant. As Jack Fessenden continues down his own career path as a filmmaker perhaps his father recognizes how difficult, painful, and necessary this transition can be.
Depraved is another feather to add to Fessenden’s cap of impressive genre cinema. He continues to grow as an auteur but perhaps even more important he continues to grow the genre by supporting new and innovative stories, directors, and other artists. Depraved is the latest combination of all of these things and like all great creations uses the best of the old with vision of something new. Depraved is out in theatres everywhere September 13.