‘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.

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