By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring David Call, Alex Breaux and Joshua Leonard
Written and directed by Larry Fessenden
The release of DEPRAVED this week reminds us how long it’s been since Larry Fessenden has brought one of his own stories to the screen, how much he’s been missed and how vital his personal point of view on the genre continues to be.
DEPRAVED is his own take on the Frankenstein story; he’s explored variations on the theme before (his early feature NO TELLING was a bad-science shocker subtitled OR, THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX), and this one hews closer to the basics and themes of Mary Shelley’s classic while forging its own modern path through the material. In so doing, Fessenden employs what at first seem like traditional tropes but prove to have deeper meanings. He opens with a fairly explicit sex scene between a couple of good-looking young people (SUPER DARK TIMES’ Owen Campbell and THE RANGER’s Chloë Levine), which is far from gratuitous raunch: It’s a depiction of the purest act of creating life, made clear by their subsequent discussion about whether the guy is ready for fatherhood. These are signifiers of the themes the writer/director will go on to explore in DEPRAVED, chiefly those of responsibility, both parental and scientific.
Fessenden’s protagonist, like that of James Whale’s classic 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, is named Henry (David Call), though if he shares the famous surname, it’s not revealed in the film. A former military field surgeon scarred on the inside by his experiences in the Middle East, he takes the time-honored path of attempting to cheat death by creating life—with the help of his Big Pharma sponsor, named Polidori (after one of the other writers at the fateful Geneva get-together that spawned Shelley’s novel) and played by Joshua Leonard. The details and forces behind the “monster’s” vivification are backstory to be discovered and revealed, however, since this is one of the rare Frankenstein films to tell its story from the point of view of its man made of corpse parts, a gambit that proves to be successful and crucial.
Named Adam (Alex Breaux) by Henry, he wakes up a mess of scars and confusion in the doctor’s Brooklyn-loft laboratory, unable to speak or comprehend the environment around him. He’s a vessel into which Henry only wants to pour the best intentions, and Call and Breaux evoke a profound relationship that is at once parent and son, teacher and student, experimenter and experiment. Breaux, emoting under Brian Spears and Peter Gerner’s excellent prosthetics—scars that come to evoke pity rather than repulsion—projects deep feelings of humanity struggling to come to the surface, while Call’s Henry feels genuinely motivated to mold him into a proper human, and to protect him from the vagaries and treacheries of the society outside his lab.
Polidori, on the other hand, has no such concerns. Anxious to reveal the fruits of his sponsorship to his backers, he becomes a sort of cool dad to Henry’s concerned, sheltering father, exposing Adam to the world, taking him to both an art museum and a strip club. But it is when Adam ventures to a local bar on his own, and shares an affecting scene with one of the patrons (Addison Timlin), that his inability to properly function in society—and the unfortunate ramifications—become clear. He is a scientific product not yet ready to graduate from alpha testing, but unleashed upon the world anyway, making him very much a “monster” of his time, and part of Fessenden’s allegorical study of an Information Age world in which value is placed on getting and knowing things faster, not necessarily better.
DEPRAVED is also the emotional saga of one (artificial) man’s attempts to comprehend and come to terms with his past, as flashes of Adam’s previous existence as someone else begin sparking in his stolen brain. And through it all, Fessenden never forgets he’s also making a horror movie, a side that becomes more pronounced in the final third, when he and cinematographers Chris Skotchdopole and James Siewert ease from downtown gritty to full-bore rural Gothic. The production values in general, low-fi though they might be (Fessenden made DEPRAVED on a tiny budget after years of trying to mount it as a higher-profile production), feel very right to the material, and Fessenden’s thesis that science can be mishandled on a personal as well as a corporate level, with the same unpleasant cost to individuals. Moving and frightening and exciting in its intelligence, DEPRAVED is another standout in Fessenden’s filmography, joining a (ahem) body of work that draws from disparate sources but fits together far more cohesively than the patchwork Adam.