★★★★1/2 Out of ★★★★★
Depraved is a modern retelling of Frankenstein and manages to preserve all the empathy of the source material while making a more sophisticated and nuanced take on the classic tale.
Directed by Larry Fessenden
I have no reservations in saying that the 1931 James Whale production of Frankenstein still holds up to this day. It is one of the building blocks of all horror movies, though it now comes off as something rather quaint. Boris Karloff’s sympathetic monster, Colin Clive’s manic Henry Frankenstein, and Dwight Frye’s savage Fritz are all characters for the ages. The movie was short, but it was able to convey the perils of science without question, and what is the nature of humanity.
Flash forward to 2019, a jaded era where little shocks viewers, and something as timeless as the tale of Frankenstein’s maniacal attempts to redefine life and death have lost their power. Enter Larry Fessenden, the hardest working man in the horror business. He has re-imagined the tale, and given the idea a new brain, but it retains the heart of Whale’s (and Mary Shelly’s) original masterpiece.
We are introduced to young lovers Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloë Levine) as they part ways for the evening. Alex is murdered soon afterward, and the screen fades to credits. We are then introduced to our Frankenstein, a creature of stitched together body parts who will soon be dubbed Adam (Alex Breaux) by his doctor Henry (David Call). Adam crawls off of the surgery table and looks into the mirror and sees a stranger. Adam contains Alex’s brain, but the memories and intellect need to be rebooted.
Adam starts out as little more than an automaton, with Henry using wooden puzzles and children’s books to re-start Adam’s intellect. As Adam begins to recover some of his humanity, he recovers some speech, and physically he is progressing fantastically, playing ping pong with Henry, and he demonstrates tremendous athletic ability, but really has the mind of a child, though his memory flashbacks periodically haunt him.
Unlike Frankenstein, Adam does not contain the mind of a psychotic criminal, but there was enough damage to Alex’s brain that he has to re-learn morals and ethics. And though Henry is not a raving lunatic, ala Colin Clive, he is a man with issues. Henry is a former army medic from the wars in Afghanistan and still suffers PTSD. His trauma for failing his comrades has led him down a path where he can revive those who have suffered catastrophic wounds and died on the battlefield. A worthy cause!
He has engaged in this effort with his buddy Polidori (Joshua Leonard… The Blair Witch Experiment) who is his money man, financer, and biggest cheerleader. Needless to say, Adam is learning his ethics from a nervous traumatized vet and a greedy venture capitalist… so he doesn’t gain much in the way of a moral compass. There is hope by way of Henry’s girlfriend, Liz (Ana Kayne) who discovers Adam, and eventually becomes very curious about him, but Adam has, shall we say, a lot to learn about women.
It is also good to remember that Adam is not a zombie. He is a human, though a cobbled together human, but he does have biological functions and needs still. In order to have his body reject the various incongruous organs and limbs, he has to be on a regimen of medicine provided by Polidori. So, Adam can go out in public, but eventually, he’ll start to degrade as his tissues decay, and look more monstrous.
Adam eventually is curious about the world and ventures out, which proves disastrous. Henry and Polidori are at great odds about how to control this experiment, and as the tension mounts between the two, the whole project goes sideways. You can’t control the monster any more than you can try and control an uncooperative teenager, apparently. Dreams of medical miracles and untold riches come crashing down as the reality that cheating death wasn’t probably the best thing to do comes to a violent and catastrophic conclusion. And, through it all… you root for Adam. Go, monster go!
Fessenden clearly has a deep appreciation and love for the source material. He plays up to its emotional core, and eschews any desire for camp. All of the characters are complex and interesting, and have sine-wave arcs to them, but not in an erratic way. They go from noble, to crazy, to pathetic, and back to noble again. High marks for the script, which Fessenden also penned. There are nods periodically to the original that are very clever. The “Daisy” scene redone very cleverly. The notion of torches and pitchfork wielding citizens. The lightning storm and the raw Gothic imagery in the violence in the final stanza. All really well done.
The second act is a bit slow at times, as the film really invests in the growth and development of Adam. As Adam gets his hair back, and is able to wear clothes, he passes off as a guy with some wicked scars. I would have liked to have gotten some background as to why Henry and Polidoros decided to mix and match the body parts (There is a moment where they discuss salvaging parts from surgical centers) but given that they were able to claim a whole murder victim in Alex, why not just animate a recently deceased corpse? That’s probably the one nagging issue I had with the film, but on the whole, I think it hit all the right marks.
Larry has become something of a Roger Corman for this current age of horror films. It seems he is in every independent horror movie out there at the moment. He is an unmistakable “That Guy” actor, with 104 acting credits, 23 directing credits, 18 writing credits, and I think most significantly 74 producing credits including The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, Late Phases, and The Ranger being notable films he has produced. He carries the same low-budget indie ethos that Corman has, and clearly isn’t afraid of schlock, but Depraved I think is his high water mark.
I saw Fessenden down at Overlook, but I hadn’t seen the film until it showed at the Portland Horror Film Festival, so I wasn’t able to greet him and tell him how much I enjoyed his movie. I won’t lose that opportunity again, as I will remember Depraved for a long time. For me, this was the highlight feature film of the PHFF. The horror bits take their time, but the soul of Shelly’s monster is felt throughout.
Depraved is not yet rated, but I would peg this as an R, for sure, but it isn’t overly gory. I would say it’s about a 17 out of 25 on the Scariest Things Bridge Too Far meter. It is still working through the festival circuit, and does not have a wide release or streaming date yet.
So, for now… enjoy the Trailer, and keep your eyes out for it in a Film Festival coming to your area: