Larry Fessenden reanimates Shelley’s classic story in the post-Shkreli age
In indie horror icon Larry Fessenden’s latest, an Army medic (David Call), shaken by his many losses in the Middle East, partners with an unscrupulous med tech mogul (Joshua Leonard) to build a human being from scratch. The result of their efforts is Adam (Alex Breaux), a towering, bald mute whose identity (like his other parts) slowly stitches together as the story unfolds. It’s a tale often told since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, full of expected tropes and themes of god-complex hubris and amorality. More often than not, Depraved falls victim to these tropes — but Fessenden uses them to fuel an undeniably interesting take on an overly-medicated, emotionally-stunted world.
Here, Fessenden shifts his focus from the creators to the created. Beginning in a shocker of a sequence where a potential main character is revealed to merely be a source for future body parts, Fessenden roots his perspective firmly in Adam’s perspective. He struggles with basic commands, let alone basic English, but as David Call’s medic Henry diligently fosters Adam’s development, we slowly see the roots of a kind, empathetic personality come forth. Over the film’s surprisingly long timeline, we see Adam’s scars heal, bringing him that much closer to outward humanity. But much like how his creator struggles with post-combat PTSD, Adam’s still far from healed on the inside, wracked with the flickering memories of those who formerly owned his body parts. For much of Depraved, Adam effectively serves as a kind of stand-in for those who come home from combat to a world who couldn’t care less about them — and instead are forced to medicate their trauma away rather than confront it outright. As well-intentioned as Henry’s efforts are, it’s clear that his inability to confront his inner demons causes Adam to develop the same perilous complex. It’s when Joshua Leonard’s Polidori comes into the picture, a boozing, business exec with delusions of grandeur for his latest project, that Adam’s development starts to go off the rails. Despite Adam’s undeniable humanity, Polidori sees him as little more than a product and a plaything, and Adam is quickly exposed to the more perverse sides of human nature.
In seeing the world through Adam’s half-functioning eyes, human behavior becomes less of a way of life than a series of distractions: we see Henry’s drive to build Adam as his way of saving those he couldn’t during the war, and Polidori’s obsession with Adam’s results as a way to keep his drug habits going. The subplot involving the significant other still grieving the man Adam’s brain used to belong to curses Adam with a sense of longing that his current body can’t fulfill. Even further, it’s a sense of loss that arguably isn’t even his in the first place. For better and for worse, each of the people invested in and affected by Adam’s creation inform Adam’s composite personality. When Adam inevitably breaks loose from his captors, it’s clear Depraved stakes its belief in monsters being bred, not born. It’s in this latter section that Depraved really takes off, turning the typical story structure of the Frankenstein tale into a direct interrogation of the “monster’s” creators. It’s a welcome return to the core themes of Shelley’s original novel, and a far departure from more classic incarnations of the monster on film.
Where the film suffers, though, is how long Depraved wallows in its expected tropes before it forges its own path. Breaux and Call create a magnetic empathy for Adam and Henry throughout, but those surrounding them — Polidori, and their significant others (Ana Kayne and Maria Dizzia) — aren’t too fleshed out beyond the obstructions they cause the protagonists. Leonard does clearly relish his material, and plays his misanthropic philanthropist role like an even more horrific Martin Shkreli. However, the satiric bluntness to which Fessenden employs these characters equally blunts their impact to the story. It sacrifices the story’s potential edge — and at times external logic — for a misguided sense of edginess. For example, Polidori’s night-long corruption of Adam feels necessary in terms of the film’s themes, but wouldn’t a cash-crazed businessman like Polidori be concerned about the potential damage he’s inflicting on his prized product?
Fessenden’s strengths as a director and editor, though, outweigh his screenplay’s occasional shortcomings. Much like his past Wendigo and The Last Winter, I loved his experimentation with stop-motion, time-lapse photography, and transitional overlays, which make Depraved feel as haphazardly stitched-together as its protagonist. Fessenden’s methods gleefully heighten Depraved’s overall sense of alienation and unease — and you get the sense of an auteur eager to get as much out of his footage as possible while also crafting a well-told story. He also clearly knows how to get just as much out of his budget: the film’s makeup effects (especially Adam’s lengthy healing process) are effectively gruesome, grounding this tale of the fantastic in a successfully stomach-churning sense of realism.
While his reach has a habit of exceeding his grasp, it’s still wonderfully engaging to see a director like Fessenden bring his talents to such fertile material. Overall, Depraved is an aggressively ambitious modern take on the Frankenstein story, one with a disarmingly empathetic view towards the creature at its core.
Depraved opens in theaters September 13th from IFC Midnight.