The sinew that ties horror’s unquestionable importance to the rest of the cinematic arts is the ubiquitous feeling of fear. It’s one of our most universal and earliest learned emotions that, despite however much we may say otherwise, is an integral part of our lives. So many of our life decisions are dictated by fear, from career changes, to moves, to one of the most relatable — having children. And while films like We Need To Talk About Kevin directly illustrates the fear of what our kids could become despite our best efforts, Larry Fessenden‘s brilliant new film Depraved takes the anxiety of raising a child and strains it through the structure of the Frankenstein story — bringing new depths to Mary Shelley’s classic while having a refreshingly original take on a tale that’s been told for ages — to indirectly ask the untold truth parents may think, but never reveal: what if I made a mistake?
Alex (Owen Campbell, Super Dark Times) and Lucy (Chloë Levine, The Ranger) are recent college graduates on the cusp of moving in together in Gowanus, an industrial and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. After an offhanded expression of how good of a father he’d be, Alex becomes upset and decides to walk back to his own apartment on the desolate canal where he is accosted and repeatedly stabbed.
After having hallucinatory visions of his grandmother and girlfriend — told with Fessenden’s brand of hypnotic, dreamy visuals and startling shocks of vibrant animation — Alex wakes in a rudimentary lab. But his body is filled with cuts and stitches, one eye clouded with blood smeared on his arms. He finds a mirror, but it isn’t the Alex we just met: it is Adam, played with knowing precision by Alex Breaux (Bushwick). Alex lives on in Adam, an amalgamation of body parts constructed by Henry (David Call, Tiny Furniture) an ex-military field doctor now being funded by a mysterious corporation through his fellow doctor and money man Polidori (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project).
Adam may be the Frankenstein’s Monster to Henry’s Doctor Frankenstein but Depraved strips the story to only its bare essentials. Fessenden smartly eschews the trappings of Shelley’s original tale that’s been told ad nauseam. We’ve seen what happens when The Doctor instantly regrets creating The Monster, casting him out before hunting him down so it’s refreshing to see Henry instantly want to help and care for Adam. We watch through their mutual frustration and joy as Henry teaches Adam about emotions, basic motor functions, and table tennis.
And it’s in this early decision that we see Fessenden focusing on an aspect of the story that rarely gets further discovery: the father/son dynamic between Doctor and Creation. We know what this story is like when The Doctor struggles with the moral and ethical dilemma of creating life, but never one where that creation has a strict bedtime.
This riff intentionally mimics the struggle of single parents raising a child that I think will resonate most strongly with parents of children on the autism spectrum. Henry has to find new ways to help Adam learn, like using music to focus his mind. He is clearly filled with empathy and compassion for the person he created, but he also becomes understandingly exasperated and overwhelmed by what is now his responsibility. This isn’t a story about a doctor playing god, but rather a man trying to be a father.
But that doesn’t mean that Depraved is completely detached from previous versions of Frankenstein. It does hit familiar beats that humanized the creation in James Whale’s original run of Universal Films, like the monster eventually demanding a mate, leading to Adam encountering the cheekily named Shelley (Addison Timlin, The Town That Dread Sundown) whose fate gives this Frankenstein’s Monster shades of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Visually and aurally Fessenden’s film is a feast filled with animation and sound design meant to embody the multitudes that reside within Adam. These soundscapes of noise and reverse speech illustrate the conflicting dualities within him as his present mind tries to understand how to speak while his past mind struggles to remember who he once was. The film’s lighting is washed in warm reds and greens to give Depraved an almost E.C. Comics-esque color palette juxtaposed with Fessenden’s aesthetical camera work (shot by Chris Skotchdopole and James Siewert) imbued with his early 90’s DIY spirit. As his films are character studies as well as genre pieces, Fessenden gets the most out of his talented cast but especially Call and Breaux, who embodies this version of The Monster with a quiet intensity, unlike any other iteration we’ve seen before.
Fessenden has been creating genre films with a message for years. In the director’s notes for the film he elaborates, saying “I have always been deeply moved by the archetypes of horror, and have made it my mission to breathe new life into these stories by grounding them in our contemporary world.” His works are emotional journeys, weaving you through unexpected territories until the rug is pulled from beneath you and you are left with the films emotional core. Or maybe it’s better to describe it as a pit, like the one each of his characters eventually have in their stomachs. He does this with every one of his films, from Habit’s commentary on alcoholism through the lens of vampirism to The Last Winter, his Eco-chiller using the Wendigo legend as a proxy for the destructive nature of climate change.
For lack of a better term, I’d argue that he is our sole Activist Horror filmmaker, starting all the way back in 1991 with his ostensible debut No Telling. The film, a dark romance about a love triangle and ethically ambiguous animal testing, has a clear lineage to Depraved when viewed in tandem. But while No Telling ends on a visceral gut punch, this film leaves us with a modicum of hope. Fessenden is a director that is constantly evolving, finding new ways to let his voice be heard, and in a career of home runs, Depraved stands out as the film where his voice can be heard the clearest.
What the Fest!? Film Festival 2019 runs March 20th-24th at NYC’s IFC Center.