Movies construct their own language right from the start. They evolve into an experience that derives from how an artist communicates to their audiences, conveying information that hopefully provokes, challenges or connects to the viewer. Writer-director Larry Fessenden’s brings his unique language and reinterpretation of a familiar literary classic in Depraved, set in modern day Brooklyn. Larry Fessenden is a key figure in independent filmmaking and modern horror storytelling, popping in a number of films from the past, always making an impact. Here we experience a more contemplative re-imagining of the Frankenstein novel which touches on a number of themes including male vulnerability along with ideas about loneliness, fractured memory and the psychological shocks that make us who we are. It slowly becomes more involving and intense in ways that are refreshing and feel new. I was reminded at times of Lucky McKee’s incredible portrayal of loneliness over a decade ago called May, only from the male perspective and chronologically in reverse since it isn’t until the very end of that film where the monster may in fact come to life.
Depraved comes to life right from the get-go. We start out with a great folk song by Elizabeth & The Catapult called “More Than Enough” with direct lyrics that might hint at themes to come. Slowly after witnessing a couple experiencing the pains and pleasures of a long-term relationship, our protagonist Adam (Alex Breaux) is violently attacked on his way home. He awakens to discover he has been resurrected by an ambitious surgeon named Henry (David Call). This Doctor Frankenstein character isn’t a your typical mad depraved scientist, but rather a war-damaged ex-soldier suffering with PTSD. The sights that he witnessed on tour have also affected him as well as his desire to stop death. Filling the more traditional corruptive villain role we have Polidori (played by the great Joshua Leonard), who is in it for the money and notoriety of the experiment. Both are self-absorbed and troubled and have very different ways of “parenting” and/or manipulating Adam. Henry chooses to give him games and culture to the point of providing companionship, Polidori provides drugs and strippers and both ultimately cause a breakdown in Adam. It is their well-intentioned but ultimately self-destructive actions that shape him which touches on the protective, conflicted importance of a parental role in this day and age.
That’s just one of a few key ideas that Fessenden wants to explore in his parable. When it comes to dealing with outside influence or attraction, Adam is clearly quite vulnerable and susceptible in ways that are recognizably human throughout. The wonderful Addison Timlin shows up later as a kindhearted, curious bar patron that wants to know Adam on a deeper level possibly. Where that scenario ends up might be familiar but also subversive since I was almost expecting the story to take us in to territory akin to The Bride Of Frankenstein. There’s also a central character named Liz (Ana Kayne) that strikes warm notes worth harmonizing with among the mostly male players here. Where it all ends up is both twisted and for the most part, quite nail-biting. Fessenden knows horror fans are incredibly aware of trappings, tropes and the glorious possibilities within the genre. Sadly, I think the very final act can’t quite stick the landing since it becomes confrontational in a way that almost feels inevitable. There’s still tension but I could’ve used a little more myself to make a lasting impact. Regardless, there’s a strong balance of pathos and empathy throughout the proceedings, that is almost audacious in of itself to not go too gory or too “depraved” as things progress.
Depraved is an incredibly thoughtful, original horror parable with a strong sense of morality and compassion that is rare these days. This one has definitely made me curious about Fessenden as a writer/director, since I imagine certain themes showcased here resonate throughout his career. For this particular film, I was consistently impressed by the confidence behind the camera, the ability to get assured, well-tuned performances, and to take a familiar dish while also giving its own distinct flavor and seasoning. Horror fans and fans of Fessenden’s work from the past will be quite pleased I’m sure.