Larry Fessenden’s Depraved is a do-it-yourself Frankenstein adaptation that surges with the filmmaker’s passion for profession, material, and genre. Brooklyn warehouse districts and Manhattan’s underbelly play backdrop to a retelling steeped in its own mad scientifics. An “indie” stitched together by graverobber prosthetic effects, pop-savvy hallucinations of firing synapses, and “man or monster” duplicity rooted in Mary Shelley’s thematic prose but adaptive to relevant social climates. Empathy and tragedy befall what we’ve discovered to be the faulted human condition; ghastly designs merely a metaphor. As history repeats and civilization progresses, so does cinematic culture – with Fessenden on the forefront of depicting how to do so (on a shoestring budget) correctly.
Alex Breaux stars as Adam, a laboratory (Gowanus loft) creation at the hands of ex-military field surgeon Henry (David Call). Adam’s brain locks away his previous life – in a different body (Alex, played by Owen Campbell) – and as Henry teaches his “experiment” to become human once again, breadcrumbs of a past existence come in sudden flashbacks. Time passes, Adam’s cognitive and motor abilities regain strength, but Henry begins to doubt Adam’s readiness for public announcement despite his backer Polidori’s (Joshua Leonard) hasty desire to bring “RapX” in front of pharmaceutical investors. The more Polidori pushes, the angrier Henry gets, and the less control both men have over Adam.
Cinematographer James Siewert partners with Fessenden on multiple levels of intrigue, from black-and-white Universal Monsters callbacks to psychotropic colorization as in Glass Eye Pic’s Like Me (another Siewert collaboration). The latter reveals developmental awakenings of Adam’s mind, as green and blue pulses overtake the screen whenever Henry reaches a new milestone in tutelage – completed puzzles, ping-pong coordination, bouncing a rubber ball up and down. We aren’t treated to the most *lavish* locations, sticking to New York City back alleys and nondescript rentals, but bursts of anatomy books and neurological x-rays atop Adam’s montages do accentuate visual storytelling.
Makeup design by Peter Gerner and Brian Spears transform Breaux’s toned and slender figure into a composite of sewn together assorted limbs, sliding threads through flesh with abominable results. Crosshatches run up-and-down Adam – circling one eye and mismatching ear skin on another side – as Henry’s macabre Humpty Dumpty stays put together by modern medical marvels. In such a low-fi project, grotesqueries like splitting seams and surgeon-precise attachments aren’t always…presentable. Good thing Depraved succeeds under the scalpel, unafraid to showcase its childlike amalgamation of decomposed connectors under spotlights.
As Adam proceeds through mental hurdles to regain human features, Fessenden mirrors the rapid-fire speed in which we live our lives. Henry’s PTSD from Middle East combat leaves behind crushing guilt for every soldier he couldn’t save – hence his desire to cheat unknown powers and natural causes. Polidori – the business-blunt moneyman who takes Adam to strip clubs, feeds him whiskey – embraces the role of obstructer to Henry’s tender care-taking. Adam is brought into this world a specimen, but also an empty soul.
He’s viewed a freak, failed by those around him as intentions turn toxic, and all while he attempts to find the simplest of pleasures – human compassion. Brutishness and loneliness blur as Fessenden introduces Henry’s on-off girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne), a flirty-friendly barfly who sparks Adam’s excitement (played by Addison Timlin), and the horrors of one man’s incapability to keep stride with an ever-changing society shaped by repulsion.
It’s nothing new in terms of Frankenstein lore, but performances spark this hipster’s cadaver feature to life. Between Breaux’s metamorphosis from a mute, bewildered vampiric husk of harvested organs into a lean cut of inquisitive frustration lead astray, to Call’s representation of the best motivations becoming weaponized in the wrong hands, there exists a heavy heartbeat inside Depraved’s core. Leonard ever the over-slick worm of a conspirator who cuts right to the basest of human mistakes – hubris. As Adam learns when tossing his ball, what goes up must come down. Polidori could have used the same lesson, as Leonard’s ambitious outrage melts like Icarus’ wings. A tale old as time, updated with leather jackets, sympathetic lamentation towards a beast, and resonance in Adam’s narration of “I have lied, and they told me not to care.” Corruption, thy name is “reality.”
What traps ensnare Depraved come in the second act, as Polidori’s introduction interrupts the touchstone emotionality in the pupil/mentor relationship between Adam and Henry. Always the instigator, Polidori remains more one-note and pointed in his actions. A necessary manipulator, but Adam and Henry’s reanimation into adolescence remains Fessenden’s throughline achievement. Henry the shaken, parental, and conscious inventor; Adam this personification of male ego as the women around him become pawns or worse. Leonard takes Polidori’s arc full-circle upon Act III’s the “castle siege” moment, but compassion is Fessenden’s ally – Polidori distracts to a degree.
Depraved isn’t as the title suggests. Rather, Larry Fessenden plights the folly of man in ways that remain intrinsically human despite his main character’s living dead affliction – specific attention paid to the word “men.” Henry’s Dr. Frankenstein sports a warm nurturer’s aura and gut-shredding confliction, while Breaux’s “The Creature” molds into the monster everyone warns of, or fears, or desires. Fessenden’s methods are understated, craftsmanship authentically blistered, and status as a jack-of-all-trades auteur unmatched on the indie circuit. To any aspiring filmmaker who’s been told “Don’t wait, go out there and make your movie” – no one embodies that phrase better than Larry Fessenden. Take note.
Depraved hits empathetic highs as his creature learns harsh realities about humanity under a New York City haze, while the passion for the material is always evident.