For more than a quarter century, iconoclastic indie film writer-director-producer-actor Larry Fessenden has been using the monsters of American film and folklore to reflect on human nature as well as to explore modern issues such as addiction, AIDS and environmental exploitation. Two centuries after the publication of Mary Shelley's novel, Fessenden's latest film “Depraved” brings Dr. Frankenstein and his creation into the 21stcentury, bearing the contemporary baggage of battle-related PTSD, Big Pharma, and the American culture of war. Despite the big themes, Fessenden's retelling of the Frankenstein story succeeds due to its thoughtful and empathetic character studies of the creator and creation.
A prominent tagline for James Whale's 1931 film version of “Frankenstein” proclaims its subject as “The Man Who Made a Monster!” Fessenden makes it clear from the beginning that he will be telling the story from the creature's perspective. A pre-credits prologue depicts a millennial couple—web designer Alex (Owen Campbell) and Met gift shop clerk Lucy (Chloe Levine)—who, after lovemaking, spat over his reluctance to father a child. Going out for a walk to clear his head, Alex is abruptly stabbed to death and abducted. When he awakens on a gurney in an adapted Brooklyn loft in the next scene, a mirror reveals not Alex, but an unfamiliar body covered in scars (courtesy of convincing makeup design by Peter Gerner and Brian Spears). Rings of broad stitches circle a milky eye and an ear.
Alex's body may be gone, but his brain is on a new journey.
This new patchwork frame is the work of research scientist Henry (David Call), a former war medic suffering from PTSD whose research is driven by the losses he witnessed on the battlefield. Unlike Shelley's doctor, who abandons his creation, Henry dutifully assumes his fatherly duties, leading Adam from Dr. Seuss to puzzles and ping-pong, and eventually to music and concepts such as gravity. Adam's mental processing is represented through mesmerizing montages (credited to cinematographer James Siewert) of floating green bubbles, time-lapse images and medical illustrations that dissolve into sprawling trees, river deltas and lightning branches. Eventually, flashes from Alex's past begin to surface, triggering post-traumatic symptoms in Adam.
The scenes between Henry and Adam have an intimacy one doesn't expect in a Frankenstein film. To his portrayal of Adam, Alex Breaux brings not just the requisite cadaverous physique, but a quiet vulnerability which binds father and son, creator and creation.
Henry teaches Adam that his survival relies on a large regimen of drugs with the reassurance, "Don't worry, most of America's on drugs.” Unbeknownst to Adam, however, he is the guinea pig for a new drug, RapX, for which Henry's off-the-books experiment is being bankrolled by partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard), the scion of a big pharmaceutical family impatient to cash in on the discovery. Named for the doctor present at the creation of the Frankenstein story, Polidori is cast as a recognizable contemporary figure. Acting as Adam's guide to culture, he fancies himself an art lover yet winds up introducing his charge to alcohol, cocaine and strip clubs, where he greets the strippers—Melania and Stormy—by name.
With Adam torn between father figures, identities and value systems, it comes as no surprise when this experiment ends badly.
What is surprising is the effect Adam has when he ventures into the world. A century ago, French director Abel Gance shocked viewers when he used soldiers injured in World War I to portray the returning dead in "J'accuse." These damaged faces and bodies would haunt a generation and inspire such arresting cinematic images as the dismembered hands clutching the No Man's Land fence in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It says something, then, about a culture inured to constant war that when Adam, still covered with scars, flees the lab and ventures into a Brooklyn bar, a young woman named Shelley (Addison Timlin) doesn't recoil in horror; just tells him he looks like Iggy Pop and asks, “So what happened to you?”