Depraved is director Larry Fessenden’s take on the Frankenstein story, with his own modern twist. The update makes it gloriously timely without losing any of the underlying tragedy of the original tale.
After a terrible attack one night, Alex (Owen Campbell) looks like he has been left for dead. Rather than this being the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. Waking on a table, stitched together like a post-autopsy cadaver, Adam (Alex Breaux) is disoriented and mute. A young researcher, Henry (David Call), tends to him. Alex and Adam might seem to have nothing in common, until Adam begins having Alex’s memories creep in. These flashes are fleeting and nonsensical, but they’re still very real. However, Henry keeps Adam focused on healing and growing his motor skills and cognition. He is, once again, becoming a man.
This construction of man is where Depraved sticks its neck out from the rest of the crowd of reanimated human stories. The Mary Shelley classic is not only a terrifying concept, and arguably the first significant work of science fiction, but has proven to be a malleable vehicle for projecting contemporary culture’s anxieties. Shelley herself used the story to digest technological advances and what they meant for faith in higher powers. More recently, the 2016 film Shelley took a more maternal bend on the tale and used the loose structure of created life to look at the definition of motherhood. There are dozens of other, equally intriguing examples I could rattle off, from Warhol to Brooks, but my point is that Frankenstein is part blank canvas and part mirror.
Depraved bows this premise to look at the evil within toxic masculinity and corporate greed, and both of those reside in one single character. Polidori (Joshua Leonard from The Blair Witch Project) is both the financier of Henry’s research and kind of a dick. When he gets his chance to socialize Adam in the ways of being a man (ahem, a dude), he takes him to a strip club to objectify women before Adam knows that they’re not objects. Polidori’s insistence in one true expression of masculinity is not only passé, it’s dangerous. Adam is incapable of interpreting Polidori’s mode as problematic and has no way to question his motives. Seeing these behaviors mimicked quickly by Adam, with terrible consequences, is an inevitable end to the horrific nature of this brand of masculinity.
But it doesn’t stop there. Polidori is also the embodiment of greed and financial selfishness. His motives in bonding with Adam and keeping Henry’s experiments afloat are only to potentially pad his own wallet, and not for some scientific quest or ego fluffing like the OG Dr. Frankenstein. Polidori puts the experiment at risk on multiple occasions, all in hopes of making more money from the outcome. He’s a loathsome character and the picture of problematic modern man. Worst of all, he wants to make Adam his Mini-Me. If men like Polidori reproducing asexually is not the definition of a horror story, then I’m at a loss.
While the plot mechanics in Depraved work well, the visual storytelling is enhanced by flashes and flares of light to show us Adam’s neurological development. These effects never take the literal leap to show physical synapses, but they give the feeling of neural sparks connecting. Combined with the flashbacks to Alex’s life, the feeling of Depraved is a level above a merely narrative film.
This is not to say that Depraved is inaccessible or incredibly polished. There’s a bit of a scrappy spirit behind it. Fessenden (Wendingo, The Last Winter) has always been a director to watch, and this is no exception.