DEPRAVED (Larry Fessenden, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, September 13
Earlier this year, Larry Fessenden’s Depraved made its world premiere at IFC Center as the opening-night selection of What the Fest!?, five days of twisted films and discussions that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre. Depraved, which does just that, is now back at IFC for its inaugural theatrical release. “Humanity does so love destruction. Depraved. That’s what we are. Utterly depraved,” Polidori (Joshua Leonard) explains in the film, a contemporary reimagining of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein involving the military, Big Pharma, and fatherhood. The smooth-talking Polidori (named for John William Polidori, an acquaintance of Mary Wollstonecraft’s who in 1819 published the first modern vampire story) is overseeing a cutting-edge experiment by Henry (David Call), who is seeking to bring life to the dead through surgery, medication, and therapy. (Dr. Frankenstein was named “Victor” in Mary Shelley’s book but “Henry” in James Whale’s 1931 movie.) Using body parts from multiple corpses, Henry, a former army medic in Iraq, has patched together a living being he names Adam (Alex Breaux). The final, key piece is the warm brain of Alex (Owen Campbell), who is brutally murdered moments after having a fight with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine), in Brooklyn. Adam develops sooner than expected, taking a liking to Henry’s girlfriend, Liz (Ana Kayne), while Polidori uses this as an opportunity to speed up the deals he’s working on. It doesn’t go very well.
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Fessenden (The Last Winter, Wendigo) — who made the cult vampire hit Habit in 1997 and is now working on a long-conceived werewolf picture — Depraved takes on several timely issues, most powerfully war and PTSD; Henry, who suffers from PTSD himself, and Polidori are hoping to keep mortally wounded soldiers alive while also helping them deal with post-traumatic stress, but they did not anticipate Adam experiencing memory flashbacks of Alex’s life (which are accompanied by creepy animation). Fessenden also explores the nature of parenting in twenty-first-century America: Alex is murdered shortly after fighting with Lucy about having children; Henry perceives Adam as a kind of son to him, especially early on when he is teaching him elementary school basics and playing catch with him; Polidori, who is married to Georgina (Maria Dizzia), works for his father-in-law (Chris O’Connor) while also serving as Adam’s bad parent; and, as a bonus, Fessenden’s son Jack is the film’s videographer and appears as Eddie. (Larry can be seen in a cameo as the guy at the end of the bar, where Adam meets Shelley [Addison Timlin], named for the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.)
The strong cast is led by Breaux (Red Speedo, Jack Fessenden’s upcoming Foxhole), who gives a multilayered, sensitive performance as Adam, a lonely man — not a monster — lost in a world he no longer understands, and Call (The Sinner, The Breaks), who humanizes the mad-scientist-as-God role. Inspired by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, about how she recovered from a severe brain hemorrhage, and the legacy of Oliver Sacks, Fessenden is not merely trying to scare the hell out of us with Depraved, which was made in twenty-four days in Gowanus and includes a scene shot guerrilla-style in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, he has made an intense film that looks at how we are wired and how trauma impacts our relationships with others. And more than fear, the film hits us with an overwhelming sadness. “We always have tomorrow,” Alex says in the beginning. Alas, not always. Fessenden will be at IFC for Q&As following the 9:45 screenings on September 13 and 14.