Cracking open Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in high school probably seemed like a chore. Flipping through pages of dense prose, mandatory class discussion, and inevitable reading quizzes sucked the enjoyment out of such a rich novel. There have been plenty of adaptations of the tale, but now Shelley’s masterpiece has received a 21st-century makeover in the form of Larry Fessenden’s latest film, Depraved, a deeply-sad horror film that speaks to our societally-ingrained selfishness.
Don’t worry, there’s no need to dust off those old, crinkled copies of Frankenstein from your parents’ basement to enjoy Depraved. Even those unfamiliar with the plot will enjoy Fessenden’s contemporary interpretation. Adam (Alex Breaux) is Depraved’s Frankenstein’s monster, a young man put together from different parts in a dingy lab built in a warehouse in New York City that resembles any New York millennial’s apartment. Scientist Henry (David Call), employed by Polidori (Joshua Leonard), has finally figured out how to resurrect the dead. But Henry is a veteran suffering from PTSD, trying to use his findings to help future soldiers. So on top of caring for himself, he must take care of Adam and teach him how to be a human, from eating and speaking to reading and playing ping pong. Adam floats through the world in a strange limbo of vague understanding, absorbing the world with an innocence only experienced by the blissfully naive. Yet, this all starts to fall apart as Adam begins to regain memories and learn that he is nothing more than a science experiment, meant to bring fame and fortune to Polidori’s pharmaceutical company.
James Siewert and Chris Skotchdopole’s cinematography is a disjointed and creates a hazy state that is reminiscent to just waking up in a strange place and trying to remember where you are. It captures the confusion, yet vague realizations, felt as you slowly regain memories. This gets us into Adam’s head, letting us identify with him more closely than Henry or Polidori; this is ultimately Adam’s story and we are meant to sympathize with his frustration, confusion, and anger at being trapped like a lab rat.
Adam’s emotional impact would be nothing without Alex Breaux’s performance, who plays a man relearning how to a man with such conviction, you’d think Fessenden had truly resurrected a corpse. Breaux captures Adam’s innocence and conveys his sense of wonder that lends itself perfectly to the film’s emotional impact. He and Call have such a devastatingly lovely chemistry, playing a demented father-son duo that slowly dissolves as truths are revealed.
While Depraved is beautifully shot, it jumps quite suddenly from the hazy, dream-like state of the makeshift Brooklyn hipster lab to sudden violence as Adam breaks out onto the New York City streets. The film has two distinct halves that, while mirroring events in Shelley’s novel, are still rather jarring. The second half feels more like a horror movie as blood spatters walls and bodies seem to pile up. Fessenden tries to hold onto the emotional stakes from the first half, but they fade into the background as the violence begins.
Underneath the violence, this ultimately is a story about the loss of innocence, of Adam slowly realizing that his world of wonder is only contained in a shabby warehouse. He begins to see the selfishness of those around him, and how they could never teach him anything but how to be selfish. Depraved is a horror movie that does not aim to scare; it aims to make you feel some profound sense of loss or even terror at our obsession with ego. From the film’s score to watching Adam regain his memories, this is a film that conveys a constant state of loneliness that doesn’t seem to have a cure. Fessenden’s latest cinematic venture proves that horror can be more than scary; it can encourage us to truly feel something, be that fear or sadness or frustration. It is a genre that forces us to think and Depraved is a prime example. It fits in nicely with other recent releases such as Us that challenge audiences to look past the label of “horror” and delve deeper into ourselves. Frankenstein, and humanity as a whole, has never looked so sad or so lonely than in Depraved.