‘Depraved’ review: Dir. Larry Fessenden (2019) [Shudder Saturday]

Filmed during the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Depraved is a modern day interpretation of the Frankenstein story. Alex (Owen Campbell) is about to move in with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine). The pair are very much in love, but after an argument over starting a family, Alex takes to the streets to cool-off. Here he is attacked by an unknown assailant. When he awakens he is not quite himself, literally waking-up in another body, one that appears patched together with stitches. He is now Adam (Alex Breaux), an experiment in resurrection by ex-forces medic Henry (David Call), a brilliant mind tarnished by PTSD, and Henry’s old college buddy Polidori (Joshua Leonard) whom bankrolls the study. Slowly ‘Adam’ starts to learn about the world around him whilst trying to recover the Alex part of himself. All is going well until Adam uncovers the truth of his ‘birth’…

Whilst the Frankenstein story has been told hundreds of times across the world of cinema, Depraved somehow manages to feel completely fresh. Directed by genre icon Larry Fessenden, Depraved gives plenty of nods to Shelley’s work, while at the same time standing on its own. Here, our Doctor Frankenstein character isn’t a simply a mad scientist, but rather a war-damaged ex-soldier suffering with PTSD. The sights that he witnessed on tour have shaped him and his need to stop death. Filling the more traditional Doctor role we have Polidori, a man in it purely for the money and notoriety of achieving the achievable. Both are narcissists, and both have very different ways of handling Adam; Henry chooses to give him games and culture, Polidori shows him alcohol and strippers, but both ultimately let him down. It is their actions that shape Adam, shining a light on the importance of a parental role. The creature therefore is not what has become the common trope of a simpleton brute. Adam is much more the innocent wide-eyed child whose world becomes complicated when confronted with the viciousness of adulthood and the brutality of his reality.

With characters that are so deeply intricate and layered, casting is very important. These roles are so familiar that they could all too easily be played with the traditional over-the-top vigour, yet leads David Call and Alex Breaux both reign their performances back. Yes, Henry has something of a God complex, but he’s not completely mad. Call plays him as a truly broken, but still stubborn obsessive, and elicits his own sympathy from the audience. Breaux is rightly the performer of the film though, with his elegant take on the famous movie ‘monster’. His performance takes the viewer on an emotional journey of growing-up. When we first meet his Adam, he is full of innocence and wonder, but as he rapidly ‘grows-up’, we see how the world breaks his spirit. Breaux tackles the role with gusto and gives such an intimate insight into the creature that, not only is his eventual rage completely justified, he also manages to break your heart.

It’s not just Breaux and Call that shine though, Fessenden has captured a cast full of strong actors who all hold their own in their respective roles. The Blair Witch Project‘s Joshua Leonard oozes sleaze and depravity, remarking to Adam, “Depraved. That’s what we are Adam, initially depraved,” and fully living up to that mantra. Ana Kayne offers a third, more emotionally invested parent to Adam, as Henry’s ex Liz. The Ranger‘s Chloë Levine is suitably sweet as Adam/Alex’s girlfriend/heart Lucy, and Addison Timlin’s Shelley, whom Adam meets in a bar, is wonderfully tragic.

In addition to the cast, Fessenden, whom as well as directing, wrote, produced and edited Depraved, has put a great deal of thought into every aspect of the production. The setting – a warehouse turned makeshift apartment – feels equally rundown, isolated and clinical. Will Bates’ score is a haunting blend of electronics and real world noises. The creature design on Adam is simply superb. When you first see Adam in full, it’s a truly shocking sight to behold, and the work by Gerner and Spears Effects is worthy of awards. Hidden amongst their work are subtle nods to many previous Frankenstein creatures, it’s very nice inclusion, and one that highlight’s Fessenden’s clear love for the icon. The visuals are beautifully put together. There are several moments where the cinematography is perfectly layered with bright colours jutting across the screen, mimicking Adam’s neurons and synapses as he takes in the world around him. Similarly, there are shots of cloudy fluids imposed over the top of Adam’s injection sequences. These add an ethereal, almost fairy tale quality, and take some of the sharpness. Even the end credits are a delight to look at, Fessenden forgoing the usual black in favour of anatomical sketches of the human body. Finally, there is a moment during the climax where things get a little black, white and sepia in tone, which when coupled with Breaux’s performance, create the perfect throwback to the old-school Frankenstein films.

Depraved is easily identifiable as a Frankenstein story, but brings in more modern aspects, and a there’s a treasure trove of issues explored – nature versus nurture, man versus science, love versus lust, and life versus death. Somehow Depraved raises all these points without becoming overwhelming, rather it entices the viewer to watch again and again to discover new things. A film of true beauty, both creatively and performed, Depraved is anything but what the title suggests. A truly special moment in the lineage of a beloved movie monster, Fessenden has crafted the best take on Frankenstein since Shelley herself.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Depraved is available to watch on Shudder now.

This review first appeared on THN.