Mary Shelley’s timeless classic, Frankenstein, has been made, remade, parodied, franchised, animated, commercialized, infantilized, and deconstructed over the past 109 years, and now indie auteur Larry Fessenden (who founded independent film production company Glass Eye Pix in 1985) brings us an updated and somewhat self-aware version with the little-to-no budget feature Depraved. Filmed during the 200th anniversary of the novel’s release, Fessenden has taken the beats of the Universal Pictures original and crafted a film that works best when leaning heavily into the relationship between our Mad Doctor, Henry (David Call), and his creation, Adam (Alex Breaux), but doesn’t hesitate to embrace the gore and gothic horror that lies at the story’s heart.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Depraved, is that it in no real way attempts to live up to the salaciousness of its title. I was actually expecting something a little more in the vein of exploitation, and instead got a serious and sober exploration of isolation and emotional damage. Henry is a Middle East veteran and military surgeon who witnessed the atrocities of war and took inspiration. With the help of an experimental drug, provided by his partner-in-crime, Polidori (Joshua Leonard) – named after the English writer and physician who was also there that magical night when Lord Byron, Mary, and Percy Shelley entertained themselves by writing horror stories – Adam is born. Or reborn, rather.

Adam’s two dads have conflicting approaches to parenting, however. While Henry teaches the childlike Adam games, plays him music, and tries to take his development slowly, Polidori drops Adam in the deep end of cocaine, strippers, and booze. In fact, the titular “Depraved” is all of humanity, according to Polidori, which provides some insight into just where Fessenden’s narrative loyalties lie.

As might be expected in a scenario like this, Adam’s introduction to women is hamstrung by his dads’ own emotional issues. Henry’s ex-girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) tries to provide a compassionate influence, but instead ends up a tragic symbol of what Adam can’t have and leads, unknowingly, to a heartbreaking and violent encounter with the wonderfully friendly and enticing, Lucy (Chloe Levine). As the film follows the 1931 original’s narrative beats, you can figure out where the story is going, but the over-the-top melodrama of the final twentyish minutes came as a bit of a shock after the subdued drama of the initial hour and a half.

I suppose there was no avoiding it, really, but the finale of the film seems like another, schlockier, project entirely. Especially given the fantastic performances by literally every actor involved – particularly Chloe Levine and Adam himself, Alex Breaux.

Despite this, Fessenden’s writing is otherwise insightful and smart, his direction is confident and deftly handled. The cinematography by James Siewert and Chris Skotchdopole, combined with Will Bates’ haunting score, help to make Depraved feel like a bigger-budget project than it actually is. Pete Gerner and Brian Spears do amazing work with the prosthetic effects, making Adam both a truly breathtakingly beautiful – and disturbing – creature to behold.

All-in-all, Depraved is a noteworthy entry in Fessenden’s oeuvre, building on his history of  reimagining the classic Universal monsters (Habit, Wendigo, The Last Winter, Beneath). In fact, though this film probably had one of the lowest budgets of any of his features, it may be the most impressive from start to finish.

Depraved premiered on March 20, 2019 opening this year’s What the Fest?

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