Of all of the Universal classic monster movies, I always found James Whale’s Frankenstein to be the most interesting, because, while he may look like it on the surface, the “monster” is not, in fact, a true monster. So many versions of this story have been told since Mary Shelley first wrote her beautiful novel, and Depraved is the latest, which stitches together elements of the story for a heartfelt yet flawed creation…
…Written/directed by man of all film trades, Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, Beneath), Depraved is a much less gothic version of Frankenstein, trading strange labs and pitchforks for a fridge of meat and a much more personal study of the monster. In this case, that monster is Adam (Alex Breaux), a man comprised of pieces from the dead, sewn together by Henry (David Call) as a test trial for a drug that will bring humans back to life…or something like that. To be honest, the film isn’t all that clear on the why, because it is so focused on Adam and the wonder he experiences with a new life, as well as the depravity of mankind that comes with that life.
From the get go, this is a different kind of Frankenstein story. Unlike most other iterations where the creature is built from the parts of dead men, Adam’s mind was taken from a murdered man. Adam is reborn into a new life, but with vague memories of his past, so we can immediately relate to this guy who is being treated like a test subject by Henry, yet remembers being loved by his girlfriend of the past (played by the savagely underused Chloe Levine). The film strangely doesn’t incorporate Adam’s memories and how they affect him into the film much, which is disappointing, but Breaux delivers such a convincing, powerful performance, that we don’t really need that to understand and care for Adam. Like other versions, he is not the monster of this story. Scenes like Adam going to the museum and taking in all of the rich artwork with a childish wonder reanimated my heart.
Fessenden rightly gives Adam a more human look minus some scars. Paired with an introverted personality, Adam reminded me of a war vet trying to reconnect with the world, taken advantage of by society, in this case Henry and his partner, Polidori (Joshua Leopard). Henry is like an abusive father that hates spending time with his creation, whereas Polidori is a manipulative prick, teaching Adam about the darker sides of human nature. These guys are the true monsters. Outside of Lucy, you could argue that Depraved puts a microscopic lens over the worst of humanity. Greed. Selfishness. Anger. Jealousy. Henry, Polidori, and to a lesser extent, their respective girlfriends/wives, Liz (Ana Kayne) and Georgina (Maria Dizzia) all display one or another, spreading those traits to Adam over time. The horror here isn’t that Adam looks like a monster. It’s that the forces around him are indirectly turning him into one.
Depraved is a Frankenstein film that revolves more around the creature’s mind than the horror of what he is. There’s a neat visual effect here that puts us in Adam’s head a lot, not with flashbacks but with beautiful splashes of green that pulse on the screen and imply a drug-induced haze, or flashes of lightning that fire like brain synapses. We’re always deeply connected with Adam, seeing the entire film from his point of view, and both the beauty and ugliness of the world, highlighted by that aforementioned trip to the museum, in which Polidori explains both art, and the idea that at their core, mankind is sick, expressed by showing how we have taken our ability to create and used it to make guns and other weapons of war.
This version of Frankenstein is a purely psychological film that is as beautiful as it is cold that never feels “slow” during its two-hour runtime, but there’s a few loose stitches on this monster. For one, Fessenden abandons the creation vs creator intellectual battle, which feels like a mistake. The philosophical question of what it would be like to meet your maker has always been at the heart of this story, for better or worse, and the themes which Fessenden replaces that idea with don’t resonate with the same strength. Depraved occasionally touches on fatherhood and this idea that men have a hard time committing to their children, but the film completely loses track with what it’s trying to say there, doing little to develop much of any relationship between Henry and Adam and leaving that element without anywhere to go.
In fact, for such an emotionally driven film, the character dynamics are about as lively as a corpse on a slab. Henry is never what I would call “good” to Adam and is actually pretty absent most of the time, and so it’s hard to imagine Adam would care in any way about him like we’re supposed to believe later in the film. Perhaps it’s intentional that everyone has a pretty one-dimensional relationship, at least on screen, maybe as a way to show how lonely we all truly are, and how we force others into our lives to fill that void. Either way, this is again where Depraved is a slight departure from other adaptations. I don’t think we’re supposed to care for anyone but Adam, and that’s fine because Breaux is exceptional.
Some might end up seeing a too lengthy, lumbering monster in Depraved, but this is a poignant Frankenstein film from Fessenden made with passion and intelligence, with Beaux as the beating heart that gives it life. Like the monster himself, despite its scars, this is a film any fan of the Frankenstein mythology will want to get their eyeballs on.
Depraved releases September 13th from IFC Films.
By Matt Konopka