Depraved. 2019. Directed & Written by Larry Fessenden.
Starring David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloë Levine, Owen Campbell, & Addison Timlin.
Glass Eye Pix / Forager Films
Not Rated. 112 minutes.
Drama / Horror / Thriller
Disclaimer: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be 200 years old, but Larry’s film only just premiered at What The Fest!?
The following article contains spoilers for Depraved, so turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the greatest novels in existence. The author captured such emotion and human experience while also giving birth to the genre of science fiction. The novel’s legacy will never come to a halt. One reason for that is artists like Larry Fessenden, whose latest film— the first released in 6 years— Depraved is a re-imagining of Frankenstein, transplanted from the 1700s into the 21st century.
The screenplay revolves around an experiment conducted by a doctor named Henry (David Call). His work as a field surgeon in the American military during the Invasion of Iraq years left him with PTSD and grand ambitions. He and his jaded associate Polidori (Joshua Leonard) have begun the greatest project of all: to create new life, outside the womb. This leads to the creation of a man, Adam (Alex Breaux).
But what makes him a man? And what might make him a monster?
Fessenden wrote the first draft of his screenplay during 2003, putting its genesis in the midst of George W. Bush’s era. Today, it’s Trump era America. Things are different, but they’re so much of the same, too. Depraved is about many things, among them the repercussions of technologies we invent, and, maybe more importantly, the results of raising our children and new generations in all the most toxic ways. The story is, above all, about fatherhood, how a deeply flawed, violent patriarchy has damaged society, and how the next generation has to break free of those fundamentally destructive legacies handed down to them, or else continually repeat doomed cycles of existence.
One of Shelley’s biggest inspirations, if not THE biggest, was John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which told of Satan’s fall from grace in Heaven to Hell and his subsequent attempts to lead Adam and Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. Milton’s epic poem was about creation, and, in turn, fatherhood— God is the greatest patriarch of all, from the religious perspective. Above all, Satan lamented being created by God only to be cast off. Same goes for the Monster made by Victor Frankenstein. In a pivotal scene, Shelley’s Monster says:
Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for
It’s fitting the Monster in Fessenden’s film is called Adam by Henry, his creator. This name takes us right back to Paradise Lost. The director literally calls back to Milton’s poem with a visual reference, too. During a scene paying direct homage to Shelley’s novel, Adam is left alone and takes this time to read and listen to music, allowing his once dead brain to reanimate fully. In a bunch of shots looking at what the Monster’s reading is one of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Another interesting, deeper connection with the source material is an inclusion of a labyrinth design on the pendant given by Lucy (Chloë Levine) to her boyfriend Alex (Owen Campbell), whose brain winds up transplanted into Henry’s patchwork Monster. The pendant’s later given to Adam, and its maze-like image suggests he’s traversing a labyrinth in order to piece his brain and memory back together. This links up with Shelley’s novel, again returning to the scene with Adam reading. In the novel, the Monster’s reading includes Milton’s Paradise Lost, and also Plutarch’s Lives, which contains the story of Theseus, named specifically in Shelley’s novel (p. 129). Theseus is well known because of his experience with the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Adam, like Theseus, must weave his way out of a labyrinth, except his is a mental one. To take this a step further, Ariadne, in Greek mythology, was in love with Theseus, and gave him a sword and a ball of thread so he could get out of the labyrinth. Following through on all these connections, Lucy becomes Adam’s Ariadne— symbolised by this pendant she gave to Alex, before his brain was used as fodder for Henry’s experiment— to help lead him out of his damaged maze of a mind, back to some semblance of humanity. The utter tragedy is, in the end, it’s too late for Adam to embrace his humanity because his fathers have ruined him.
While Fessenden includes the legacies of both Shelley herself and Milton, as well as the many legacies to which their works likewise connect, he takes a hard, critical look at the personal and societal legacies left behind by important figures at the centre of Frankenstein and Paradise Lost: fathers.
Fessenden’s screenplay isn’t trying to suggest fathers have any more important role than a mother, it’s looking to examine the destructive legacies fathers— or, rather, the patriarchy— leave their children with that only end up corrupting the next generation. The director makes clear there’s a huge element of Depraved that’s all about male anxiety. The premise of Shelley’s Frankenstein is already rife with male concerns about power and control— a decidedly feminist story about a male doctor figuratively giving birth to a Monster. Fessenden takes it further in how he shows male v. female influence. While Henry’s only concerned with Adam’s status as an experiment, Liz (Ana Kayne) treats Adam like a human, showing him tenderness, giving us a sense of the nature/nature dichotomy. Then there’s Polidori, whose second dose of male influence only warps Adam worse. Ultimately, the two fathers lead the Monster astray by not teaching him more of the tenderness Liz showed him, and it leads to tragic murder.
There’s a patriarchal parallel in the film and the real story behind Shelley’s novel. In the film, Henry and Poldori are the two warring fathers, each steeped in their own narcissism. Historically, John William Polidori and Lord Byron were with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Claire Clairmont when Mary began writing the seeds of Frankenstein. The male narrative is usually that Polidori and Byron were the genesis of the novel, that these two ‘great men’ were conversing and it gave a young, quiet Mary all she needed to create her Monster. Yet Mary was the singular genius who wrote the novel, and any other narrative disparages her legacy. Similarly in the film, Henry and Polidori care more about who gets credit for their experiment than they do about the state of their creation, a now living human. In everyday life we see these same testosterone wars between men who’d rather kill each other over who gets to plant the phallic flag of victory, totally unconcerned with any collateral damage of those silly little insignificant wars.
The mind is its own place, and in itself /
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
(Paradise Lost Bk. I lines 254-55)
Riffing off literal fatherhood, Depraved illustrates the dualism of human experience in how man has created both beauty and destruction. A significant scene has Polidori take Adam out to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Polidori shows the Monster all the varied creations of man, ranging from gorgeous works of art to sinister instruments of death and war, all of which inhabit the same space under this one roof as if in celebration, despite their individual context. One of the paintings Polidori looks at is “The Rape of the Sabine Women” from the 17th century by artist Nicolas Poussin. This image relates directly to how the patriarchy uses the dualism of creation to nefarious ends. The historical event the painting depicts was when the men of Rome lured women from surrounding areas to a festival in order to kidnap them— essentially using art and culture as an arm of the patriarchy to subjugate women. It isn’t hard to see how this tactic extends into the 21st century, as social media platforms, businesses, brands, pornography, and more use art and culture to try to convince women they’re being empowered while simultaneously auctioning off their bodies as commodities.
Adam personifies the results of the patriarchy being unconcerned with what they’re teaching the next generation. One scene features him in a bar where he meets a woman, Shelley (Addison Timlin). He only knows what little his father’s taught him. Henry’s deep state of narcissism, because of his own psychological wounds, has left the figurative son without a sense of how to act, in many ways, but specifically here with women. The moment when he accidentally kills Shelley— paralleling the painful moment when the Monster tosses a little girl in the water believing she’d float in James Whale’s 1931 classic— completes a horrifically real allegory about how fathers hand down legacies of toxic masculinity to their sons, who go on to perpetuate that same type of masculinity against women through domestic abuse rape, psychological terror, and a host of other social issues. How can we expect the Monster or the next generation of youth to be any different if the men who created them are also monsters?
“That’s the thing about fathers—
so few of them are in it for the long haul.”
The Frankenstein monster and different versions of Dr. Frankenstein himself have turned up across the 20th century and into the 21st in so many different shapes and forms. There’s the Boris Karloff creature with Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, and Hammer’s Christopher Lee Frankenstein (visual reference by Fessenden above in Adam’s disparate eye colour), and newer films like the found footage horrors The Frankenstein Theory and Frankenstein’s Army that each play with the doctor’s heritage in their own compelling ways. There’s no shortage of influence stemming from Mary Shelley’s work, which is in large part why the text will never die.
In terms of work inspired by Shelley, Depraved is Father Gore’s favourite. Fessenden approaches the material through an existentialist’s lens, touching on how what we experience, not only the mental but the corporeal, forms us as people. The film’s view specifically on fathers who pass down toxic legacies crosses over from ideology into action, exploring how the patriarchy’s psychological violence can, and almost always does, translate into the physical. Actions and words all matter when it comes to teaching our children and leading the next generation.
Isn’t that more relevant than ever in 2019, at least for America? We’re in the midst of watching a gradual power shift, as many women are collectively using their voice more than ever to try and affect change, and slowly more men are realising the patriarchy likewise damages their lives. Depraved is the product of our faults. It’s our reality. Shelley knew it 200 years ago, Fessenden knows it now. We might as well start genuinely dealing with it, or else we’ll keep breeding new generations of monsters.
Yellow Veil Pictures is now handling worldwide sales of Depraved
Note: The pages used for Shelley’s Frankenstein come from the Premier Classics Edition (2009) and Milton’s Paradise Lost is the 2008 Modern Library Paperback Edition.