Father Gore (a.k.a C.H. Newell) recently got the chance to sit down for a phone call with New York filmmaker Larry Fessenden, whose newest film Depraved— a 21st century re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein— premiered last night at What The Fest!? in Manhattan.
Fessenden’s career started in the late 1970s with a short called Jaws, then several other shorts in the ’80s as he moved into longer works. In the 1990s, he remade one of his earlier films (Habit) and also gave us No Telling (another Frankenstein-inspired project leaning towards condemning animal testing). He brought a new style to horror, concerned with personal truths that lead towards the universal— those microcosms which help us understand the bigger picture.
Fessenden’s 2006 film The Last Winter kept with the spirit of No Telling in its aims of exposing how little humans care for the natural world and what repercussions that lack of care brings upon us. Now, with Depraved, he does more of the same again tackling the personal and universal truths that bind us together, and, many times, also tear us apart. Although the seeds of this story began in 2003 when Fessenden originally wrote the screenplay, it’s a relevant piece of writing in 2019, for many reasons.
Warning: This interview does contain spoilers for Depraved.
Father Gore: Without descending into fanboy territory, Larry, I really loved Depraved. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to chat about it with me.
I’m a Master’s student here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and my area of study has involved John Milton and also Mary Shelley. It’s always fascinating to see contemporary iterations of Frankenstein make it to the screen. Obviously Shelley’s novel has made a significant mark on you, from this new film, to the 2014 music video you did, “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped” (by Life in a Blender), to the choice of Halloween costume in your “N is for Nexus” short in ABCs of Death 2, to your earlier film No Telling— what is it, fundamentally, about the story that’s grabbed hold of you all these years?
Larry Fessenden: First of all, thank you for knowing all my obscure little videos and stuff because I do love the iconic creature. I can’t help myself. But also, did you notice the cameo of Milton [in Depraved]?
FG: No, I didn’t actually. I’m a horrible Master’s candidate, apparently.
LF: There’s a moment where the Monster’s speaking with Liz, the woman who tries to be kind to him, and he says “I read a lot of books.” It’s a series of flash frames, and I always thought to myself, the true nerd would actually freeze on those. It’s a bunch of pages from my favourite novels, and I like to imagine the creature reading these books. The last one is Paradise Lost, and the camera goes in on the name Adam. You know— from that other book [Fessenden laughs]. And as you know that’s what the monster in Frankenstein reads. So it does seem relevant, and I did pay tribute to that whole sub-plot of the novel.
Back to Shelley’s novel, I just find the story so ripe for reinterpretation, like some of our greatest mythologies. As you know, the Frankenstein story is based on Prometheus, or it makes nod to that in the subtitle. And I just think there’s some great stories that have been told over and over through the ages that really somehow crystallise the human experience. What’s so amazing is this eighteen-year-old girl in 1818 wrote a story that crystallises so many human dilemmas: the dilemma of loneliness and alienation that the monster experiences, and then the dilemma of human hubris and overreach which is what the doctor [in my film] represents. Then you take a simple concept like those and you update it into the modern vernacular, and that’s what I tried to do.
FG: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about social horror, as if it’s something new. Horror’s always been, to my mind, a perfect vehicle for social issues. In a day and age where we’re seeing a lot of monstrous men being exposed for their behaviour, there’s something poignant about Depraved focusing on themes of fatherhood and the potentially destructive ways fathers, whether surrogate or otherwise, pass down their values. Was that a focus particularly for you in today’s social climate?
LF: Well, Chris, you couldn’t possibly be saying more relevant things for me. You’re the perfect viewer because you’re reading into the story the way I would like it to be understood in this context.
Of course it’s about fatherhood. It’s all about how we pass on knowledge and how the little flaws and our preoccupations are taken in by the child. I wrote this back in the day, but you know George Bush, our President down here, was very affected by his father and he clearly went into Iraq to get revenge. I was writing this under that context, and I don’t have to tell you our current President clearly has daddy issues because his dad was mean to him. I really think Western civilisation, and just life in general, human activity, is all about the knowledge we pass on to our children, and if we don’t raise them right they’re going to come out all upside down and screw up on their own.
That’s what this story is about: parenthood. You see that the doctor, Henry, has been wronged by society. He was sent to war, an absolute brilliant surgeon, ready to do good, ready to do the right thing, and it all got twisted and distorted by the [Iraq] mission. It was a lie. It’s sort of implied— I don’t get into anything specifically, I hope you can extrapolate when you watch a movie like this, because it has no specific agenda, but it is trying to suggest how we get into this mess.
Then obviously Polidori [Josh Leonard’s character] has a very much more narcissistic agenda. I love scenes in which he asserts he was very important to the experiment, and “You couldn’t done this without me.” And all of the sort of sad little desperate things that nasty people say, you realise they’re also motivated by a deep, deep sense of insecurity. Polidori says at one point to the Monster, “Well father’s are never around when you need them” or whatever. So, yeah, that’s the theme of the movie. It suggests that if our society doesn’t raise people right they’re going to go wrong, and the Monster becomes a murderer and he cannot be redeemed in the end. He kills the only nice person in the movie [Fessenden laughs]. He kind of has to self-exile.
If you do want to look at it as sort of the #MeToo year we’ve been through, even though I obviously wrote it before, I always say I’ve been making feminist films for a long time because I feel that, the problem is the patriarchy— it’s destroying the world, these Western impulses. I like to make movies about that. My film The Last Winter is about how we’re destroying Mother Nature, if you will. There again, because of people’s egos. That’s the problem with humanity: it cannot rise above its own shortcomings.
“I love the image of the 1931 classic
with Boris Karloff
as the Monster.
Jack Pierce’s makeup is just indelible.
Truly one of the great pop images
I mean, compared to what— Elvis?”
FG: I love that you bring up Polidori, because the real Polidori’s story, or at least the male narrative, is Byron and Polidori were part of the genesis of Frankenstein. But Mary Shelley is the singular genius who wrote it, or, in this case, birthed it into existence. There’s an interesting dynamic where my academic brain sees something very Byron and Polidori about the characters of Henry and Polidori in your film, too.
LF: Oh, I agree, man.
FG: They’re more concerned with who created what rather than the state of the actual creation itself. So in that sense it fits in with the rest of your themes, where if we don’t think about how we’re raising our children, the next generation, then it doesn’t matter who made them or who created them, they’re going to be fucked up.
LF: This is a movie about responsibility. It’s not enough to simply bring life, and that is impressive, there’s no denying— the iPhone is fantastic— but what are the repercussions of our technologies? And the spiritual repercussions. The only person who speaks of that [in the film] is Liz, and she’s ultimately marginalised and destroyed. Everybody ends up making fun of Liz. Another girl says, “Oh you’re trying to save the vets, shouldn’t you be there?” And Liz says, “What the fuck? You can do it with a pill, so why should I bother?” But point being, if we marginalise spiritual healing and connection, are we really going to be a successful society? Are we really going to make it through? Because in the end, it’s only that sort of community outreach that’s going to save us, or so the movie presumes.
And as you say, the ego isn’t involved in impressive creation. There’s something so beautiful, above so many other things, about the fact that Mary Shelley, an eighteen-year-old girl, wrote this seminal work on which so much machismo is based—monsters parading through the streets of fake European towns and all that goofy shit from the ’30s and ’40s, and I love every moment of those movies but it’s also preposterous, the male ego run wild across the streets—but it all came from her own despair and clear insight. Obviously her mother was a very interesting lady during her time, as a feminist. It’s so many legacies in one. I wanted [my film] to evoke history and those legacies. I show The Rape of the Sabine Women, which was a trick where the men of Rome said, “Come to the public square we have free bon-bons or whatever” and they kidnapped all the women. So [history’s] an endless parade of Harvey Weinsteins.
FG: I love that scene where Polidori takes Adam to the museum of art. It brings out this dichotomy between the creations of man— on one side is the beautiful art, and on the other are the instruments of death, the weapons of war. That’s another great example in the movie about how we have a choice, to either use what we create for good or for evil, and what the repercussions are when we allow these creations to go off the rails, whatever they may be, whether it’s a man pieced together out of other dead people or an AK-47 or a high-tech computer.
LF: Absolutely, and that is, I think, the dichotomy of humanity. I always use dichotomy, or whatever you want to call it, dualism— funny, that’s very yin and yang versus the triumvirate of Western literature. In the structure of my movies, I always have the good guy, who’s never quite as good as he should be, and the bad guy’s never quite as bad as he should be, and it’s the idea that in life you have to choose a path. That also has to do with parenthood, again.
So, yes, humanity has tremendous invention, and beauty, and access to spiritual things, but also this obsession with violence. Obviously medicine can bring you health and life, but then [Polidori] says “From the blade to the bomb, humanity does love destruction. We are depraved.” Also, I like that the villain is quite melancholy as he basically describes all the aspirations. He says, “This is a mausoleum to the aspirations of man,” and then single-handedly goes through each painting and says, “Well, this guy was worried about morality, can you imagine? I married my wife for her money.” And it’s just this sad thing. Same as being over-educated: you can be educated, but are you necessarily moral? No, morality’s a separate thing from knowledge, and that’s what I’m trying to show. [Polidori] has this contempt for aspiration. Then he says, “Let’s go to a fucking strip club.”
FG: I like how Adam’s story parallels with how it is to be young in today’s cold and indifferent world. I’m wondering, is the visual technique you used to show Adam’s synapses firing and reconnecting a method of drawing the viewer into his point-of-view, to make the movie more subjective?
LF: Well, listen, the whole premise of the movie is that, I propose, I’m going to tell the Frankenstein story from the Monster’s point-of-view. From there, what’s the whole deal with this Monster? What’s the archetype? His brain’s been taken from one place and put into a body made from other parts. Then I’m like, this is about the brain. Then you think all the obvious scientific speculation, and if you see the world as a physical place, then brain, personality, memory is very much your identity, and it’s all in this little organ working very hard, receiving impulses.
I always joke there’s no electricity in the film. [The Monster] doesn’t come to life through a lightning storm, but, in fact, it’s all in the brain, this electricity. Everything’s in there— that’s where the entire Frankenstein cliche is happening, inside this amazing little organic object. I wanted us to be reminded of the physicality of experience, which is that we’re simply receiving input. That brings us back to parenting and sounds and [the Monster] listens to Bach and gets his mind together. Then he listens to the blues and finds another oomph. So I wanted to really remind people we’re just these physical creatures experiencing the vast array of— good lord, I have no idea, I just thought it looked cool! [Fessenden laughs]
FG: It does look very cool. It’s also a very existential look at Frankenstein. It’s deep, when you really dig in there.
LF: I appreciate that. You hit the nail on the head. Because I was thinking, what is the agenda here? It was to be subjective, and to talk about subjectivity, which is one of my favourite observations [about life]. But it is very existential, because it’s not about the doctor playing God and all the usual sort of blasphemy scenes. It really proposes that we are masters of our own destiny, and it’s our responsibility as people to do the right thing and to find the right way.
To reiterate, we’re just creatures of the flesh and our brains are fantastic but there’s a spiritual dimension we have to tend to. That doesn’t mean a Lord, it means a responsibility to each other. That’s why my movies are all about loneliness, because it’s like whatever Sartre said, or whoever: “We are alone. We live as we dream: alone.”
[Edit: Larry’s actually quoting from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad]
“I always say I’ve been making feminist films for a long time
because I feel that, the problem is the patriarchy—
it’s destroying the world…”
FG: I want to quickly jump back to your earlier work, specifically No Telling. I have the collection of your films released a couple years ago—
LF: Oh, thank you.
FG: No, thank you, it’s great. In the collection, you wrote briefly about No Telling and wanting to explore a story more like the 1970s in movies, where a happy ending wasn’t necessarily a given. Did you have any change of heart since? Or do you kind of perpetually lean towards realism in that way, that there’s no guaranteed happy bow tie on the end of every one of life’s moments?
LF: Look, I’m a real sentimentalist. I like all kinds of movies. I like Love Actually— I love telling people that because it makes them fall back in their chair. But that’s a place for what I call aspirational living, where “Oh that’s so sweet” and you can marry the right person and everything can be fine, you can love your kid. It’s all true, life has many textures.
But as far as my movies? No, I want people to walk out feeling very unsettled, like they haven’t quite figured it all out, the story isn’t totally finished. And I hope, some silly dream, that they might then finish the story by bringing about the happy ending themselves. They’ll get rallied and excited. Like I made this movie, The Last Winter, and it’s totally devastating: the world is going to end! But I’d love it if people came out of the theatre and said, “We’re going to change this.” I do think it’s effective for people to be unsettled. And as for Frankenstein, you can’t make a happy ending out of that mess. There’s just no way. Just as death will come. Your job in life is to come to terms with death, and to make it part of your spiritual journey rather than just be afraid of it— I’ve been afraid of it for fifty-five years, so I have both sides.
FG: Do you find horror cathartic in that way?
LF: No question. It’s why I love the genre. I think it’s cathartic in that it actually deals with something everyone thinks about and knows about, but our societies are built on this bullshit denialism where as long as you have the right deodorant, all is well! As opposed to actually saying: “I’m scared. But you know you are too, so let’s raise a glass, let’s have fun tonight. It matters. It could be our last.” That’s more my approach than, “Well, if I have the right deodorant and a big diamond ring, I’ll be better than them and somehow that keeps me alive.” That’s a ridiculous way to live.
FG: Before we finish, I just wanted to say I’m a massive fan of yours, you’re hugely inspiring to me and many others, and Depraved may be your best film yet. Again, thanks for taking the time out of your day to chat with me. A great talk that I’m excited to share with our readers.
LF: Fantastic, man. I really appreciate it. And thanks for looking at the movie.
FG: My pleasure. I’ll have an article up on it soon after the festival premiere. Hopefully you’ll get your eyes on that, too.
LF: Cool. Be nice.
Thanks, dude. Take care of yourself out there.