A modern take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel that focuses on psychology and capitalism over science and scares, Larry Fessenden’s Depraved transports Frankenstein and his creature to Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, circa last week. (No jokes about other monsters that might spring from that filthy canal, please.) David Call and Alex Breaux play papa and stitched-together creation, respectively, in a film that is serious but not pretentious, working best when it stays in the laboratory. It will be welcomed by the director’s fans, and may expand that number somewhat in its limited theatrical release.
Unlike most versions of the tale, this one begins with a poor soul who’s about to become raw material: Owen Campbell plays Alex, a sweet-seeming youth just out of college, having an argument with his equally sweet-seeming girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine). The two argue over expectations about their relationship’s future, he leaves to clear his head, and he’s brutally murdered by a mugger.
An evergreen story made fresh, if not horrifying.
Alex awakens in another man’s body (or, more likely, a patchwork of several), his freshly transplanted brain unable to make sense of things. In appealing FX work, some superimposed graphics (tracers, firing synapses, et cetera) suggest what’s going on in the rewired gray matter; but as the being about to be named Adam, Breaux does a very fine job of conveying that confused state by himself.
Adam doesn’t awaken to the sound of a mad scientist’s “It’s alive!!,” though dramatic lightning storms will play a part later in the tale. He’s by himself, rising from an operating table in an industrial loft sparsely furnished with thrift-store decor. Henry (Call) is astonished when he returns to the lab and finds him; he speaks gently and, over the next few days, tests Adam’s motor skills and intelligence. Initially, Adam fails to solve the simplest puzzles, but soon he’s playing ping pong, using an iPad and reading serious literature when Henry’s away. Then Liz arrives.
Liz (Ana Kayne) is Henry’s ex-girlfriend, part of a quartet of college friends that also includes Joshua Leonard’s Polidori. The latter became rich when he married Georgina (Maria Dizzia), and began secretly funding the revivication research that Henry started during his time as an Army trauma surgeon. Henry’s work springs from PTSD and guilt; Polidori is hoping his successes will prove the commercial viability of a drug he wants to sell. Liz, a therapist, just wants to keep the men from treating this new creation like a toy to fight over.
With the exception of a sequence in which Polidori whisks Adam off on a day trip that starts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ends at a strip club — louchely, he makes himself tour guide through the high and low extremes of human existence — the film’s first half stays loft-bound, seeing things from Adam’s perspective. He is soft-spoken and gentle, feeling his way through the world but seemingly less likely than a real child to believe everything he is told. Flickers of loneliness emerge early on, as do fragmented memories of the life history that died with Alex. Even without Polidori’s heedless rush to get this “product” to market, it’ wil soon get hard to keep Adam locked away and docile.
Yes, exploration will lead to bloodshed and some mayhem. But Fessenden reimagines things, keeping the story fresh even if not every aspect of it rings true. (Adam’s first outside encounter with a woman, for instance, fits the screenwriter’s needs too neatly, and some of the fallout strains credibility.) Still, the film captures the cost of Henry’s well-intentioned sin, following this pained new creature out into the world and, very briefly, giving his suffering an almost Malick-like voice. The pic’s title and its Karloff-evoking poster are as horrible as things get in this portrait of a monster as victim of human hubris.
Production companies: Glass Eye Pix, Forager Films
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: David Call, Alex Breaux, Joshua Leonard, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin
Director-screenwriter-editor: Larry Fessenden
Producers: Larry Fessenden, Chadd Harbold, Jenn Wexler
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Edwin Linker, Andrew Mer, Joe Swanberg
Directors of photography: James Siewert, Chris Skotchdopole
Production designer: April Lasky
Costume designer: Sara Lott
Composer: Will Bates
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent