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by Jay Seaver

"Frankenstein & Fessenden make a great match."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Depraved" is "Larry Fessenden's "Frankenstein"" and he knows it, announcing his intentions from the start, when artsy colors and a do-it-yourself laboratory are punctuated by a bolt of lightning. That may not necessarily appeal to a large audience - as both producer and director of fright flicks, Fessenden has always leaned toward New York art-house stuff rather than buying blood by the barrel or Jason Blum's canny commercial instincts - but it makes even his take on one of the genre's foundational tales feel like something new.

The very start of the film introduces Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Choe Levine), a young couple barely scraping by in New York who fall into a stupid fight when she connects the way he looks after his grandmother to maybe being a good dad someday. He takes a walk to blow off some steam, only to get mugged. His life flashes before his eyes and there's a flash in the sky, and soon a stitched-together giant (Alex Beaux) is coming to in a laboratory. Former army medic Henry (David Call) then begins to see to educating "Adam" on walking, talking, and playing ping-pong in the small world that is this loft, but they won't be alone forever: Henry's girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne) still has a key and drops by unexpectedly, and the pharma-company heir funding this work, Polidori (Joshua Leonard), thinks Henry is moving too slowly. Both men have also been a little lax about storing hints as to where Adam's various pieces - including the brain - have come from.

Fessenden grounds this story thoroughly in the present day, which allows him to play to his own strengths while also staying as faithful to the text as humanly possible. One of the clever things he does is recognize that none of these characters can help being aware of Mary Shelley's creation, to the point where Polidori makes a comment that his scientist being named Henry is "like in the movie"; even if they existed in a world without that book and the many movies, there is no way that what they were doing would be a new idea in 2019. Something that filled that niche by now, and that awareness shades the movie a bit differently - Mary Shelley could write about a scientist becoming obsessed and carried away, but in the twenty-first century, these people know what they're doing crosses lines from the start, and the compromises as such have a different character.

That self-aware nature is not what is most interesting about Depraved; it's still basically Frankenstein, albeit a more modern version that reckons with how much of the self is stored in the brain rather than in a soul that is off in some sort of ether, meaning that we can't help but see the Creature as an amnesiac continuation of Alex rather than some new creation. Fessenden remixes all of the classic pieces into something both new and familiar, finding a way to make Henry sympathetic even as he's dangerously obsessed, making his fiancée impressive on her own while also cast to make sure she's got enough of a passing resemblance to Lucy to trigger the expected infatuation, making one nervous about the amount of physical power being harnessed to a damaged or unprepared brain. It's a story that has become a template, but this time we're even closer, and here's how it could play out.

Being a Glass Eye production, there's not necessarily a whole lot of resources available - Fessenden himself is possibly the most recognizable actor in his cameo, and the film mostly shoots in borrowed lofts and the like. The low budget gets at how off-books and dangerous this sort of biological research can be, and the kind of classically trippy optical effects used to visualize what's going on inside the Creature's brain and body are nifty visualizations, naturally abstract in ways things created entirely in a digital realm often aren't. He's not shy about using lightning as an exclamation point, or pulling from the Universal Monsters pictures as well as the book, figuring those are part of the basic mythos now. And like the makers of those movies, he knows you can't be too completely abstract or arty - eventually, Henry and his compatriots will have made the Creature too sturdy of body but unstable of mind, and the fallout from that is well-executed: A bloody, well-staged mess made of a rich family's estate where the line between righteous revenge and careless science running amok upon the innocent can blur.

Fessenden and his casting people put together a nice group, and not just for how certain resemblances create linkages in the audience's mind - beyond Ana Kayne ad Chloe Levine, Alex Breaux's Adam evokes the right sort of "that guy, but also not" comparison to Owen Campbell's Alex. Breaux also gets across a lot of what makes the Creature such a classic character - the way his childish innocence (and associated rage when betrayed), unconscious power, and raw intelligence are never quite keeping pace with each other, and he doesn't overdo things when he must communicate mostly through body language and facial expression. David Call does well to keep Henry's arrogance buried deep enough under his guilt that the audience seldom sees it directly but knows that it's there, while Joshua Leonard takes the scenes where Polidori has to add a bit of cruelty to his mix of ambition and daddy issues and makes it just enough to sting.

Much of the movie plays out as what's expected in terms of tone and general arc; we know this filmmaker and this story. Fessenden is nevertheless one of the great independent horror filmmakers, and while hooking him up with a seminal tale of science fictional horror isn't without risk, "Depraved" certainly struck this fan of both as a great combination.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32997&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/12/19 13:40:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Larry Fessenden

Written by
  Larry Fessenden

  David Call
  Joshua Leonard
  Alex Breaux
  Ana Kayne
  Maria Dizzia
  Chloe Levine

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