Depraved

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Depraved
"At the centre of the film, Breaux is superb, not only capturing the pathos vital to the monster but carrying him through the long, slow process of cognitive development and emotional realisation without ever striking a false note." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Mary Shelley's genre-birthing novel Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus was first adapted for the big screen in 1910 and has been reimagined there more than a dozen times since, whilst its central characters have appeared in numerous spin-off stories. Depraved is a sidelong take that shifts the action to the present day and the primary perspective to the monster. Unexpectedly sweet, it's one of the finest to date.

To horror fans, the name Larry Fessenden suggests low budgets, low life characters and a punkish, even parodic visual style. Depraved adopts some techniques popular within this oeuvre but uses them to enhance the intimate personal drama at its core rather than to create sensation. From the opening shot, in which we drift through a modest but lovingly furnished apartment to witness a young couple making love and arguing afterwards as only those who are deeply in love do, it's clear that Fessenden knows exactly what he's doing. There has often been a sense of tragedy in his work and here it's almost omnipresent - which doesn't mean that there are not some very funny moments along the way.

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The young couple whom we first meet are Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloƫ Levine, with whom Fessenden worked on last year's [flm id=33657]The Ranger[/film]). They're so lovely together that in context, one immediately fears for them - this kind of warmth cannot last. Sure enough, violence comes from out of nowhere and before we know it, Alex is waking up in a strange place, on what seems to be an operating table - except he's not Alex any more. His body is different (he's now played by Alex Breaux) and covered in surgical staples and scars. The man who enters the room and tries frantically to calm him down keeps calling him Adam.

This man is Henry (David Call), a gifted surgeon and one half of an ambitious medical start-up company. As we only see him through Adam's eyes, it takes a while for the details to begin clear. To begin with, Adam can't understand speech or manage even basic tasks like attending to his own toilet needs. He's entirely dependent on Henry, who imagines himself as a father, presenting a succession of educational toys. Adam is a quick learner and it doesn't take him long to figure out that he's different from other people, to become curious as to why that is. In a sense this is a coming of age story, and as emotionally involving as such tales usually are - but inevitably, Adam's dawning understanding of his predicament leads to trouble.

At the centre of the film, Breaux is superb, not only capturing the pathos vital to the monster but carrying him through the long, slow process of cognitive development and emotional realisation without ever striking a false note. One of Fessenden's most bitter an poignant observations is that in today's America a stitched-together, barely articulate monster can wander through the streets of a major city with nobody batting an eyelid because he's assuming to be just another relic of the war. Indeed, wartime experiences are a big motivating factor for Henry (as they once were for a certain Herbert West), and they attract a bit of sympathy to a character who is otherwise deliberately presented as shallow, at odds with the monster's deep emotion. As petty squabbles break out between the business partners, the women in their lives and potential clients, Adam observes from a distance, increasingly aware of their shortcomings, the extent to which they fall short of the human ideal.

The film builds slowly, deliberately, inviting us to invest in the simple joys of being alive before lurching into inevitable, delirious violence. It's confidently paced and waits for exactly the right moments to shift gears. Fessenden's visual style makes it utterly immersive. Though it's still likely to be too quirky for some viewers' tastes, it's a triumphant piece of outsider cinema which will sear itself onto the consciousness like Promethean fire.

Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2019
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A disillusioned field surgeon suffering from PTSD makes a man out of body parts and brings him to life in a Brooklyn loft.

Director: Larry Fessenden

Writer: Larry Fessenden

Starring: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ans Kayne

Year: 2019

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: US


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