Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Larry Fessenden
Writer: Larry Fessenden
Producer: Larry Fessenden, Chadd Harbold, Jenn Wexler
Stars: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin
A former military medic uses an experimental drug and body parts to secretly reanimate a dead soldier in an empty Brooklyn loft.
It took me aback a bit to see “Depraved” with a paltry 4.8 user rating out of 85 votes on IMDb. When those numbers were current, the film had only played a few festivals like Overlook and Fantasia. Festival crowds are usually overly enthusiastic or appreciatively forgiving. Early audiences often pad a score positively before it lowers and levels once general viewers are included. It’s atypical for an unreleased film still on the circuit to start with a below average rating.
I wondered, did people think they were actually voting for “Hell Girl,” a DTV disappointment starring Tom Sizemore that trickled online earlier in the year under the title “Depraved?” Might that have something to do with the curiously low ranking?
The score also seemed odd because buzz bouncing around genre media channels celebrated “Depraved” as a modern classic in the making. Pull quotes prominently included in the trailer praised the movie as “awesome,” “brilliant,” “fun and feverish.” I clicked on all 20 external reviews linked to IMDb at the time and 17 of them could be considered raves. More than one used the word “best” in relation to the director’s body of work or Frankenstein adaptations as a whole.
Now I skeptically wondered, were industry loyalties clouding critical judgment? “Depraved” writer/director Larry Fessenden is an adored B-movie icon. It’s impossible for him to make anything that someone won’t describe with the adjectives quoted above whether they’re honestly earned or not. The assumptive reverence accompanying Fessenden makes it challenging to discuss his films frankly because indie horror cliques, particularly those based in his native New York, will always protectively rally in his defense.
Hell, I’m even questioning if my own 50/100 score isn’t lower only because I too have shared beers with the highly personable man. Perhaps I’m apologetically incorporating a big benefit of doubt because I’m still reconciling how a seasoned vet can create a film that feels like it comes from an uncertain auteur still experimenting with the medium. Could Fessenden have slyly meant for there to be a meta-layer presenting his production as a lumbering patchwork deformity not unlike the subject at its center?
It’s not quite Dracula territory, but it’s still a tall order to ask fans to get excited about another interpretation of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece. Nevertheless, that’s what “Depraved” is: a retelling of “Frankenstein” set in contemporary Brooklyn. The doctor, Henry, is a PTSD-afflicted military medic with a well-meaning but misguided God complex. The monster, Adam, is a wounded soldier rebuilt from body parts as well as the brain of a boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Alex Breaux creates a suitably sympathetic “creature,” even if his plain demeanor incorporates an unremarkable accent of blank slate behavior. Breaux believably embodies a conflicted corpse relearning basic motor skills and cognitive functions while coming to terms with the unnatural nature of his existence. His slow progression isn’t always exciting to watch. But Breaux unfolds Adam’s arc with sincere pathos befitting the character’s longstanding legacy.
David Call complements him well as Henry. Call lights a slightly arrogant fire beneath Henry’s prickly personality. Resulting smoke makes for a mad doctor whose scarred past as a meatball medicine man in the Middle East earns horrified empathy. Meanwhile, alarming apathy for current collateral damage intriguingly complicates his characterization.
Pimples pop up on the next rung of the roster, where a man with even fewer scruples pulls Henry’s strings. Formerly a field surgeon alongside Henry, Polidori now serves as the disillusioned doc’s benefactor, supplying their illegal operation with an untested reanimation medication in addition to ill-gotten cadavers.
While Alex Breaux and David Call play an understated game of tug-o-war to anchor drama, Joshua Leonard frays that rope by playing Polidori like a preening Bond villain. “Depraved” roots itself inside a typical hipster loft, where a standup arcade machine decorates one wall and a neon sign glows with the words “Fresh Meat” on another. Leonard takes that eclectic tone to the next level, donning a pocket square and sipping wine even though his shaggy mop and facial hair still show the scruff of a Blair Witch victim. Leonard’s vamping cartoon of a character becomes a hard pill to swallow, even against a Brooklyn backdrop licked with gentrified eccentricity.
“Depraved” loosens slack on a number of leashes, which is where consistency comes into question. I didn’t need to double check end credits to recognize Larry Fessenden edited his own movie. No way would an independent cutter allow the inclusion of this much material the narrative has no need for.
Windowed within an overlong two-hour runtime, Fessenden’s stalled storytelling unnecessarily wraps itself up in the nuts and neck bolts of Henry nurturing Adam into “adulthood.” Henry reads from a bedtime book, works with building blocks, plays ping pong, tightens sutures, and tends to other tedium that could have been confined to a singularly brief montage. Instead, “Depraved” repeatedly overloads on minutiae, sometimes in dialogue form too. Outside eyes could have trimmed this fat into a manageable rhythm. But Fessenden elects to erect a roadblock for immersion as his unsubtle movie becomes bloated by inconsequential indulgences he seemingly couldn’t say no to.
“Depraved” isn’t as technically tight as it could be either. One weird effect that fills the screen with what looks like green microscope motes appears and disappears so jarringly, I legitimately thought it was a playback error the first time it occurred. The more intermittently it happened, the more I realized “Depraved” needed someone next to Fessenden to pull thematic throughlines out of the miasma of stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.
Those familiar with and appreciative of Larry Fessenden’s established aesthetic should know what they’re in for. Presumably, they may be pleased with the weird wandering he does within “Depraved’s” meandering musings, living up to his status as underground horror’s Jim Jarmusch.
For everyone else, investing in “Depraved” doesn’t only require being up for one more slant on an oft-recycled slice of fiction. It requires wanting to watch “Frankenstein” as funneled through a mumblecore filter, complete with contentious conversations, an acoustic indie soundtrack, and some interpretive introspection about life, love, and relationships. Without a doubt, that recipe uses disparate parts to build a mismatched monster of a movie whose wobbly worth can only be assigned according to personal taste.
Review Score: 50