Given the sheer age of Mary Shelley’s book, to say nothing of its vast importance to literature and pop culture as a whole, it is unsurprising that it has seen numerous adaptations throughout the decades. While the quality of said adaptations has been...inconsistent to say the least, it is nevertheless a tale that has been told in a variety of different ways. Depraved is the latest work to take the material for a spin, this time at the hands of the legendary indie horror creator Larry Fessenden. Heading into this film I was wondering if there was any way to pump new life into such an old story, and ended up walking away pleasantly surprised.
Though this is an adaptation of Frankenstein, Depraved is very much its own beast, able to stand on its own if the viewer has no former experience with the narrative. In terms of the broad strokes look at the story in this film, a highly skilled former army medic named Henry brings to life a homunculus formed from cobbled together body parts that he calls Adam. Over time Henry begins teaching Adam various things such as how to speak, how to solve puzzles, and how gravity works. While this is going on, Adam slowly begins to see visions from his past life, usually manifesting in the form of nightmares. The more Henry teaches Adam, the more he is able to piece together the events that would eventually lead to him being on Henry’s operating table.
While the broad view of the film’s story would make for at least a decent film when executed right, what makes Depraved truly shine is when you get into the deeper details of the story. Depraved uses the Frankenstein mythos as a lens to look through at a wide gamut of topics such as the pharmaceutical industry, PTSD, even touching upon what one defines as “manliness”. The main topic the film focuses on is big pharma, though, with the industry’s history of using experimental drugs in less than humane ways as arguably the main catalyst for what makes Adam who he is. His creation is the result of Henry’s incredible medical talents combined with a brand new wonder drug that Henry and his friend and business partner Polidori swear will revolutionize the medical field.
To his credit, Henry’s motives at least have a source in good intentions, unlike Polidori, who is purely fueled by greed. Henry was developing a new way to give wounded soldiers new fully functioning biological replacement limbs, after he became traumatized at seeing all the visceral carnage he experienced during his tour of duty in the Middle East, which resulted in him developing PTSD. Then there is Adam himself, through which the film covers the topic of masculinity, by the way of Henry and Polidori trying to teach him how men are “supposed” to behave, which naturally eventually leads to dire consequences for the characters.
What I particularly love about this film’s writing is it handles a lot of its themes in a rather subtle way, especially for a horror film. Usually horror films will write their messages out loud in a blood-soaked massive billboard. For the most part, you have to slowly piece together what the film is trying to say. However, that being said, there are some flaws with Depraved’s writing. The biggest of which is it has pacing issues, with the beginning and ending chunks of the film happening at breakneck speeds. The climax of the film in particular is a mad dash of chaos that almost spills out of control as the movie remembers that it actually has to start killing people off. Despite this, I feel the strengths of Larry Fessenden’s script far outweigh the hiccups it has.
Visually Depraved has both some really strong points in its favor and some weak points against it. Starting with what the film does right, the practical effects are simply on point. There isn’t too much to work with here, with most of the effects being focused on Adam’s scarring, but it is effective. What I like even more than the make up effects, however, is the way the film is shot and its set design. The majority of the film takes place in the seedier, more run down parts of New York City, which just gives the environment this natural unsettling aura. The way Fessenden shot the film was simply wonderful as well. Depraved is mostly from Adam’s perspective, and there are a few key scenes where Adam is overly stressed, and the camera closes in on him as he moves throughout the locations in the film, which is accompanied by an unnerving slight shake to the camera, visually emphasizing Adam’s emotions.
As for what I didn’t particularly care for in terms of the film’s visuals, there are multiple scenes in this film where we get a visual representation of Adam’s mental state in the form of colorful patterns being overlaid on screen, and while I get the overall intent of this, it rarely looks good. About the only time this visual trick really paid off for me personally was a few times where Adam gets drugged and the visual choice is this excellently used cloudy effect. Most of the time this stuff stayed on screen too long and routinely put me on the edge of a headache.
The film’s soundtrack by Will Bates, while not particularly memorable, was more than sufficient to help set the proper tone in each scene. It was never noticeably out of place, but also lacked any particular tracks that stood out to me in the long run. The cast in this film is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of experience and delivery, but the principle trio of David Call as Henry, Joshua Leonard as Polidori, and Alex Breaux as Adam more than carry the film. David Call and Joshua Leonard really made their duo of less than morally sound medical bros feel truly skeevy and not quite all there at times.
Alex Breaux was far and away the true standout in the cast, however. He really helped give Adam the sympathetic edge needed to get you fully invested in the character. He masterfully handled Adam’s slow transition from a creature who struggled to even speak into being surprisingly well educated and articulate given the overall short amount of the time Adam had to grow.
In the end Depraved winds up being a rather fitting reflection of its central character. It has a variety of flaws to it on the surface level, but the deeper you dig, the more intelligent the film is despite initial impressions starts to shine through. It’s not the best adaptation of Frankenstein I’ve experienced, but it most certainly is one of the better ones, and if you are in the mood to add something related to Frankenstein to your stable of Halloween films, you’ll be hard pressed to find many adaptations that trump this.