Following the grainy, grindhouse countdown rolling behind the credits, Larry Fessenden’s Depraved opens with a sweeping camera push into the domestic space of sweet, innocent thirtysomethings Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloe Levine), post-dinner but pre-moving-in-with-each-other. The two are chatting happily when Lucy makes an off-hand remark about how great Alex would be as a father. He overreacts, hastily leaving ― we follow Alex as he walks through Brooklyn streets that look positively gothic as this hour, all electricity farms and harsh fluorescent lights.
Just as Alex pulls his phone out to text Lucy an apology, he’s jumped by an unknown assailant, who stabs him multiple times in some ghastly, giallo-lite murder sequence. Alex falls to the ground as the screen is doused in waves of electrical currents ― his neurons firing through memories of his grandmother, of Lucy, before their superimposition fades away and we’re left staring into his cold, still eyes. Fessenden has mutated a cutesy indie romance into a horror story in like five minutes; we’re hooked, then we’re thrown away. Cue title sequence.
The next pair of eyes we’re met with aren’t Alex’s. There’s the beeping of a heart rate monitor, but wherever we are, it’s not a hospital. As an arm reaches up into frame, we realise that this isn’t Alex’s arm either, and as this body stands up, we can see that this torso doesn’t belong to Alex, nor do these legs, this neck, those ears ― the proportions are all wrong. As this slender man stumbles towards the mirror, it becomes obvious all these parts have been stitched together with dark, dense seams, a patchwork of anatomy. Another man enters the warehouse, amazed to see this puzzle of limbs alive ― let alone walking, responsive. In his amazement, he stumbles to give his monster a name, settling on ― as corny as he knows it is ― Adam.
From here, Fessenden keeps us cooped up with these two men: the carer, Henry (David Call), and his cared-for, Adam (Alex Breaux), bundled up in this open-plan warehouse lab-cum-hipster home. Fessenden seems content pressing snooze on the fateful conclusion that this iteration of ‘Frankenstein’ must end with, and draws a distinctly human story in the vocabulary broken bodies. The lo-fi aesthetic built through hovering, on-the-ground, digital cameras paves way for the emotionally-charged story at its core: Henry is an ex-soldier, a field medic suffering from PTSD who witnessed his ability to save people in warfare become fallible ― a distressing wartime flashback shows his futile attempts to keep a squadmate alive. But free from the confines of war, Henry is fixated with putting his medical powers to use, and with the not-so-legal (nor entirely moral) help of rich old college buddy Polidori (Joshua Leonard), he takes it upon himself to undertake this Shelley-esque experiment (in the name of science, or some shit). Fessenden’s mobile camera often swoops around these characters like a concealed body cam, devoted to documenting this experiment and backing up the data on endless piles of hard drives. At other times, there’s flashes of hidden-cam reality TV, or hyperreal surgery cams ― all used to disturbing effect, a tactile feeling of reality that’s hard to shake.
It’s not entirely clear where the pieces that form Adam come from, though through restless, haunting flashbacks of Lucy that haunt Adam’s dreams, we discover the fate of Alex’s brain: the centrepiece of Henry’s biological masterwork. The seemingly superficial discussion of fatherhood that opens Depraved soon reveals itself to be integral, as Polidori’s money-minded greed rears its ugly head, and science and business find an ugly convergence. Henry and Adam become subsumed in a tangled confrontation of agency and of ethics; the politics of bringing life (back) into this decaying world.
Towards the end of the film, Fessenden restages the social drama of the opening scene with far more sinister intentions; a meet cute with Adam goes from sickly sweet to deadly sour, and you’re reminded that, oh yeah, this is a Frankenstein story. No matter the context, no matter the environment, the ending’s always the same. And when Fessenden can delay the inevitable no more, he’s unafraid to revive old Universal imagery in the name of camp: tesla coils echo through wilted trees, and Adam’s physicality turns gothic.
There’s infinitely less capital-H Horror than expected, but the drama is infinitely compelling, and it’s hard to deny Fessenden’s craft in saving the best for last. The film’s finale (so good) taps into a bracingly melancholic register with such little pretension you’ll be wondering why ever gave a shit about whatever sterile pseudo-horror Hereditary (2018) thought it was so brave for pulling off.
This is Frankenstein, baby. Heads will roll.
Depraved will be playing on Mon 10 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University, writing a little something something about post-cinema and the desktop horror film. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.