Depraved (2019)

Depraved had its world première at on 20th March, 2019 at What the Fest!?

“You’re so pale. What are you, like a vampire or something?”

This is what, a good way into Depraved, Shelley (Addison Timlin) asks the taciturn, heavily scarred stranger (Alex Breaux) with whom she has started drinking in a South Brooklyn bar. Shelley is right about the ‘or something’, and her own name hints at precisely which kind of movie monster he is. For while writer/director Larry Fessenden (who enjoys a brief cameo in this bar scene) has already done New York vampires in Habit (1995), he now returns to the themes of his even earlier No Telling (aka The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), stitching together Mary Shelley’s motifs of hubristic science, errant fatherhood and learned monstrosity with more modern anxieties about PTSD, Big Pharma, and the disorientation and decline of millennials. For Depraved is one of several recent films, along with Maurice Haeems’ Chimera (2018), Lennart Ruff’s The Titan (2018) and Sam Ashurst’s Frankenstein’s Creature (2018), to resurrect the mythos of Frankenstein; or. The Modern Prometheus in celebration of the 200th anniversary of its publication.

After Shelley tells her drinking companion that he reminds her of Iggy Pop, he claims to be called Iggy. In fact his ‘father’ Henry (David Call) has given him the name Adam – a name that Henry himself acknowledges comes with Biblical associations, in keeping with his son’s prototype status, but a name that in fact has been borrowed from someone (Noah Le Gros) whom Henry briefly met while working as a field medic in the Middle East. And Adam has another, forgotten name – Alex – returning to him in frenetic flashes from the past as his mind struggles through a fog of drugs and unspeakable trauma. As all these names suggest, Iggy/Adam/Alex has an identity crisis, drifting through his days like a victim of stroke or dementia or brain damage, with little long-term memory and limited understanding of the world around him.

When Depraved begins, though, there is just Alex (Owen Campbell), a 23-year-old company web designer at various crossroads: moving in with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine), coping with an Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother (Pat Patterson), at constant risk of being downsized, and reluctant to countenance even the very idea of becoming a father. None of which really matters, because birthday boy Alex is about to be brutally, fatally stabbed in the street – and the story will shift to Henry, who in his loft-based laboratory is similarly uncomfortable with paternity, but nonetheless must father the sewn-up Adam whom he has created through composite surgery, a brain transplant and a cocktail of experimental drugs. Adam is a man-child – an inquisitive yet addled adolescent in an adult’s body, utterly dependent on Henry for his care, his education and his companionship. So when Adam accidentally meets Henry’s sort-of girlfriend Liz (Ana Kanye), he is very confused by the way that he feels in the presence of this feminine other, and when Henry’s decadent financial backer Polidori (Joshua Leonard) decides to take Adam out for a day – and night – on the town, Henry is prematurely introduced to some very negative habits, tastes and attitudes. Adam’s coming of age is also his becoming depraved, and the lessons that he learns from Polidori – about the desires for sex, violence and destruction that drive humanity – will make this innocent as conflicted as his body parts are mismatched.

Alex, with his precarious employment and strong sense that he is a disappointment to others. Henry, the war veteran and damaged idealist who just wants to fix things. Polidori the sociopathic venture capitalist running down his father-in-law’s tab while ruthlessly, relentlessly pursuing a corrupted dream. These characters all represent recognisable if different models of millennial experience, and the toxic combination of their influence makes blank-slate Adam who he is: a nineteenth-century monster turned twenty-first century man, divided in his urges and lost in his fragmentation, as he swaps an ‘incel’ childhood spent at home – playing games, listening to music or sitting in front of a screen alone – for a blink-eyed life outside in a world where he may never properly fit.

In many ways, Depraved is a film about a brain. Alex’s is transferred into another body, but it continues to guide the film’s perspective, blending Adam’s waking experiences with mixed-up memories and dreams. At times we even see, superimposed over these, CG representations of his synapses firing and flaring in response to physical or pharmaceutical stimuli. So the film is, quite literally, cerebral – but it is also emotional, focused very much on Adam’s emerging feelings of frustration, alienation and yearning. The obvious paradigm of Shelley’s novel, here introduced very self-consciously (at one point the nominal coincidence between Henry and the doctor from James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation is expressly noted), tells us that Adam will end up doing terrible things, even if this monster is a construct – and product – of others’ monstrousness. By the end, Adam is just a figure in the crowd – just another lost soul in New York – looking to reinvent himself in much the way that Depraved reinvents the Frankenstein myth for our own times. Adam’s fate is deeply moving (Will Bates’ gentle score certainly helps modulate the melancholy), and handled by Fessenden with due gravity (a key word in the film) – but Adam’s story is also about us, and our place in an atomised, synthetic world of streaming sensations, wounded history and broken identity.

© Anton Bitel