Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Fantasia 2019: 'Depraved' Movie Review

This is an updated version of an earlier review.

The Frankenstein story has been adapted, tweaked, and tinkered with countless times across every medium. With Depraved legendary filmmaker Larry Fessenden gives the tale a lo-fi indie horror spin, though it’s more concerned with Brooklyn hipsters dealing with trauma than typical genre trappings.

Henry (David Call), a recently discharged military field surgeon coping with PTSD, and his pharma-bro, Polidori (Joshua Leonard), construct and reanimate a man, Adam (Alex Breaux), in Henry’s New York loft. That’s just the beginning, but it all happens within the first few minutes.

Depraved’s primary concerns are the pseudo father/son relationship between Henry and Adam, dealing with lingering damage from our pasts, innocence corrupted, and ideas like playing god and the notion of just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This is embodied by scenes where Henry teaches Adam how to play ping-pong, they talk about girls, and both try to adjust to a new normal. For the most part, the film watches like a mumblecore drama, but one of the key players happens to be a resurrected corpse stitched together from rando body parts.

While it has intriguing portions, primarily the early going between Henry and Adam, Depraved muddles about in the middle. To be honest, when Polidori finally comes into the action and becomes a key part, it takes a nosedive. Henry’s motivations make sense and Call gives him a grounded, relatable pathos. He’s severely damaged but can’t admit he has a problem and needs help, and this is his way of attempting to fix the things he couldn’t fix on the battlefield. The same goes for Adam, who begins with a childlike sense of wonder and guiltlessness, learning the ways of the world while being haunted by the memories of the owner of his donor brain. Breaux plays the creation with a sense of naïveté and longing that approaches heartbreaking.

But Polidori makes no damn sense, to the point where it distracts from the film. He’s supposed to be relatively high up in a pharmaceutical company, but mostly he’s just a coked-out party bro—admittedly, not unrealistic. When he first meets Adam it’s with a sense of awe, then he’s immediately like, let’s take him to a strip club to see if his dick works and fill him with hallucinogens, woo! His whole plan is, he has this great new drug, but development takes too long, so he’s going to skip the line, perform unlicensed human trials, and everyone will be so wowed by the results, they’ll ignore the rules, regulations, and ethical oversights, and approve his wonder pill sight unseen. Yeah, that’s not even slightly believable. And it’s not that he’s super desperate and this is his last chance. He barely cares, thinks this will actually work and not explode in his face, and is more interested in driving a wedge between Henry and Adam than the science of it all, or even the profit. It feels written by someone with zero practical understanding of this industry, and Polidori plays less realistic than the talking reanimated corpse.

As a writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, and general jack of every trade, Fessenden has been, and continues to be, hugely influential on independent cinema . He’s especially championed indie horror, mentoring a number of young up-and-coming filmmakers—executive producers on Depraved include mumble-core mainstay Joe Swanberg and The Ranger director Jess Wexler, among others. He’s great, and I dig what he represents and how he uses his influence, but this is uneven at best.

The first half hour flies by, offering an off-kilter indie take on the Frankenstein myth, full of macabre flourishes. But while Depraved starts strong, poses curious ideas and themes, and has a handful of creepy aesthetic quirks, it founders in the back half. And, especially at almost two-hours long, it never rights itself.

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