Rebuilding Frankenstein: An Interview with ‘Depraved’ Director, Larry Fessenden

2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. It was also when Larry Fessenden put his adaptation of the classic work, Depraved, into production. Five years after the book first hit the stands, the first adaptation hit the stage. It was also the year that Shelley’s name actually appeared on the book, as it was originally published anonymously. Since then, it has been constantly adapted and reinterpreted by scores of artists. Frankenstein has been adapted faithfully as a tragic horror story, the science fiction angle has been played up and played out. It has been infused with gore and terror, parodied, softened for children’s consumption, re-imagined across a wide array of times and places. It has been made sexy, and repulsive, but few have had the ability to break the heart of a viewer so beautifully as Fessenden’s Depraved.

Depraved moves the story to modern-day Brooklyn, beginning first with Alex (Owen Campbell) and Lucy (Chloe Levine), fresh out of college, moving in together, and beginning their life. After a little fight, Alex is on his way out. They have a sort of awkward make up and he says, “We always have tomorrow.”

“When he leaves the girl at the beginning,” says Fessenden, “he says, ‘we always have tomorrow.’ And that’s one of my favorite ideas, you actually can’t be sure of that, so every day is precious. Then he goes out and gets murdered and that haunts him through the whole movie.”

This is a Frankenstein film, so it’s no spoiler to tell you Alex wakes up a blank slate with a strange face (played in monster form by Alex Breaux). He meets Henry (David Call), his creator/father. Henry was a combat field surgeon who faced down death and tragedy but had a breakthrough on the battlefield when he actually defeated death. He came home and shared his secret discovery with a college buddy named Polidori (Joshua Leonard), who worked in pharmaceuticals. Together they set out on this journey, which led to the walking pile of scars they built. It’s left to Henry to name his creation, Adam, and to try to exercise his brain, building him up from a baby primate to a facsimile of a human man. And again, this is a Frankenstein film so it’s no spoiler to tell you tragedy ensues.

Breaux embodies the monster so well you will forget he’s acting. He can swing between gentle giant to terrifying beast with the naturalness of a lounging panther that suddenly takes down some passing prey. Playing against Call and Leonard, they create an interesting look into the damaged male psyche. The contrast is the women in their lives, Henry’s estranged wife, Liz (Ana Kayne) and Polidori’s wife Georgina (Maria Dizzia). While the two women are each devoted to their man’s cause, Liz is an empathetic soul who’s as scared for what the world might do to Adam as she is of what Adam might do to Henry. Georgina possesses a cold pragmatism, backing her husband’s play, no matter how dark the path gets, as long as it serves her.

Fessenden builds upon the bones of Shelley’s seminal work, hitting familiar beats, but usually with a twist. References to other Frankenstein films are there, but the director of such indie masterpieces as Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter brings gravity, empathy, and soul to the tale rarely seen in even big studio productions. Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, but this is Fessenden’s Frankenstein and he makes it his own the way Johnny Cash took Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and left an indelible mark on the song. He made it a Johnny Cash song. And like that version of “Hurt,” Fessenden creates a weathered, world-weary, haunting and beautiful masterwork that is, ahem, alive.

It was an honor to get on the phone this week with The Fess himself, ahead of Depraved’s debut at What The?!? Fest Wednesday night. It was just announced that Glass Eye Pix will be partnering with Yellow Veil Pictures for distribution. I can’t stress enough, if Depraved plays near you, don’t sleep on it. If it doesn’t, buy the Blu-ray. Larry tells me they shot a great behind the scenes doc for an eventual release and I can’t wait to add it to my library, because I know this is a film I’m going to watch again and again.

Tim: Where does your love of Frankenstein begin?

Larry: It was the movies which I do remember watching, and by that, I mean the black and white films from Universal. Not only the three films with Karloff but even with Lugosi playing the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Glenn Strange had a pretty cool look and the monster actually became more robotic and that was so terrifying to me as a child. I always felt the monster was going to come into my bedroom at night. And then I bought all the toys and models. To this day, I’m still entranced by the image of the flat-top monster. Of course, then you move on to all the different versions; Christopher Lee, Robert DeNiro. Which is amazing because I love Robert DeNiro. I don’t think that’s a great movie, but I always love the story being told, just like your mother singing a lullaby, no matter the version, there’s something to it. I was very influenced by a weird movie, a TV movie Frankenstein; The True Story with Michael Sarrazin as the monster and that’s a very, very weird one because he’s very handsome and then he starts to decay. And there’s a little of that in my film. Not the decay so much, but that he presents fairly normal at first. So many great versions. Even now, they’re still making great versions. Penny Dreadful had some cool Frankenstein stuff. Yea, life long affection for it. But at its core is this beautiful origin story that was written by this eighteen-year-old girl, suffering from, obviously, her overbearing husband and these dandies from that time, thinking they were so fancy. And she wrote one of the greatest stories ever put to paper. I think that’s a fucking great story too.

Tim: The theme of fatherhood was, of course, heavy in the original novel, and Victor not being a good father to his creation, but with yours-you seem to have a lot more on your mind when it comes to fatherhood. Are you making a broader statement about how we raise our sons in this day and age?

Larry: Absolutely. I think that’s really important and I used the idea of society being a father of sorts. In other words, the example we set in public discourse, in our history, that’s why they go to the museum. But also, this is the slight change in my film: you have two fathers, the doctor who is driven to this by his genius and then he suffers from a certain remorse, and then the other guy, Polidori, named after the character from the same weekend that Frankenstein was written, that character is more of a modern villain. Sort of a corporate shill, who is trying to make money off of this experiment and who clearly had his own version of bad parenting. He says at one point, ‘fathers aren’t always there for you.’ And you can tell he has a bitterness and he’s grown up sort of wrong. I think that’s the theme of the movie. It really does matter how we parent. And it’s society’s obligation and individual parent’s obligation and it resonates throughout and you can damage someone to the point that they, in essence, become a monster. And the monster, Adam, in the movie becomes threatening when he’s rejected. In that, it’s just like the original, but I don’t play up the physical revulsion, it’s more the guilt and the PTSD Henry suffers. So it’s a lot of the same themes but looked at with slightly new eyes.

Tim: Henry was always willing to play games or sit Adam down in front of a TV screen, but he never told him what he can and can’t do with his dick.

Larry: Yes.

Tim: Kinda like the worst weekend dad.

Larry: Well look, to me, and I appreciate you bringing that up, you know at first he plays the games and you can tell he’s bored and frustrated. The monster isn’t quite as engaged as he’d like. That have that one moment with the music where they do sort of connect, but then you see Henry’s aggression coming in. He’s competitive and he’s got his own problems and the monster feels it. And clearly Henry can’t deal with this relationship and he hands the ‘kid’ an iPad and from there he lets the TV do the work and he’s absent. He comes in and says, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t here today,’ and you realize he abandons his monster. Of course in the old story, he looks at the monster, he’s grotesque, and he goes ‘get away!’ But it’s this subtle way we abandon our children I want to explore here.

Tim: Getting to Polidori, before the halfway point, Henry and Adam are getting to know each other and Henry says, ‘You probably think I named you Adam, because of the Bible, if you even remember the Bible, but that’s not it at all.’ It seemed like we’re going to dispel the visual aspect of the story and focus on the existential dread, but then after we meet Polidori and he takes Adam out, instead of it being God with his creation, it’s the Devil literally giving Adam The Big Apple. Am I reading too much into it?

Larry: Yea, exactly. You know there’s an interesting moment about religion in the movie, is that the monster stares at a picture of Christ and he’s completely drawn in and Polidori just walks by and, “Phbt.” You realize that Polidori is a modern man, who is contemptuous of knowledge and spirituality. He’s really about the money, the pharmaceuticals, and all this damage, but there this one moment when I really punch in on the Christ figure and show that the monster is somehow identifying with this image. I’m not saying my movie is religious, but one is drawn to that story no matter who you are, even if you don’t know what’s going on. And there is an image of Paradise Lost in the movie, where Liz asks him what books are you reading and I flash to it and you realize he has been reading it. As for Polidori, he’s a villain. I didn’t give him a cloven hoof, but he is the corrupting element. I think all those things play. I think that’s why literature and the Bible are intertwined. These are our most important stories, it’s not a matter of reading too much into it, it speaks to your access to what I’ve put out there. That’s perfect.

Tim: Can you get into the story structure? The way you approached the adaptation?

Larry: In a way, it was my cage. I refused to change the structure because I love the subjectivity of life. And that was what it was about. That you’re the monster for half the movie, but then you’re the doctor and he’s been through a lot himself. It’s sort of like taking the story and switching it around in the middle of the film. It was just an experiment I wanted to try because I believe life is so subjective that you forget that someone is going through something really quite different. They’re in the same story, but they’re having a very different experience. I think that’s valuable to be reminded of in life. And in the movie it’s sort of a cool structural design, I thought.

Tim: I noticed the hand brace on Adam. Was Karloff your main point of reference for Breaux’s look?

Larry: But I tried to touch on all of them. The white eye is from the Christopher Lee version, he has a dead eye. The actor’s face reminded me of Karloff. He has a heavy brow and I just thought it’s amazing that that comes out naturally through his physique. That was appealing to me. We were always referencing Karloff above all, but there are nods to some of the other designs from over the years. Obviously, the bald head is in a lot of the Hammer films and some of the recent ones, which is natural from the brain transplant. The scar on the back of the head, that’s in some of the movies, because that’s how you actually access the brain, you flop the skin over. Much affection for all the different versions. It was really amazing to do the scar scenes. It would take four or five hours to put that makeup on and slowly, thank goodness, we got clothes, which diminished the time.

Tim: What would be your desert island Frankenstein film? I’ll give you two!

Larry: Yea, you have to give me two, because there’s absolutely no question it’s the first Frankenstein film. People mention Bride of Frankenstein, that it’s the better movie, but I always thought the little bit of humor that was introduced did some disservice to the monster. Even the talking didn’t appeal to me. I still like the makeup, but the fact is, Karloff was hungry and thin when he made the first version and you feel that. And you know the indented cheek is because he had a fake tooth in there and whatever else. So that’s my favorite. I like, well, I liked it at the time, I don’t know what I’d think of it now, but Frankenstein; the True Story and I don’t know. It’s never quite right. You almost can’t have this conversation without bringing up Young Frankenstein. Then there’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They’re all interesting. Then you can get into things like Ex Machina, of course, they do make Frankenstein movies without the name. I think it’s unbelievable how important the legacy of this one book is.

(Thank you, Larry, it was a pleasure!)

 

 

 

 

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