DEPRAVED (2017, dir. Larry Fessenden)

Larry Fessenden’s Depraved (2019) is a direct retelling of the original Frankenstein story, updating Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel (as filtered through James Whale’s classic 1931 and 1935 films) to place its action in contemporary New York. The update is extremely clever, and Fessenden draws upon both Shelley and Whale quite directly and extensively. For my purposes, though, what is particularly striking about Fessenden’s update is that he has chosen to tell his story of a modern-day Frankenstein through the optic of the war on terror. In particular, his mad scientist figure, simply named “Henry” (David Call), first began to develop both his technique for resurrecting the dead and his motivation for doing so while working as a field medic in “the Middle East.”[i] Later, working in a Brooklyn loft, he finally creates a living specimen that he dubs “Adam” (Alex Breaux), constructed from bits and pieces of corpses. The naïve and misunderstood Adam gets out of control and escapes at the end of the film, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

Fessenden is a well-known figure in the realm of horror film (though he works outside the commercial Hollywood mainstream), and Depraved, while a striking film, does not especially deviate from established traditions within American horror film, even if it does punch up the science fictional aspects of the story a bit. What is perhaps most notable about Depraved is Fessenden’s decision to ground his entire story in the legacy of the so-called war on terror, a decision that stands out as something that must be interrogated as a crucial key to the meaning of the film, even if that meaning is not entirely clear.

In a reading of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Annie Webster sees the novel’s Monster, assembled from body parts of car-bomb victims, as a sort of subversive parody that questions “miraculous accounts of experimental science being used to regenerate the bodies of injured US soldiers returning from military campaigns such as the Iraq War” (439). But that reading actually applies even better to Depraved, in which such biomedical satire is quite central. Here, Henry is still suffering from the trauma of his experiences in the Middle East, where many soldiers died while in his care. As Henry’s girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne), a counselor who works with traumatized veterans for a living, warns him (after meeting Adam), “Henry, you brought the war home with you.”[ii] Partly as a means of coping with his own trauma, Henry continues the work he began on the battlefield to develop a technique for resurrecting the dead. The satirical implications of the film are broadened, however, by the fact that Henry is encouraged and assisted by the film’s most despicable character, one John Polidori (Joshua Leonard)[iii]. Polidori is an ambitious employee of a large pharmaceutical company (SynTech), which of course serves as a marker of the evils of American capitalism. Polidori has developed a drug called “rapamycin,” or “Rap X,” which helps Adam to stay alive and which Polidori hopes will eventually have significant commercial potential, boosting his standing with the company (which is headed by his father-in-law, giving his ambitions an extra personal dimension, as does the fact that Polidori is so clearly envious of Henry’s brilliance as a medical scientist)[iv]. Late in the film, it becomes clear that, throughout Henry’s experiments, Polidori has supplied him not only with pharmaceuticals and other supplies, but with bodies and body parts. Early in the film, for example, he murders a young man named Alex (Owen Campbell) so that his brain can be extracted for use as Adam’s brain.

Numerous aspects of the film’s depiction of SynTech contribute to its socio-political commentary. For example, not only is SynTech more concerned with its profits than with actually helping its customers, but it is perfectly happy even to damage the health of its customers by selling them drugs they don’t really need, thus contributing to Americans’ excessive reliance on drugs in order to further its aims. As Henry tells Adam when he explains to him that he is going to need to take a number of drugs (including Rap X) in order to survive, “Don’t worry. Most of America is on drugs. Uh, uppers, downers, painkillers, mood enhancers, blood pressure, diabetes, opioids, and meth.”

In fact, the satire of Depraved is ultimately so broad that it extends to cover the entire history of Western civilization—and perhaps of the human race. In what is perhaps the crucial “message” scene in the entire film, Polidori takes Adam to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to teach him more about human history and culture, which he summarizes as “Since the beginning, it’s been wars and warring, with factions of artists trying to find beauty and meaning, capture the agony and the ecstasy. This museum, it’s a mausoleum to the aspirations of man.” In the museum, they view a variety of paintings and displays, several of which seem to strike a particular chord with Adam. For example, he clearly identifies with the dead and broken body of Christ that he sees in the Pietà by seventeenth-century Spanish painter Juan de Valdés Leal. Soon afterward, Polidori tells Adam the famous story of the severed ear of Van Gogh, after which the camera zooms in on Van Gogh’s ear in a self-portrait, followed by a quick dissolve to Adam’s stitched-on ear. In another later moment that might be also be a bit excessive, Adam is fascinated with Jackson Pollock’s 1950 abstract expressionist painting Autumn Rhythm (No. 30), the patterns of which appear to remind him of the psychedelic patterns of thought in his own brain—patterns that are frequently displayed on the screen during the film as a visual representation of what is going on in his mind.

Between these two almost comically obvious moments, things turn quite serious when Polidori takes Adam to view the 1913 painting Ariadne, by the Greco-Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, a classic expression of modernist alienation. Polidori explains the painting with what can be taken as a central statement of his own philosophy of life:

“Modernity encroaches. Twentieth-century angst. God is dead and we are left alone with our technology and our nightmares. It is the beginning of the end. A culture of narcissism and self-indulgence born out of the comforts of modern life. All that’s left to do is enjoy the ride.”

Later, after the Pollock painting, Polidori takes Adam to a display of weaponry, which he characterizes as a monument to humanity’s fundamental inclination toward violence and destruction. He sees this display as a fundamental statement about the human race: “Depraved. That’s what we are, Adam. Utterly depraved.”

Of course, given that Polidori is depicted in the film as a self-serving scoundrel (and even as a cold-blooded murderer), it is not entirely clear how much Fessenden wants us to accept this cynical view of humanity. One thing we do know is that Polidori’s analysis does seem to apply to Polidori himself. He is certainly willing to sacrifice others in the interest of his own greed and ambition. Moreover, despite the fact that he has a great deal riding on the success of Henry’s experiment with Adam, he seems unable to resist undermining that experiment out of sheer jealousy of Henry’s superior knowledge and skill. Thus, after taking Adam to the museum, he also takes him to a strip club and introduces the naïve, newly-formed person, to sex, alcohol, and drugs. Meanwhile, he tries to turn Henry against Adam by feeding him false information about Adam’s “volatility” and possible designs on Liz.

Given the fundamentally problematic nature of Henry’s experiments, the added element of Polidori’s sabotage virtually ensures a disastrous conclusion. The plot takes a dark turn when, perhaps stirred by the visit to the strip club, Adam tells Henry that “I want a girl like you have a girl,” taking the film into the realm of The Bride of Frankenstein. Upset after having just learned new details about his origins, Adam goes to a bar, where he meets a young woman named (what else?) Shelley (Addison Timlin). Meanwhile, Shelley’s clothing is decorated with daisies, which identifies her with the girl Maria from the 1931 film and suggests that she might be in big trouble. Indeed, Adam does accidentally kill Shelley soon afterward, eventually begging Henry, hours later, to resurrect her so that she can be like him.

Shelley thus does double duty as an adapted version of both the girl Maria and the Bride, and her principal function seems to be to provide additional links to the original novel and the original Whale films. Meanwhile, the naming of Adam in this film calls attention to the fact that the Bride motif in Frankenstein stories had always echoed the Biblical story of the creation of Eve, a story that problematically identifies women as secondary to men and as created for the benefit of men. In this case, the character Shelley also calls further attention to the film’s engagement with capitalism. She seems like a free spirit in the bar at night, but she admits to Adam that she has to get up early the next morning to go to work, because, by day, she is an ordinary corporate employee, “just a cog in the wheel.” Her gestures toward rebellion (she has numerous tattoos, is a fan of Iggy Pop, and is willing to befriend an outsider like Adam) suggest her desire to break free of the soul-crushing routinization of daily life under late capitalism, while the feebleness of her rebellion makes clear just how unlikely such rebellions are to produce significant results.

When Henry explains that Shelley has been dead too long to revive, an enraged Adam attacks him, while Henry injects his creature with what is presumably a lethal dose of an unidentified drug. Henry and Liz bury Adam in the woods, along with Shelley and other evidence of Henry’s experiments. They then go to Polidori’s house to try to retrieve the hard drive containing digital records of Henry’s experiments that Polidori has taken there. Playing pool, Polidori proposes that they restart the project, with him again serving as Henry’s assistant. He will be the Igor to Henry’s Frankenstein, he declares, emphasizing, “Henry, not Victor, just like in the movie. I salute you. Frankenstein of the Hudson.”[v]

Henry isn’t having it, of course. Meanwhile, Adam has by now clawed his way out of his grave. He comes to the house and murders Liz before Henry’s eyes, having possibly raped her as well. He then stalks Henry with a Karloff-like gate as lightning flashes in the background, providing the film’s most Gothic visual and the one that recalls the Whale films most directly. Leaving a trail of bodies (and Polidori’s burning house) behind him, Adam ends the film ends on the run from police, who initially fail to catch him even after tracking him with police dogs that inevitably recall the racist legacy of using such dogs against African Americans in the South and making Adam into a sort of stand-in for all those who have been Othered by mainstream American society. In the final scene, the film takes a final sentimental turn as Adam anonymously returns a necklace that had been given Alex by his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine) as a gift of love. He then rushes away before Lucy can find him, knowing that there is no hope for a relationship, given his monstrous status as an unnatural creature and a multiple murderer. He will remain alone, as Frankenstein monsters always do. As he says in the film, “I will hide and disappear and learn not to care. This is what they have taught me.”

If one sees Shelley’s original Frankenstein as a commentary on the dehumanizing potential of the Enlightenment reliance on reason and the emergent Industrial Revolution, the rather vague critique of capitalism embedded within Depraved would seem to serve as a bookend that comments on the ultimate impact of a now-complete capitalist modernization, in which science simply becomes a tool for the generation of profits. In this sense, Fessenden’s film can be taken as a verification that Shelley’s original fears were well founded. Meanwhile, to the extent that one sees the war on terror as central to the message of Depraved, the film suggests that a particularly violent form of American capitalism perhaps goes into even more vicious territory than Shelley might have imagined. After all, viewed in the light of Richard Slotkin’s well-known argument that the American national identity was built on rhetoric of the violent conquest of presumably “savage” foes (principally Native Americans), Depraved suggests that this same rhetoric was transferred to the war on terror, with consequences that redound upon the contemporary American domestic situation as well.


[i] Internal visual clues in some flashback battleground scenes (as well as Fessenden’s comments in interviews) suggest that the setting is actually Afghanistan. One might argue, though, that the film fails to be specific about this location in order to make its commentary applicable to the entire war on terror, which includes the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

[ii] Indeed, one flashback scene shows Henry attempting to revive a wounded soldier in Afghanistan, only to have him die. That soldier, we learn, was named “Adam.”

[iii] Polidori’s name, of course, is derived from the original Dr. John Polidori, who served as Lord Byron’s personal physician and was present at the gathering in Switzerland where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein famously originated. Polidori himself later authored what is widely considered the first modern vampire story in “The Vampyre” (1819), itself derived from a fragment by Byron. As Rieger details, a conversation between Polidori and Percy Shelley might have been the genesis of the ideas that eventually went into Mary Shelley’s novel.

[iv] There is some precedent for the use of “Polidori” as the name of a villain. For example, in the fifth season X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (1997), a spoofy retelling of the Frankenstein story, “Pollidori” is the name of the evil mad scientist whose work is at the heart of the episode.

[v] By emphasizing Henry’s name, which matches that of Henry Frankenstein in the Whale films, rather than Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel, Polidori appears to suggest that the films might be a more important analog than the novel. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s assistant in both the 1931 film and in The Bride of Frankenstein is named “Fritz” (Dwight Frye). Polidori here is drawing upon the fact that “Igor” has by now become the cliché name for the assistant to a mad scientist, though this name was not used until Son of Frankenstein (1939).