On the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, veteran horror director Larry Fessenden set out to retell the story in a modern setting, with a completely unique approach. Unlike so many of the film adaptations that places the doctor and his struggles at the forefront of the story, Fessenden’s Depraved is told from The Monster’s perspective.
Depraved recently celebrated its world premiere at the sold out opening night screening of What The Fest!? 2019. We were lucky enough to chat with Fessenden about his love of Mary Shelley’s classic tale of loneliness and isolation, and how the horrors of the modern world helped shape an entirely distinctive new story.
“…I started yearning for more realism in the Frankenstein story…”
Jonathan DeHaan of Nightmare on Film Street: Do you remember the first time you watched Frankenstein? Who was your first Frankenstein?
Larry Fessenden: Well, it’s a great question. I believe it would have been the Karloff version. You know, when you were little,I don’t know, you probably aren’t of my generation. But you see, the way it worked was that you watch these movies on TV. You got the Sunday paper and it told you what was on the whole week, and you would plot out your day. Like, ‘Oh, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is on 11:30 on Sunday and Wednesday, they’re showing the 4:30 movie will be the Christopher Lee. So, you know, over time, I saw them all that way.
And then also in my day, and you’ve collected horror magazines, and they had pictures, so then you started figuring out the different makeup designs even between the Karloff versions and then you figure it out that Glenn Strange played the monster and all this weird shit. And then there were comic books, and then there was, you know, cereal and models. I made models of Frankenstein. So you know, I was in this exact generation. I don’t know if you’ve ever done the research, it’s pretty interesting. They put old movies on TV in the 60’s and then they figured out they could start a whole new revenue stream. And then they started having kids buy toys and the whole thing. Its really a cultural bump, so I’m of the last generation that sort of remembers this.
NOFS: What was your favorite depiction of Frankenstein from that time? Just given that you were collecting them all and comparing them, which one connected with you the most when you were younger?
LF: I’ll tell you, there are two answers. One is without any question the first Karloff Frankenstein. The most gaunt, and there’s even makeup test that are even wackier, with a huge bolt on the head, but I thought the design was as great as anything pop art had ever come up with. And I stand by that i think you know it’s an iconic image with the flat top and it’s so intriguing. How did they come up with this cockamamie imagery? And then you know, that sort of had other versions it’s interesting that they started to parody that when he was like more like Glenn strange and walk with his arms outstretched and he was more robotic. It’s so funny how confused everything is like a lot of cartoons act like Frankenstein’s a robot, and it’s such a fucking shit show of references.
But then when I was older you know I started yearning for more realism in the Frankenstein story or just in all my horror stories. I started resenting some of Gothic, almost spoof-like nature. I never liked even the Hammer films, believe it or not. Then they made a movie called Frankenstein: The True Story. It was a four hour TV show was Michael Sarrazin who is actually a very handsome, kind of a model-type or something. He was the monster and he’s good looking in the beginning, in fact quote “beautiful,” the doctor said, but then he starts to decay and sort of turns into this- it was before aids, but it had that vibe.
So that was something I really loved when I was a teenager. I saw that the story can be told a different way, so in a way I credit that with sparking in me the idea that you could take this story and riff on it and still be true to it.
“…it’s quite wonderful during the #MeToo years to realize that one of the most important works of literature that was ever created […]was by an 18 year old girl! I mean, how badass is that!?”
NOFS: Yeah, it’s insane how many iterations there have been, and how it permeates in our culture. What do you think it is about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that has allowed it to live for 200 years?
LF: Well, it’s just utterly iconic because it’s about loneliness and alienation which is, I’d say, probably the most common emotion in the human experience. It is vaguely preposterous because of the brain transplant. It has all of those ideas of playing God, which continue to be relevant with each new technology and each new thing going wrong in our lives and our world. So you can always say, “Well, they Frankensteined it together,” and “It’s coming back to haunt us”. It’s amazing how it works on this metaphorical level on this very visceral personal level.
And I think, I must say, it’s quite wonderful during the #MeToo years to realize that one of the most important works of literature that was ever created, ever, and I’m including Homer- by an 18 year old girl! I mean, how badass is that! And, you know, she was among all these fancy-dandy poets, and you can just imagine them preening around and treating her like a fucking servant girl and yet she outpaced all of them. So, I think that’s fantastic in this current environment to just say, “Yo dude, check out the real deal!”. So you know, all of these things are wonderful and make it enduring.
NOFS: I couldn’t agree more. Hearing you talk about Frankenstein throughout your life like this, it’s clear that Depraved is a huge passion project for you. How does it feel to finally see your creation come to life?
LF: Well, it’s very bittersweet because you realize, oh, Christ, I only got that part of the story, you know, I didn’t quite get the other part. So, uh- look, I’m a very loyal artist. I always love my children, my little movies, and I’m very faithful to them, even when they have glaring flaws, which people love to point them out. Yes, I think I caught one aspect but there’s other things. I mean, I’d remake the movie tomorrow, I have plenty of new ideas. But I suppose what you’re supposed to do then is something different. You know, that’s why you make more movies because it’s not really that fun, it’s just that you feel compelled to get it right next time. So I feel like put my hat in the ring and I’m happy enough, but it’s so exciting to think what else you could do with this story.
NOFS: That is one of the craziest things about Frankenstein. It’s probably like one of the most perfect stories we have.
LF: Well, also because it’s so spare. That’s what makes something endlessly adaptable, is its spareness. I think it’s if you think of something else that’s got more complexity in the narrative. Think of some great book or whatever, you’re like “Well, that isn’t quite as open to interpretation, that’s kind of the thing itself, that’s the work,” but Frankenstein it’s pretty open. Don’t play God, there’s repercussions to everything you do, that’s about it and then you work from their. One angle I took is that I told it from the monster’s point of view which hasn’t been to my understanding, as much as it usually engages with the doctor and his problems.
“I wanted to evoke the real casualties [of war], that even the effective people come back broken or changed and just how overwhelming the moral dilemma is.”
NOFS: This monster made me feel so lonely and sad at the end, and that’s probably because we never see things from his perspective.
LF: Yeah, it would be brutal. In fact, it is brutal because you know it’s just an analogy for adolescence. You wake up and you just start realizing how the world works and you know this is going to bed, this is going to be really rough. This is really just a breakup movie. After all, the whole movie is about him getting back to the girl and realizing he’s way too far gone to get her back.
NOFS: We also have these father figures that are themselves pretty damn flawed. I really didn’t expect to actually give a shit about Henry, the Victor Frankenstein character, but you found a way to give him some empathy as well.
LF: That’s fantastic to hear. I had the idea that he was brilliant, and that he was probably slightly disconnected from regular people in that way. Then he went off to the war, he got his mind blown and realized that his brilliance couldn’t actually save people. And that scarred him so when he came back he’s like, ‘I know what I’m going to do’. I’m going to do this experiment, and that was just a terrible idea, but it’s because he was already so damaged. So it really is about what motivates people and how misguided we can be, and then get drawn into something. Then the idea that he had this partner , that’s what I finally added to the movie, who was really sort of opportunistic and poorly motivated, but I even tried to show with Palidori, you have these moments of vulnerability.
My favorite moment is when he says, ‘You know Henry, you couldn’t have done this on your own. I was in the room,’ and you just realize the ego- the fragile ego of evil people, it’s just utterly mad. I mean, look at our president, you know?
NOFS: I really did love that Henry was this traumatized medic from the war. I thought that really helped ground his character and gave us an A to B to C movement of how he would get to this point where he wants to stop death. Where did that originally come from?
LF: Well, I did develop the movie in the 2000s during the Iraq invasion. And I became obsessed with the fact that statistically, we are bringing more of our boys and gals home, but they all have head injuries. So they’re sort of alive but they’re very damaged. And that just brought to mind the idea of the concerns of Frankenstein so I mean it all becomes intertwined, all these things, plus I’m obsessed with the idea of collateral damage and the way we run our societies with our false wars and pontificating. I wanted to evoke the real casualties, that even the effective people come back broken or changed and just how overwhelming the moral dilemma is.
And of course, what I wanted to do with that in juxtaposition to the girlfriend Liz who actually speaks about kindness and nurturing, which is another response another way to address the shocks and horrors of life but it’s often marginalized. Then in the end she gets killed, she’s nothing but a goody-two-shoes, you know, and I wanted to show that those are the first people to get raped and pillaged when in fact they’re the innocents. So she’s actually the most, I think, tragic character. One is obviously watching the monster and the doctors and all that but it’s her tragedy that is just appalling. Even the other girl makes fun of her and says “Oh, right. You’re just trying to save the world,” and I just think the kind of mockery that compassionate people experience is also a sign of the toxic nature of our culture.
“I think what battle does to people is it distorts their mind, you know, and I think the point is that all of life has those impacts…”
NOFS: One of the other things that I thought really set Henry apart is that when he first sees his creation, his immediate reaction is to name him. Was that something you decided early on you were going to do to establish him as a different kind of “mad scientist”.
LF: That’s so interesting, you know, that wasn’t a conscious thing it seemed like what you would do. I didn’t even occur to me. You’re right, very often he doesn’t have a name although I suspect if he does have a name it is Adam, for obvious reasons although I try to refute those reasons in the movie.
NOFS: I was actually just thinking about what you had said about soldiers coming home with PTSD and I really can’t help but think that, that mindset, the brain that goes through psychological trauma and comes home only to feel disconnected from itself is kind of our own modern real-life Frankenstein, right? Is that something that you were ruminating on at all when you were putting the story together?
LF: I mean, as I said, I’m sort of crossing my wires because I feel like the people that come back with brain injury remind me of the monster but that’s not really what I’m saying. So of course, yeah, I do feel that but also this is where modern medicine is at its most amazing- that they are saving people on the battlefield. I read a book about a field surgeon who really improved the portability of his gear so that he could take the hospital to the soldiers out infield. So he really was like this Henry character improving and saving more lives.
I think what battle does to people is it distorts their mind, you know, and I think the point is that all of life has those impacts, and maybe you have a scene where they’re listening to Bach and they figure out how to do a puzzle- and the idea is that there’s something sort of glorious about the rhythms of a Bach song so maybe there’s some good in humanity but then there’s just this war and all this collateral damage from from these kinds of activities. It’s a real sort of dose of how society works and when we go through the museum [in the movie] I enjoy thinking of this long scope of history.
NOFS: Depraved is holding its world premiere at What The Fest!? Is there anywhere else people can expect to look forward to seeing the film in the coming months?
LF: That’s a good question. No one else wants to show it [laughs]. I’m hoping to get into a couple of festivals and maybe get picked up for distribution but this is all unknown to me right now. Otherwise, I’ll be sending out a YouTube link in a couple of days!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after this interview it was announced that Yellow Veil Pictures had acquired the worldwide sales rights for the Depraved. In the press release Fessenden was quoted, saying “It is very exciting to be working with Yellow Veil on this project. I am enthused to partner with a young company that is finding its groove in this fickle business, and I look forward to seeing what they can do to get my movie out into capable hands”. Yellow Veil Pictures is a name we’ve all begun to associate with exciting and thought-provoking film, and is the sales company behind Tilman Singer’s Luz, A.T. White’s Starfish, and Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger.
“…there’s something sort of glorious about the rhythms of a Bach song so maybe there’s some good in humanity but then there’s just this war and all this collateral damage…”
Depraved is produced by Glass Eye Pix and Joe Swanberg’s Forager Film Company The film celebrated its world premiere at What The Fest!? 2019 and is an absolute must see for all Frankenstein fanatics. If you had a chance to see the film at What The Fest!? would love to hear your thoughts on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!