In the indie horror world, few names crop up as often as Larry Fessenden. From writing and directing films like Habit and Wendigo to appearing in cult favourites like Session 9, Fessenden wears a lot of hats and has an IMDb page long enough to make many A-listers jealous. Through his production company Glass Eye Pix, he’s also given many genre icons their start, producing work by the likes of Ti West (House of the Devil) and Jenn Wexler (The Ranger).
Fessenden’s latest horror feature, Depraved—which he wrote, directed, edited, and produced—had its world premiere at New York City’s What The Fest!? in 2019. The first full-length film that the director has helmed since 2013’s Beneath, Depraved is a modern-day retelling of Frankenstein, centring around a disillusioned army medic named Henry (David Call) who makes a man, Adam (Alex Breaux), out of body parts in a Brooklyn loft. What follows is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human in a monstrous world—one with a lot of brains and a surprising amount of heart.
To celebrate the film’s release as a Shudder Exclusive in the UK and Ireland, I caught up with Fessenden to talk about his approach to filmmaking, the evolution of the horror genre, and the humanity and depravity of Depraved. Here’s what he had to say.
SCREAM: What was your first introduction to horror, and when did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
LARRY FESSENDEN: Oh, ever since I was a little kid. In my generation, we’d watch TV, and there were like three channels in New York. I grew up in the City, and I’d always hope my parents would go away on the weekend or have a day activity, and I would just station in front of the television—Channel 5, Channel 9, Channel 11—and they had old reruns of the black-and-white Universal movies. The TV stations bought a package of Universal movies, and that was popular with kids, so then they made the Aurora models, and on it went from there.
So I’m really a child of my generation. These were the old movies that I loved—the Frankensteins, Dracula, Wolf Man. And then in the 70s, I did grow up finally, and I really loved Scorsese and the 70’s grit. I always wanted to combine those two things and show the old monster tropes in a way that really felt fresh and immediate and of my life—of the streets and the City and punk rock and all the things that were speaking to me in my teenage years.
That was kind of a mission; I never got away from it. I always liked horror. My friends say, “Why don’t you do comedy?” because I’m a goofy person. But when I look at the page, I just see the dark side of life, and it’s out of a yearning for something better. I’m actually very sentimental—I love It’s a Wonderful Life and corny movies—but it’s because I wish the world was a sweeter place. That’s the weird combination that makes my films.
Depraved is a very tender, sentimental film, despite the title. It’s surprisingly sweet, especially the relationship between Henry and Adam as he’s teaching him and he’s getting frustrated and then realising that Adam’s almost like a child. It’s not what you expect from a Frankenstein adaptation.
I’ve heard people say that. To me, it’s very intuitive. As I’ve gotten older, and I am old now, I really feel it’s important to listen to one’s own voice and not try to correct it—meaning, anticipate that it’s not going to be gory enough for some people, or scary enough. I’ve never really made scary movies, ironically. But I do believe there’s a sense of dread and melancholy that speaks to horror in a true classic sense—that we’re all trapped in our own private lives and we can’t get out of them, we can’t experience other people’s pain. There’s so much grievance in the world, and of course, politically now in America, we’re seeing that bubble up. If you don’t tend to the tenderness, this is what you’ll end up with: resentful people who are self-indulgent in their own misery. So I feel like, as a horror filmmaker, I want to express the fear that we all have and try to bring some unity out of that.
This goes over people’s heads and they say, “Well, the movie wasn’t scary.” It is what it is. [It’s called] Depraved because I’m trying to draw attention to the little things in life that are depraved. Of course, you’d think you’re going to go to a movie where a guy’s chopping arms off and raping women, but that’s too obvious, or that’s another movie. I’m trying to say, look at the depravity and the subtle shocks between a father and a son, or two friends [Polidori and the doctor]—clearly, their resentments are deep enough that they’re willing to destroy each other, and the PTSD that the doctor suffers is enough for him to make terrible choices. I’m interested in the subtleties that are just as shocking and in play as a more overt, gory film.
I mean, to anyone who says it’s not a scary film, the novel Frankenstein is a melancholy text. It’s very much about the monster’s loneliness, and many adaptations don’t capture that. But with so many adaptations already out there, did you have any trepidation going in, or was there something in particular you felt you needed to say?
Well, I think my basic premise was, let me tell it from the monster’s point of view. Obviously, the great Frankensteins, you feel pity for the monster—[Boris] Karloff being the iconic version. He surprised the world by being both frightening because of the fantastic makeup design, but also he brought a melancholy. That was a choice, I think, between James Whale and Karloff to really heighten that loneliness, which is, as you say, derived from the book. Later on, you see more frightening versions, but in a way, the underlying story is one of alienation.
I thought for my film, to make it unusual, what if you woke up and you were the monster? I use some of the clichés, like the brain implant, so I just followed the logic. I love to follow the logic and go back and find the vital truths of these goofy stories that we’ve heard over and over, and go, “What would that be like if you were the brain?” I believe, not so much in a religious sense, that the brain is the centre of the soul and the psyche. So okay, now you’re in a different body—what would that be like? You’d feel completely confused, and you’d have the memories of being someone else. And then things flowed from there.
I try to write intuitive to these great stories and give them all the respect possible to revitalize them. As I say, as I get older, I realise this is what matters to me, and so I just have to pursue it. I try to advise and mentor people by saying, “You have to get to the core of why you’re doing this.” I believe strongly in the mission of the artist. Of course I have tremendous insecurities and anxieties, but I think you have to soldier forth. That’s the braveness of being an artist.
You mentioned the monster’s brain, and the brain science in the film is really interesting, especially since a lot of adaptations gloss over the scientific aspect. Did you do a lot of research to bring that side of it to life?
There was a seminal book that really oriented me. It’s called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte [Taylor]—look her up, she has a TED Talk, she’s amazing. She was a brain scientist and she had a stroke, and she knew enough to realize it was happening and she managed to call for assistance. She was hospitalized and she lost half her memory, and she really had to reconnect the synapses and bring herself back and re-learn math and everything, and her mother helped her back. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s also a scientific chronicle of how got herself back, but never completely.
I was also very influenced by Oliver Sacks who writes what are almost crazy, surreal accounts of how, when the brain is damaged, your personality can change—you can’t remember anything after seven seconds, all this stuff. The famous book he wrote is called The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; because of some physical attribute in his mind, he thinks his wife has a hat. It’s the ultimate surreal imagination at work—and yet, it scientifically happened to these individuals.
All of that soup made the movie feel so vital to me—like, what would it be like? And you mentioned science—I also thought, well, how would this all go down nowadays? And of course, we do have medical technologies that can bring people back, and yet, what is that quality of life? I wrote this during the Iraq entanglements (which we’re still in, of course), and you heard about soldiers that would get brain injuries and they’d come back but their wives wouldn’t recognise them. They had great misery, and there was something about all of those ideas that seemed to fit in.
So you see how I write. That led me to think, well, where would a doctor be absolutely incredible? Well, the guys we send overseas. I read another book, it’s called On Call in Hell, and it was the account of a field surgeon [Dr. Richard Jadick] who figured out how to bring equipment out into the field rather than the soldiers back to the tent. I thought, that’s exactly who Henry would be—driven, brilliant, and yet somehow so damaged by the war that he comes back and does this thing that’s… ill-advisable. [Chuckles]
Absolutely. And let’s talk about his creation. The creature design is always so important to Frankenstein adaptations—but again, there’s been so many of them that coming up with a unique design is difficult. What was your process for getting to that final design?
I worked with Brian Spears and Pete Gerner—they’re two friends who have done a lot of effects for my low-budget films—and I gave them the challenge. I wanted to evoke the original Frankenstein (meaning Karloff) in terms of stature, clothes, the design of the coat that he ends up in. But I also wanted him to have a certain sex appeal and kind of a sinewy body, so I cast with that in mind. Alex Breaux, my actor, had this large forehead—it was almost unbelievable, this big brow—and that influenced me. He had a strange look, which was just right. I mean, he’s handsome in one shot with one lens, and in another lens, he’s just odd looking. That was exactly what I wanted to create: this feeling of otherness.
The other conceit was to start him out as naked as possible so you absorb the physical damage, all the scars. Of course, that was the most arduous makeup, so get that out of the way. Once the audience has seen the nude and all those scars and the bruises, then you can start putting clothes on and hope that that sense memory will stay with the viewer.
One thing we weren’t able to do is the scar in the front, because we researched that you would cut in the back and flip the head over to put a brain in. The Robert De Niro Frankenstein monster [in the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein] is just so absurd. He’s got scars all over his face, and I really didn’t want to fall into this absurd trap—no doctor would do that, no matter how insane they were; [they wouldn’t] deliberately distort their creature. Another movie that influenced me is called Frankenstein: The True Story. It was a 1973 TV movie with Michael Sarrazin, and the conceit there was to have a beautiful Frankenstein monster. That movie has a lot of the doctor teaching the monster, so it was an influence. But what’s cool is that he starts out very beautiful, but then Michael Sarrazin starts decaying, and that was really interesting.
I have the white eye, which is a tribute to Christopher Lee [in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein]. We gave the Karloff scar—the makeup guy said, “Well, that was a scar on the face, it wasn’t even from the operation.” So we had some fun with that. And then by the end, I wanted to show it in black and white; my excuse is that it’s a dream scene, but for a moment, to have something that feels like a Universal movie. By then, he’s come into his own, and he’s vengeful and angry and he moves like the monster.
You always wonder, can you go a little further? But that was my idea: to keep it real, researched, and still a loving tribute to all the monsters that have come before.
That one shot of him silhouetted against the lightning is wonderful. And Alex brings a real physicality to the role, especially in the early scenes when he’s first learning how to walk again. How much did you work with the actor to get that movement right?
The idea of the movie was that I was going to cast wonderful, committed indie actors, raise lots of money, and put them into a horror movie, and it would be a classy production. Well, none of that worked out at all, did it? Along the way, I realised the one thing I can do is possibly cast the monster because it doesn’t have to be a name—in fact, it would be cool if it wasn’t. I did open research and I saw a picture of Alex in a play—ironically very close to my house in New York City—and I said, “Can we bring him in?” He had this physique I described, but he brought a great tenderness to the reading. I was captivated. So I started talking with him and I said, “Well, whatever version of this movie we make, I think you should be the monster.” I gave him Frankenstein videos and books and all that, so he did the research.
The other thing I liked about him is that he was an athlete. In fact, he only became an actor at the last moment when he was in college, so he really approached it physically. And I also made him starve himself. It was amazing: I would drive him around to the makeup or something before production just to do tests, and he would come home in the car with me and be like, “Oh, I can’t wait, I’m going to get my one little salad for dinner.” And I would just be chuckling away like, “Not too much now!” He was wonderfully committed.
With the language, we wanted it to have a progression from hesitant to increasingly confident. The idea was that he was reading all these books. Of course, we put Paradise Lost in there, a tribute to Mary Shelley, as her monster read that.
So Alex was with me for a long time. And then at the last minute, I realised I’d never get the money, I’d never get the cast, and I cast a bunch of wonderful New York actors and my friend Josh Leonard [who plays Polidori], and then we had the show. But all that while, I’d been working without.
There are a few faces in there that horror fans will recognise—Chloë Levine from The Ranger, and of course Josh from The Blair Witch Project.
Owen Campbell [who plays Alex, the man whose brain ends up in the monster] is in an amazing movie called Super Dark Times, which I recommend to your horror fans. It’s actually, I guess, more of a thriller, but it’s a fantastic indie movie.
Yes, it’s a good one. Now, you mentioned that you cast New York actors, and New York is almost a character in the film in itself. Maybe it’s just because I’m homesick right now, but I feel like you managed to capture a side of a city that you don’t often see in movies—the warehouses, and those parts of Brooklyn that tourists don’t go to. Was it a conscious decision to show that side of the City, or was it convenience?
Oh no, that was essential. I made a movie called Habit years ago, and that is also a tribute to the streets of New York, and once again trying to make a Gothic, old-fashioned movie in the modern vernacular. In Habit, the colours were essential: we have the brown subway cars, and I would wait until we got one of those before we shoot; the green door of a restaurant—all those things I fetishise because I have a colour palette in mind.
In all my films, the location is as important as the actors (I hate to tell the actors that, but between you and I). I filmed a movie in Iceland that’s all about the snow, I made a movie upstate that’s all about that location, and I knew that this was a Brooklyn-based Frankenstein movie—Brooklyn because of the basic premise: how would you make a monster nowadays? You look at all the lofts [in Brooklyn] and you think, anything could be going on. Somebody can be making art up in that loft, and someone can be making fantastic clothing and jewellery, and somebody can be murdering people and sewing them together in that window. [Chuckles] I just love that mysterious part of Brooklyn.
The irony is, I wrote it for Dumbo—before Dumbo was gentrified. And as the years went on (I did spend almost seven or eight years trying to get the money and all that), I saw my main location slightly disappear and become too chi-chi. There’s still a couple of shots there—that’s where the kid gets murdered. But when I found Gowanus, I was just so happy, and we found a great loft.
The other thing I wanted to romance is, when I was younger, people and artists would buy lofts—even in Soho—and they would live there and there was this great openness. It was a very different vibe. Now, all of that is precious and beyond the reach of any kind of artistic person, but that’s the tradition that came bubbling up as I put this together. I knew you could move to Brooklyn and maybe conceive of the same thing. Plus, I love the canal. That’s what I’ll be shooting my Creature from the Black Lagoon—in the Gowanus Canal. [Laughs]
There’s probably one in there already.
I know right?
And you know, the first time I watched the film, I was thinking, “This has to be shot in Brooklyn”—because I live in Harlem, and you can’t build a monster in Manhattan. There’s no space for that.
Maybe a very small monster. [Laughs]
I wanted to touch on the editing in your films. You have quite a distinctive editing style, especially the connective tissue between moments—a lot of little fast cuts to create a mood. How do you view your own style? Is it something that came about naturally, or something you’re very conscious of when you’re working on films?
It’s funny you mention it, because I’m editing something now and my family is working on it with me—meaning my wife and my kid, and they’re both artists—and I realised I’m following my instincts. I like almost a jagged editing style that is surprising, and then I love long takes that sort of remove the voice of the filmmaker. Scorsese once said, “You should feel the edit.” Now, that’s very much the opposite of the Hollywood tradition where it’s all supposed to be seamless. But I think of it more as a sculpture—it should have fluidity and then jagged moments. It’s slightly more aggressive. Of course, the agenda is to be fully immersive, but you’re feeling something that is maybe a little more unexpected.
I always say that, in a weird way, the editing and pacing of a movie is one of the few places that an independent film can still surprise and stand up against Hollywood—because Hollywood now has an edit every three seconds. It trains the audience to be stupid and to be impatient and to need a new angle on something, as opposed to forcing them. For this moment, we’re gonna make you look a little closer, a little closer, and then right when you’re looking—bam, bam, bam—you hit them on the head with something unexpected.
So, I don’t think of any of this as a style. But when I get into the material, that’s how I end up shaping it. And I do believe—this is not for every director—but for my own filmmaking, which has become, by definition, very handcrafted, I really need to edit. That’s kind of where the movie is found. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t carefully plotted it; if you read the script of Depraved, you’d go, “This is crazy. This seems to be what he made.” At the same time, that edit is where you let the film speak to you, and that’s where you make the movie. So I find it difficult to have the collaboration at the end be one where you’re discussing. I need to get in there and just be with myself and trust myself. Of course I show the movie to people, but to be honest, less and less so. Even sound, I do as much as I can and then I pass it on to a professional.
That’s just the way I do it. I’m not saying what’s right—if I advise other people, I say “It’s important to work with collaborators and get a lot from other people in the making of the film.” But I love editing.
Now, Glass Eye Pix has been around since 1985. In your eyes, how has the indie horror landscape evolved over that time?
I don’t mind making this claim (it’s fine if it’s not true, but it is what I think): the idea of personal horror is something that I was doing in the 90s and even before, because I made the original Habit in 1981. You can go back and see that that’s what interested me—taking the classic tropes and putting them into a more modern sensibility. I feel like that’s something that is now more acceptable, and some of our great films like Hereditary or The Babadook or It Follows are truly a blend of indie sensibilities, character-driven, with shocks and scares. Those three movies are all quite different, but you see what I’m saying. And a German guy wrote me about Southbound and said he loved it so much, and I consider that one of the highlights of recent indies—just a good old-fashioned anthology, but it really works.
I guess I’m saying two things. I’m laying claim to a certain progression. I grew up when Sundance would take movies about killer leeches—that’s what they thought horror was, and it was all very sarcastic, and we’ll do it at midnight, and it’s all so silly, it has nothing to do with real movies. And now you’ll see a good horror film premiere there. Not one of mine, I assure you—they won’t have me. But this is, I think, a progression: the genre is taken seriously. And then you have Blumhouse which is making a lot of money with horror, so the industry admits now that it’s a money-making enterprise, even though it always has been. It’s one of the great perennials. Westerns come and go, but horror stays.
It’s a great genre. I’ve always stood by it as an outsider genre. Everyone knows I love George Romero and what he brought to it. And it’s also a political genre: it’s where you can talk about things that are really awful in the world, while still having a bit of fun because there’s imagination thrown in. But you can talk about what it’s like to be an outsider; you can talk about identity politics; you can talk about oppression and authoritarianism—all of that while still having a good time. And that’s the beauty of horror: it’s not too self-pitying.
Depraved is now streaming on Shudder in the UK and Ireland.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)