Larry Fessenden is smart, and he's modest about that--embarrassed, even. He's generous to a fault with his time. He likes a good beer, and he made one of my very favourite films, the melancholic, ageless Wendigo. At his best, he's an artist of the sublime. At his not-best, he loses the fire in pursuit of the kindling. He respects history and his place in it--and sometimes he takes too many pains outlining the appendix when The Wasteland is waiting. His new film--his second shot at the Frankenstein story after his 1991 feature debut, No Telling--is Depraved. I'm mixed on it. The parts I liked, I loved. The parts I didn't, I recognized as the product of an artist who has perhaps spent too much of his time nurturing the work of others and not enough dedicated to establishing the sea legs for his own endeavours. Yet although there's a little rust on it, a new Fessenden joint is always cause for celebration, and Depraved is no exception.
LARRY FESSENDEN: Six years? Is that right? I try not to count. Sheesh. Well, I've had this one in mind for ten years at least.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Since before the Orphanage project?
Yes, exactly, there's this story I tell and it's no dis to Guillermo--he brought me into Hollywood and this project sort of under his wing to remake The Orphanage. We had different takes on it, it didn't work out for any number of reasons, but we had quite a wonderful time writing the script. When it fell through, he was so wonderful and he said, "Well what else do you have? Let's just dive right into something," and I said, "Well, oh fuck, I have this version of Frankenstein." And he says, "Oh, I can't read that, I have my own Frankenstein!" So it was sad and it shows I'm not a very good strategist because obviously I should have come up with something else, but you know I get, uh...
Very. Anyway, so I was set adrift from my mentor relationship out there and tried to raise money for this project. You know, the usual process is you look for famous actors and, unfortunately, you know, Frankenstein is hardly fashionable and I'm getting older and I'm not well-enough known. I couldn't land a major star who could trigger financing and in the meantime, years go by. I produce films, I do radio plays, plenty of activities including raising a kid, so, you know, it was fine, but I was always a little miffed. I felt like I had a good take on this classic tale and, eventually, literally eventually, last December, I decided I was going to start building the set.
Damn the torpedoes.
Yes--I'm gonna make this movie at whatever the budget. See, we'd made four, five, six? Literally dozens of movies at a low budget and that's what I know how to do. Every time I worked with young filmmakers, I'd say, Listen, make your movie whatever the cost. Make your money back and you'll get another shot. So I had to take my own medicine and that's how I made Depraved. It was fine, in the end.
What is it about the story?
It had a hold on me from childhood. It starts with that beautiful, iconic design by Jack Pierce of course for the Karloff creature--and all the subsequent versions have their… I don't know man, I can watch even Glenn Strange...
House of Frankenstein...
Exactly. I can watch him wandering around and I'm so sort of enamoured. It's different from zombies and other things and I always thought it was a makeup that was hard to update. The Christopher Lee movies I never liked as much, though Peter Cushing was amazing... The point is, it's just an amazing, seminal, iconic tale. It's very simple and so very adaptable to current trends and climates. I wanted to tell the story from the position of the creature--what would it be like to wake up in a room with another face, a different brain? Try to sort out what was going on. All those things contributed to my obsession and I felt it was relevant in the way we treat our veterans... And then medicine. It's helping us live longer but is it helping us to live better? Are our lives... Is society keeping up with technology? It's the type of question I'm fascinated with: We have better communication technology, but is what we're communicating about worthwhile? We have better medicine but are our lives more worthwhile? All those things exist in this one tale.
I think about the influence on the Universal Monsters cycle of the colonies of mutilated WWI veterans who survived the war but were separated from society.
I'm a huge believer in the exact correlation you describe in that I believe that all of history has extraordinary parallels in the horror genre. Godzilla representing all that despair in Japan, the communist threat in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Saw during the torture years of the George Bush presidency. The fact is horror is a catharsis for people. It's still a vital genre because it speaks so intimately with the fears and concerns of its audience. And I have at least read the same things about our boys returning mutilated from WWI and how film horror suddenly became a way for people to process that real horror--and so, remarkably, does it continue to do so.
I think of horror as an indicator species in our social ecosystem. It's the first species to exhibit signs of pollution and toxicity.
And of course now we have cultural horror films like Get Out expressing racism and deep social divisions in our culture. I think that's why certain movies bubble to the top. The prime example is Night of the Living Dead from 1968, an expression of total despair, what with racism and the assassinations and the Vietnam War and therefore Romero came up with this literally godless, pointless scenario with an African-American hero and then all these people eating each other. It's a really cool genre and the funny thing is, it's also a lucrative one. You can make fun horror, but in the end it's the seminal ones that punch through that provide that collective shock to the system. Really, they're the shock of recognition. At their best they're like looking in the mirror--which I can tell you is shocking! (laughs)
"I really did grow up just loving Frankenstein movies. I'm just a kid of the television generation. But I did have an inkling that there was this commonality between all the arts."
Talk about the literary history of Frankenstein: your use of books, your character in the film of Shelley.
It's my agenda. I used to say on the set, whenever someone would try to move something, I'd say, "No! No! No! This movie is about puzzles!" Or, "No! No! No! This movie's about electricity!"--and really it's me trying to express my agenda without getting too precious about it. Not that I always succeed in avoiding that, but yes, to your point with the books, this movie is really trying to be about the education of this monster, so it's trying to be in a sense about everything. So we went to great pains to go to the museum so we could try to get a picture of the history of art and to see art in a three-and-a-half minute sequence to find this very satisfying evolution from naturalism to abstract. It allows you to see the development of the interiority of the human species from a sort of God-like perspective--sort of like a character arc for the species, if you were writing a script. And then the books and if you were to freeze on each frame, you'd find all my favourite pages from all my favourite books.
I spotted Dickens, and Ken Kesey, Paradise Lost, of course...
Yes, Dickens, Cuckoo's Nest, Othello, I think--maybe Macbeth, I don't know. But I tried to show all these things and of course they're reflections of my education, you know. And this idea of the creature self-educating itself, it's all from the Shelley, it's all in there.
Paradise Lost, too. The Romanticists were fascinated by Milton.
Yes, that's directly from the Shelley--this idea of a child learning about his father, but for the monster having that process truncated as he does, [it renders] the sort of dawning disappointment as something more akin to betrayal. Education is this expression of a commonality that you share with humanity. What I try to suggest is that while your mind is expanding, it's also being pulverized by the petty narcissism of your immediate surroundings and immediate people. The sadness of realizing that no one is aspiring to these higher goals, so there starts to be a disconnect. It's when he realizes the flawed, possibly malignant things that drive his creators that causes this monster in a sense to become a monster. I mean, he kills the girl, which makes no sense--she's the only nice person in the movie.
Shelley, though, is his literal creator.
Ah, that she is. And from that moment, he's an outcast. He can never go back. The literariness comes out of an impulse to show all the potential good in humanity that's undermined by all of our actions. Mary Shelley made much more interesting connections than I did, of course, but there's also the God/patriarchal influences in her book that make their way into Depraved, too.
Talk to me more about Romanticism.
I think most of the artistic path is how you're wired by your biology and your parents, whatever you're exposed to. I was never a great reader. I never absorbed things the way that I wanted. I really did grow up just loving Frankenstein movies. I'm just a kid of the television generation. But I did have an inkling that there was this commonality between all the arts. I loved paintings, went to museums and stuff. When I understood what Romanticism was, I strongly aligned myself with that way of thinking. You know, I live in the city, I'm hardly a naturalist, I don't go out hiking every day or anything. And it's not that I'm religious at all, in fact I'm adamantly saying isn't it enough that nature is so fantastic and unknowable? I would say that God is a narcissistic conceit, not to write myself out of an interview, but it seems a preposterous notion that you have to have a human element behind all the wonderment of the world.
And yet there's the sublime.
Yes, there's this opportunity for a bigger, more mellifluous and wonderful opportunity to be in awe. I think that stuff floats around in my movies, even if in practice I'm more preoccupied with where the next scar should go.
I love that the most visible scar for your monster is around an ear, obviously grafted onto his head.
Well, the ear is where this idea of fractals you're exploring in this film is most clearly expressed in our outward anatomy.
I love the imagery that reminds us of death and physicality. I love a creaking tree, I love a crow. Just, those are things that are fascinating. I mean, where does that come from? Why are those things that I like? Why do I like pumpkins with scary faces all year round? I don't have the answers.
The Romanticists saw nature as the first testament.
You know who I love? Wes Anderson. There's that transcendent moment in Fantastic Mr. Fox when they come upon that wolf and they all look at him and there's that moment, right? And his real gift is he can pull those transcendent moments out. If I can ever achieve that in my own films, that would be great. I never plan them. I made this film very instinctually, which is weird, because I technically had ten years but I never really believed we would make it until suddenly, "We're shooting in two weeks!" So, it does represent mostly my impulses, but there's also all this thought over the years about this script. It's so weird. Making movies is not for sissies.
I gotta ask: Bernie Wrightson?
Ah, among my favourite illustrations of the monster. The precious twelve plates, and my favourite is the monster looking at the guy in bed. I love Bernie, his physicality. I didn't want the monster to be too grotesque. It's a story about the mental space and feeling deformed by alienation. I also love Michael Ploog.
"The Monster of Frankenstein"!
It's funny how Marvel is so well known for their frickin' superheroes but their horror comics, they made great horror comics. "Tomb of Dracula", "The Monster of Frankenstein", and "Werewolf By Night". Mike Ploog. He went on to design the storyboards for John Carpenter's The Thing--he also had an influence on Depraved. I wanted a svelte creature. I wanted to feel the physicality, so that's the Wrightson vibe, but Ploog, too.
I love your reference to synapses early, then the images of rivers, lightning, and finally a tree...
I believe all the systems, everything, are connected. What a simple way to feel connected to your fellow person and to the actual world. Our lungs look like trees and trees look like rivers and streams and why can't we celebrate that? And it all looks like lightning and that's inside your head. I don't understand how people can't get off their high horse--this impulse to separate themselves from nature, from other cultures and races and genders and orientations. On the contrary, man, we're all of one. It's so silly, because it's such a religious conceit, yet religion brings in all this nonsense that confuses what's a beautiful fractal patterning. I tried to put that in the movie. I worry that anyone's paying attention.