DIRECTED BY: Philip Chidel
FEATURING: Christian Oliver, Dean Stapleton
PLOT: A medical student gets more than he bargained for when he accepts an experimental internship and discovers that immortality comes with a steep price.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Subject Two is a fresh twist on the Frankenstein plot. It envisions reanimation from the undead’s subjective perspective. It is deeply disturbing and every bit as repellent and hellish as one could hope for.
COMMENTS: A misanthropic medical student named Adam (who flunked his ethics exam) receives a cryptic email from a Dr. Fanklin Vick. It offers him an opportunity to assist in unusual medical research and subsequently to share in the revolutionary scientific advances in medicine that result.
He bites on the lure, but to accept the position, he must wait on an icy mountain road in the middle of nowhere to be offered a ride by a stranger. The alluring and mysterious chauffeur obviously knows more about what is going on than he does. His journey to meet the elusive Doctor Vick is itself a snowy odyssey into the isolated, surreal drifts and folds of the Colorado Rockies.
When Adam and his driver reach a landmark beyond which the driver is no longer allowed, Adam must hike up a snow covered mountain to the doctor’s laboratory. Now he is stranded, beyond the point of no return. The research facility turns out to be a converted chalet, reminiscent of Nikola Tesla’s Colorado Springs retreat in The Prestige.
He meets Vick, who tells him that the research is very unusual and important and that Adam is uniquely qualified. Vick avoids going into much specific detail. Adam accepts. What Adam doesn’t understand is that what uniquely qualifies him is that he is now a captive. Nobody knows where he is, he has no means of departure, and nobody will miss him if he disappears.
On this isolated, snowbound mountain peak, Dr. Vick is indeed performing very unique research. He is experimenting with life, death, and reanimation. In combination with makeshift cryogenics, he is using a bizarre recombinant DNA serum that alters and restarts the process of cellular respiration. The problem is, because the timing and method of administration of the serum are as yet unperfected, the process has some very unpleasant side effects. Guess who gets to be the new test subject?
VIck murders Adam, and not very nicely. Instead of shooting him up with an overdose of Seconal, he sneaks up behind him a violently strangles him. Then he reanimates him.
He ruthlessly butchers and reanimates Adam repeatedly, trying to get the serum component balance, dosage, cryogenic, and temporal factors just right. There isn’t a control group. Adam is both subject and control group, which is to say that as Vick and Adam perfect the research, they proceed via trial and error. As Subject Two, Adam is captive to a continuum of horrible and invigorating side effects, continuously oscillating between two extremes of mortal perception.
Subject Two experiences his new reality as a twisted psychedelic nightmare. It is simultaneously clarifying and hellish. While continuing to inhabit the world of the living, he is now intellectually in a bizarre plane of the beyond.
Unsettling developments alter Adam’s experience when he discovers the frozen, bloody remains of what was apparently once Subject One buried in the snow. In a state of suspended animation, Subject One’s head is riddled with an octopus of gruesome serum tubes. Subject One does not look pleased about it, but he is going nowhere for the time being. Then matters become more complicated when a trespassing poacher stumbles onto the proceedings and Adam “corrects” him.
The film has been criticized on two counts: Adam’s character is allegedly not well enough developed so that we care about him, and the film was shot in digital video. I emphatically contest these assertions.
Regarding character development, there isn’t time in a standard movie to address every potential nuance. Subject Two is about a dreadful, inescapable cycle of perpetual violent death and reanimation. The film is a horrifying psychological thriller about the human condition in states of animation and morbid destruction. It grimly depicts what it means to be alive. It explores the existential nature and paradoxes of undeath. Subject Two is about the curse of immortality.
With cerebral horror paradigms like this to contemplate, I couldn’t give a dead lab rat’s ass about Adam’s hopes and dreams, his life and loves. He is an unethical, bright, curious, but naive foul-up. I want to see how he handles the situation and what becomes of him, nothing more.
While the cinematography has been accused of giving the piece the cheap feel of a soap opera, I dispute this as well. It is as sharp and precise as the frozen alpine air. It enhances the rarefied, ionic ether of the crystalline subzero setting. One can almost feel the thin, icy atmosphere paralyzing the lungs, the sting of snowy crystals against bare skin. Direct to digital bypasses the gloomy, dreary look of televised productions once shot on video tape.
True, direct digital tracks movement the way video tape does, and lacks the lustrous detachment achieved by film stock. It is perfectly suited, however, to the white, snowbound, blue-skied clarity of the locale in Subject Two. The precision of digital is blissfully married to the stark, cold reality of this severe story.
Subject Two is mostly a mental and physical dialectic between two actors. There is a cold calculation about their dispositions, rather than the emotionally overwrought yelling and screaming standard to other horror scenarios of its type. There is no dramatically shrieked, “Give my creature life!” Subject Two is pure science fiction and squeamish dread. The appalling nature of the irreversible psychic and physiological mutilation inflicted on Adam combines with Vick’s amoral descent beyond unorthodoxy into pure evil. This profane combination provides all of the excitement and turmoil that one can endure.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Even if it overplays its ghoulish central concept, ‘Subject Two’ honorably reps the neglected cerebral horror sub-genre.”–Robert Koehler, Variety (contemporaneous)