A microbudget, mind-bending horror film, “Subject” is intense and intelligent, evocative and emotional, and effective on many levels.
This Aussie indie horror gem hooked me from the first frame.
A prisoner, Willem (Stephen Phillips), is transported in a truck with two other men. But before they can arrive at the prison, the truck is stopped by a mysterious government official named Dalesky (played by director Tristan Barr), who unceremoniously shoots two of the prisoners and offers Willem a chance to avoid prison.
Instead, he will be relocated to a remote facility where he will be tasked with recording a daily video journal and documenting his observations of an unknown subject. Though he protests his innocence, he recognizes that anything is probably better than what awaits him in prison.
When Willem arrives at the facility, Dalesky explains the nature of his assignment, offering very few details or a satisfying explanation. He’s told he’s meant to sit in an office and observe something in the next room through a one-way mirror, yet the room appears completely empty. He has nothing to observe but must immediately begin making his video diary.
When Willem sees the room where he’ll be staying, he quickly realizes it’s merely a small step up from a prison cell.
Sure, he has a television with cable, but he only gets one channel that plays nothing but old, black-and-white movies on repeat, the kind of films he does not enjoy. Though he’s mercifully sheltered from the violent offenders he’d be forced to cohabitate with while in prison, he now finds himself completely alone and cut off from virtually all human contact, consumed by boredom and loneliness.
In a windowless room, he has no concept of time and never gets to leave the confines of the surrounding brick walls. He’s fed through a small slot in the door, nothing more than a single egg.
For several days, he tries to occupy his mind while facing the torment of his past memories, which come to him slowly via home movie flashbacks.
It’s through these brief clips that we begin to learn more about who Willem is, who he used to be, and what brought him to such a low point in his life.
Five torturous days pass before Willem sees or speaks to another human being. Eventually, Dalesky makes a brief appearance. He explains he’s there to monitor his vitals and ask a few personal questions to which Willem must quickly and truthfully answer lest he suffer a strong electric shock.
Willem begs Dalesky for answers of his own, but he comes up empty-handed. Soon, his handler leaves him alone again, and the insanity-inducing isolation and tedium continue until Willem becomes more and more unraveled.
Finally, after what feels to Willem like an eternity, something arrives for him to observe. At first, the being is a blessing — a welcome break from the deafening void of nothingness.
He begins to feel connected to the creature, imagining they share a trauma bond, creating reciprocated empathy and concern. But soon, the creature’s presence becomes more unnerving and threatening. Soon, Willem is convinced the creature is able to leave its confines and sneak into Willem’s room at night, slowly draining his life force and invading his dreams.
As Willem’s hold on sanity begins to slip, he’s forced to confront the darkness of his past.
The home movies playing in small snippets consistently throughout his stay have become more traumatic, reflecting his worst mistakes and biggest losses.
We see the devastating downfall of a once-loving husband and father of two girls and the dissolution of his family as he spirals into despair and drug addiction following the death of his wife.
In one chilling scene, Dalesky asks Willem what he fears most. He answers that it’s his father, an abusive man who has been dead for many years.
Dalesky ponders why he fears a dead man and not the nightmare-inducing creature he claims has been terrorizing him.
The implications are painfully resonant.
Willem’s greatest fear isn’t a future he can’t predict or control but rather a past he can’t escape or erase. Like so many of us, his greatest fear is knowing there are mistakes and failures he can never make right.
He doesn’t fear his father in the literal sense. He fears the embodiment of his father that lives within him. He fears that the monster that terrorized him as a child is the same one he sees when he looks in the mirror.
He fears the way the past digs its claws in and refuses to let go, refusing to stay buried.
And as an audience, we begin to wonder if the monster that Willem has been observing is real or just a manifestation of his own guilt, crippling addiction, and emotional torment.
Working from a tight and thought-provoking script from Vincent Befi, Tristan Barr expertly builds a compelling mystery while ramping up the tension and uncertainty.
Carrying almost the entire weight of the film on his shoulders, Phillips as Willem is exceptional. His character is put through the wringer, and we ache right alongside him. He manages to be deeply flawed yet still sympathetic, and it’s easy to invest in his plight in spite of our exposure to his worst sins.
The film’s other standout element is its excellent creature design. Despite a very modest budget, the practical effects look appropriately creepy and believable.
Offering a clever and unique take on the found footage subgenre, Subject is one of the few films that incorporates voyeuristic camera techniques without stretching credulity or taking the viewer out of the conceit of the world it’s trying to build.
Subject is a film that works on many levels.
On its surface, it can easily be enjoyed as a mystery thriller about shady government workings, ethically questionable human experiments, and alien creatures.
But it’s really so much more than that.
At its core, this is a deeply affecting psychological horror film about a broken man’s emotional torment as he battles monsters of his own making.
It’s a film that isn’t afraid to tackle heavy issues like addiction, abuse, grief, loneliness, regret and retribution, choices and consequences, and the horrors of a damaged psyche.
It’s smart, scary, original, and utterly engrossing.
Clocking in at a lean hour and seventeen minutes, Subject moves at a brisk pace and takes viewers on a harrowing, emotionally investing journey that’s richly layered and incredibly satisfying.