CFF23: A Monstrous Subject

Image Courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

Monster movies seem to be coming back into focus this year. Bomani J. Story’s Frankenstein story, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, is currently earning critical praise for its updated view of the Mary Shelley story. Meanwhile, Renfield also takes a modern approach to Dracula by angling his lackey as an undervalued employee in the Great Resignation era. However, it’s a bit more back-and-forth when it comes to original monster movie ideas. Christina Ricci’s Monstrous was met with a lukewarm response, and last year’s Grimcutty was a dud, but we did get Smile and Barbarian. Instead of being cautious or dodgy, I was immediately sold when I saw the synopsis for Tristan Barr’s Subject. 

Press releases are designed to help us writers hype up the film by getting us excited for them as well, but Subject just seemed to tick all the boxes. If I were an AI robot looking for the holy grail of horror keywords, the Subject synopsis managed to hit a lot of them. It reads: 

Compiling suppressed footage, Subject follows a man on his way to prison when he gets intercepted by a secretive government agency to have him serve his sentence by observing a terrifying creature in a close-quartered, isolated facility.

So, to reiterate, we have a creature, an isolated prisoner, suppressed footage, and a government conspiracy. It sounds like the X-Files fan’s dream come true, and I’m one of the biggest X-Files fans on the planet.  

Barr operates with extreme efficiency throughout the film, using mounted surveillance cameras in a prisoner transport van to start Subject and, after abducting Willem (Stephen Phillips), flaunts the many cameras that adorn his cell. Not having to hide the cameras makes getting angles easier, making certain pans look and feel automated as Willem bounces around the limited space.  

Willem’s purpose is the intriguing part. He has no idea what he’s doing for the first few days. A man in a doctor’s coat named Dalesky (Barr), who, outside his initial instructional introduction, comes in daily to take his blood pressure, threatens to shock him if he doesn’t comply with his questionnaire and curtly leaves, raising questions in the audience’s mind as well about the nature of this experiment that Willem has found himself apart of. Willem is asked to observe something through a pane of glass in his cell, but what he’s supposed to be watching is a mystery at first. As days become weeks and weeks become months, Willem’s mental fortitude becomes an issue, and the monster in the room next to him begins to make itself known. 

A man standing outside of a van shines a light on a man handcuffed inside while others sit around him in Subject.
Image Courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

Subject’s creature is an amalgamation of nightmares and practical effects that is vehemently unsettling. Particularly when it extends and contorts itself or shows up almost magically beneath a sleeping Willem’s bed. The effects team took this job heart-attack-serious, and the result is goddamn terrifying. 

Subject is intercut with loading scenes that seemingly exist to represent time lapses, that is, until the audience begins to slide between the experiment footage and Willem’s private life. A life where cameras wouldn’t have been present 24/7 and, thus, found footage couldn’t have been created. It’s a bit of taboo territory for a self-proclaimed found-footage film. This was the most challenging part of the movie for me to accept. Sure, I get that we’re expelling our beliefs for a creature in the other room, but this sort of bugged me. If you’re paying enough attention, it will all make sense by the end, but for some time, I struggled with the idea of this secret experiment which had been watching Willem closely for some time.  

Willem’s backstory tells the heartbreaking descent of his prominence as a loving father and husband when the death of someone close to him causes him to spiral into grief, depression, and addiction. This causes him to become what he feared most in the world as a child, putting him on a path to the room he sits in now. Writer Vincent Befi’s Subject becomes a relatable story concerning the prisons built by abusive parents whose children are confined to dealing with monsters they cannot escape.  

While outright, the film will have levels of meaning and interpretations, the concepts of governmental cover-up and illegal testing will be enough for some, while ideas of self-imprisonment and isolation-as-torture add something to think about. Metaphorically, the story attaches intensely, especially for those with traumatic childhood stories. Subject takes the person you avoided in your home, the person that resided in a neighboring room, the reason to tiptoe quietly down the stairs in the morning, and turns the tables on them by exposing that person to the monster their children had seen day-in-and-day-out. As a simple concept, this knocked me flat.  

However, the slow roll mechanic of Subject becomes tedious exposition. I continually found myself losing interest at the start of the film. I didn’t feel a connection to Willem until he started going mad in his isolated room, and the film brought his backstory into play. Now that isn’t to say there weren’t moments of fascination, but found footage sometimes has a weird way of ASMR-ing you through its sound design, which is the low-level hum of the cameras and television, which sometimes resembles a fan on low speed. This isn’t a knock at the sound designer, but that is my preferred white noise. Secondly, the lighting is very reminiscent of the Chattanooga Film Festival 2022 entry Cryo, containing a lot of low red lights and soft coloring. Barr is trying to lull us into a state of false security, so he can scare us with loud noises and visual surprises, but I think a lot of it doesn’t always work until we start getting to know who Willem is.  

Subject winds up being a great story and a lot of fun by the time the credits roll, but I’ll put this one on the dividing line for most people who will argue back and forth on the film’s initial pacing and mechanics. Still, there is a lot worth starting a conversation about in Subject, and that alone should make it worth seeking out.

Subject is playing as a part of Chattanooga Film Festival’s virtual lineup. Badges for virtual attendees are available and will allow you to see everything virtually. Single virtual tickets are also available. Subject will begin streaming on Screambox on Aug. 22. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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