This film is not a remake of Frankenstein. Make no mistake, it certainly owes it more than just a nod, and in fact it would even be a stretch to call it an homage. Subject Two is more like taking Frankenstein out for dinner, and getting into a really deep conversation with it about the nature of death, life and the states between the two that we don't yet understand. Where Frankenstein focused on the insanity and misunderstood ambition of the creator, and cast the monster as a destructive and ultimately tragic figure, Subject Two casts the 'monster' in a very different light and comes up with something equally chilling and intriguing - a lucid and fully participating subject, almost a pupil, and the relationship that develops between the doctor, the subject and the subject's condition is well handled.
It's rather a shame, then, that the makers felt the need to drop some contrastingly unsubtle 'hints' about the whole you-know-what connection. Frank Vick, for example, is the clanger of a name given to the eerie and seemingly heartless Doctor (Dean Stapleton). The subject, Adam (geddit?) Schmidt, a gifted but rebellious young medical student, is asked by e-mail to trek up to the Doctors secret shack high in the peaceful mountains of a winter Aspen. One happy deviation is the introduction of an Igor for the modern age; gone is the hump and Marty Feldman eyeballing, and in comes the delightful Courtney Mace. Her cameo is all too brief, since her performance is natural and engaging and one can only hope that more work is to follow this good start.
Adam, played by Christian Oliver, voluntarily hikes up the mountain to meet Dr. Vick. There is no corpse grabbing here, nor grave robbery, and no suspicious locals waving pitchforks and warnings. Adam is simply asked to come, and he does. The Doctor calmly garottes him to death before we're past the fifteen minute mark, and it's here that things get even more interesting. What follows is an often shocking and brutal series of deaths and rebirths, all at the hands of the oddly cast Dean Stapleton. At no point does one think "mad genius" when looking at Dean. Instead, the over-riding image is of Jack Nicholson circa Five Easy Pieces. Later elements of the film might assuage these concerns, but for the most part it's a strange and yet oddly compelling mixture as Frank n' Schmidt are left to their devices atop the peaks of Colorado.
Events prior to Adam's arrival are only hinted at in the violent opening scene and the partly buried corpse in the back yard with weird but scientific-looking tubes coming out of it...the Doctor, it seems, has been hard at work on a mysterious 'serum' (involving nanites, apparently) which can not only reanimate the dead, but actually return their cells to good-as-new working order. Wounds heal, blood flows, and most importantly Adam retains his rosy complexion throughout the hour and a half. Yet inexplicably his eyes lose all their colour, a nice cheap effect that adds just the right dose of unease to his appearance such that we never forget what he is.
And that's where the questions begin. Just what is he? Alive? Surely not. We saw him die at the hands of the Doctor. Injected with the serum post-death (surely that wouldn't work?) however, and thanks to the chilly air in Aspen (seriously) he is up and about and hiking through the mountains in no time. What follows is an exploration of the nature of life and death, a dead man's view of being alive, the value of a life and the ease with which a dead guy can take one.
The film neatly avoids any questions of relegion and spirituality, but it also avoids any of the pressing questions about the science behind these experiments. It doesn't really matter, though, since the original was able to fob off whole generations with just lightning. Then again, Frankenstein is a classic tale and highly original. This is a further exploration of an existing subject, and a few words about how they propose this all works wouldn't go amiss. Many of these questions are ones that the first time viewer will want answered. This is a film that starts better than it ends, and although it never mires itself in the predictable format of these types of things it does wrap things up neatly for itself whilst leaving many unanswerable questions for we in the land of the living.
The pacing is good, and despite the depth of topic the dialogue is both well written and performed, rather than overwrought and ham-handed. The makers have also done a very good job of disguising the low budget; shot in a matter of a few weeks, and with a crew of just eight, writer and director Philip Chidel has made an enjoyable if mildly flawed film, only his second. More independent horrors like this would certainly be welcome, since it's rare for as much humanity to feature in a film whose key subject is often treated cheaply.