Talk about old favorites from the VHS era of direct-to-video movies. Subspecies came to us from Full Moon Entertainment which was all about that market with franchises like Trancers and The Puppet Master. However, this was my taste with a Romanian shot vampire film. I think I was mainly exposed to this franchise when they used to air on the Sci-Fi Channel back in the late 90s. Those were my early days of horror, and thus, Subspecies remains a sentimental favorite. Full Moon produced four films in this franchise over seven years, and in 2011, they re-released the first film in a Digitally Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-Ray. Previous DVD releases were from the original VHS masters, and so, it’s nice to finally watch the film in a generally more appropriate widescreen presentation. I will say that this is not a film for just anyone due to a few reasons which I will get to after the synopsis.
The evil vampire villain Radu (Anders Hove) returns to his hometown Prejnar, after spending years in exile. He confronts and murders his father, the King (Angus Scrimm), and steals the precious Bloodstone which is said to be bleeding from all saints. It gives whoever drinks from it greater vampire power. Meanwhile, two American schoolgirls team up with a local girl for work on Romanian culture. Radu becomes attracted to them and begins to stalk them through the shadowy town. However, he runs into trouble when his half-brother Stefan (Michael Watson) helps and protects the girls from Radu’s grisly intentions.
Okay, first off, I do have to address the glaring blotch on the quality of the film. You have to remember that this was a low budget direct-to-video movie from the early 1990s. You’re going to get some bad visual effects, and I couldn’t help but laugh in enjoyment of this. The good is that they are brief, and mostly at the very start of the picture. These involve the Subspecies themselves, the little creatures that are spawned from Radu’s own self. It’s probably stop motion animation coupled with a low grade video composite shot. However, most subsequent shots of the Subspecies are far, far better with a proper optical film composite process, but there are still a few of those ugly ones later in the movie. Those bad shots are cringe inducing, and really require you to have an acquired taste for this sort of thing. As much as I wish they had been, the digitally remastered DVD doesn’t fix any of this. They just restored the original film print for a digital video presentation, and it does look vastly better than it ever has before. If you can sidestep these brief moments of low grade effects shots, you’ll find a rather enjoyable vampire film fronted by one of the best vampires ever committed to cinema.
The whole cast feels very authentic. This is both due to the straight forward writing and fine casting. The regular cast doesn’t have any true standouts, but they do all add to the flavor of the film. Since this was all filmed in Romania, director Ted Nicolaou cast some local talent that is exceptional. It might be low budget, but the acting is truly not low quality. Laura Tate does a nice, solid job as Michelle, but the sequels would recast the role with Denise Duff who seemed to be better suited for where the sequels took the character. Michael Watson is very good as Stefan. He is the tall dark stranger that is able to capture the ladies’ hearts. Watson makes Stefan charming but mysterious. He has his secrets to keep, but is not an evil individual. He shows grief for his now dead father, and fears his treacherous brother Radu. Watson has fine low key chemistry and presence which serves the character very well. Of course, we get a solid cameo appearance by Angus Scrimm as King Vladislav. There was no better choice of who to play opposite Anders Hove at the beginning of the picture than Phantasm’s own Tall Man.
For my money, there is hardly a more vile, vicious, horrific, or creepy vampire in all of cinema than Radu Vladislav. The make-up design is astounding creating a pale, nightmarish visage that actor Anders Hove sinks deeply into, and there are definite elements of Nosferatu in here with his elongated fingers and the more uncommon fang design. These make Radu’s shadowy figure unmistakable, and that silhouette is used to excellent effect throughout the movie. Also, that scratchy, strained, lusting voice sends chills up one’s spine. Hove plunges himself fully into this role with a sadistic, salacious, and deliciously evil performance. Radu is a creature with no conscience or morality. He is consumed by his lust for power via the Bloodstone, and gains so much vile pleasure in everything he does. His presence alone captivates an audience’s attention. I like that he’s not romantic, but carries that aura of vampiric bloodlust seduction. He’s not the handsome mysterious stranger that one would fall in love with, like Stefan. It’s purely that enthralling vampire bloodlust which draws his victims in. Radu is such a rich character that there was obvious fertile ground still left to explore with him, and so, intentionally leaving the ending open for the sequels was a fine choice. He is truly one of the best vampires in cinematic history that most people have never known about.
The film is very nicely shot especially with the Castle Vladislav interiors. Amidst the perfectly shadowy interiors, fiery torches accent each scene there. The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu shows off the Romanian setting very well with some very nice wide shots of landscape and the castle itself. We get a strong sense of its size and imposing nature. Obviously, with a film of this level there aren’t many fancy or elaborate shots, but what we are given services the overall tone very well. It’s very competently shot presenting some atmospheric and frightening visuals that effectively tell the story. There were several composers who worked on the film, and I’m not sure why. It is all a generally synthesizer based score that is not elaborate, but generally good and nicely conceived. I’m sure, had the budget allowed for it, a full orchestral based score would’ve elevated the atmospheric quality of the film exponentially.
The story itself is quite simple and straight forward. Screenwriters Jackson Barr and David Pabian gave us something that didn’t try to be more than what it could be. Ted Nicolaou maintains a steady pace for a decently satisfying 80 minute film. As is usual, the sequels would get more ambitious with their stories and plots, and delve us further into the mythology of the characters. For this first outing, I think everyone did a good job. There are some scares in the film, but by today’s standards, they’re fairly tame. Such moments are certainly your standard vampire fare, but they are well executed never going for cheapness or silliness. Nicolaou keeps a consistent dramatic tone throughout the film, and treats the horror aspects with respect. Considering the marvelous age of computer generated digital effects we have now, it’s hard to look back to such a low budget film from the early 90s, and say Nicolaou probably made the best quality film he could with what he had. However, I think that’s just about the truth. I have no reference for what exactly the budget was on this film, but I think it’s very safe to say it didn’t exceed six figures. Usually with effects films of this time I compare them to Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park, but there is no way anyone could rationally make such comparisons between a low budget direct-to-video movie and two multi-million dollar summer blockbusters. Full Moon used what they could afford, but I’m sure some of the results probably left something to be desired even in 1991.
I would never say that Subspecies is a great film or a perfect franchise, but it’s vastly enjoyable. It has its high marks, especially with Anders Hove’s amazing and consistent work as Radu, but it’s surely restricted by its direct-to-video budget. A fifth film in the series has been prevented from happening due to Full Moon’s decline in budgetary resources. Nicolaou and Hove are game for another sequel, but want to have the proper budget to do justice for the script they have. Normally, one would say that making another sequel fourteen years after the last sequel would seem unlikely, but with a company such as Full Moon where all they really do are cult movies and direct-to-video features, anything is possible. Their niche audience is there for the long haul. Again, this is not a film for just anyone. I strongly believe you would have had to have grown up in this era of low budget VHS movies to endure those low grade video effects. I know everyone’s seen bad digital effects, but this is a whole different type of experience. I’m sure the gradual pace of the film would not appeal to many modern audiences, either. However, if you are a fan of these kinds of films, Subspecies is definitely worth checking out. I genuinely think experiencing some of Anders Hove’s Radu is greatly worthwhile. Even if the movie itself holds no weight with you, I believe this horrific and stunning character certainly has that potential.