Subspecies Movie Review
Written by Giuseppe Infante
Released by Full Moon Entertainment
Directed by Ted Nicolaou
Written by Jackson Barr and David Pabian
1991, 90 minutes, Rated R
Anders Hove as Radu
Angus Scrimm as King Vladislav
Laura Tate as Michele
Michelle McBride as Lillian
Irina Movila as Mara
Michael Watson as Stefan
Ivan J. Rado as Karl
The beauty of filmmaking is not just in the plot – all the elements that surround the narrative, such as direction, cinematography, writing, editing, score, costumes and set design help make the story come to life. The downside of filmmaking is it can cost a ton of money. It's alright to enjoy big-budget Hollywood, that's fine, but automatically dismissing a film because it is "old," "cheesy," or "corny" are lame excuses. The saying goes, "never judge a book by its cover." The same principle goes for lower budgeted independent films. If you are the kind of filmgoer that cannot watch a movie without extreme car chases, explosions blowing left and right, or a CGI bonanza without automatically deciding "it sucks" before actually watching the whole thing, then just stop right here. This vampire movie is not for you.
Subspecies opens with the vampire King Vladislav (Angus Scrimm, Phantasm), clad in an '80s hair-metal wig, and his evil vampire son, Radu. Radu's recent return home is sparked by his desire to claim the throne from his father and the bloodstone, a ruby crystal-like artifact that continuously drips the blood of saints. After being trapped by his father, Radu snaps off his fingers and the newly separated phalanges turn into 'subspecies,' tiny red devil-looking creatures. They set him free, Radu kills his father and he takes the bloodstone. The tale shifts to the protagonists, three post-graduate students studying cultural superstitions in Prejmer, Romania. Michelle and Lillian have arrived from America, and are greeted by their native friend, Mara. Mara informs the girls of their lodging, which will be in a fortress amongst the ruins of Transylvania. The caretaker and another student studying nocturnal animals, Stefan, are also staying at the fortress. Stefan also happens to be Radu's half-brother, who is the "good" vampire. As you can assume, they all cross paths and pandemonium ensues.
One of the most crucial parts of what makes this film work is the location and set design. The movie was actually filmed among the castles, ruins and forests of Romania, thus providing authentic staging. Some of the camera shots of these locales are beautiful and adds depth to almost every scene in Subspecies. This was the first American movie to be filmed in Bucharest, adding a genuine foreign quality to the film. After you watch this, imagine it being filmed on a lot in L.A. or somewhere in New England. This makes the film superior than some of its big-budgeted peers and adds to where the movie lacks.
Another important aspect is the use of shadow to represent Radu retreating is a trick of the trade and has been done since the earliest horror films, and it is effective here. Scenes of bright outdoor under-the-sun imagery, contrasting with the eerie darkness of night, especially during the Festival of the Dead (this scene was a unique treat, and a lot happens fast here), are put together at a back and forth rapid pace. The juxtaposition of night and day is obviously necessary in a vampire tale, but also alludes to the light and dark, good brother versus evil brother tropes.
The acting is nowhere near Oscar worthy, but they do satisfy the roles and the characters are alive, sort of. Radu is by far the most interesting character of the bunch- everyone else just moves the story along. Radu's look is one of a kind, blending influences from Nosferatu and The Lost Boys. His fingers are a foot long, with long nails from the tips and his face is pale, ghastly, and always dripping blood. At times the fingers do look a little ridiculous, but they do give him a distinctive quality. All the other actors, including the brief cameo from Angus Scrimm, do not add anything special to the movie. They play their roles decently, sometimes overacting, and may have been better if the characters were fleshed out more and the writing wasn't subpar.
The writing is actually the weakest part of the movie, next to the stop-motion animation and rod puppetry used to create the 'subspecies' creatures, but the story is not the problem here, even if it has does have all the classic vamp-clichés. The weak dialogue is the problem. For example, when dawn is on the horizon, how many times has a vampire said, "I must go," before taking off back to wherever they sleep? He would have been better of just leaving without saying anything. Luckily, this takes an archetypal brother versus brother template, and adds some interesting aspects, like the bloodstone.
The care put into making this movie can be felt, starting the filming location. If the goal was all about making dollars, it would have been made somewhere in the States, had a mass-marketing campaign and probably end up sucking the big one. I enjoy Subspecies and plan on continuing the series with the four sequels that follow, all written and directed by Ted Nicolaou. If you are the kind of horror fan that enjoys a movie with substance, and can look past a few issues with acting, effects and dialogue, then you'll probably enjoy Subspecies.