Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Subspecies (1991)


Back in my video store days, I remember seeing the cover to Subspecies and its sequels many times over the years. I never got around to watching them at that time, wasn’t as into horror flicks back then (unless they were anime). A few years ago, comedic reviewer Allison Pregler (aka Obscures Lupa) took a look at all the films in the series and made them look like a goofy good time. So I picked up the box set. Was it worth the journey, or was this one bloodsucker I should have left on the shelf?


Three college friends travel to Romania to research medieval castles and folklore. Michelle (Laura Mae Tate) is the most studious of the trio, and always looks cute in her hat. While wandering around the local villages they discover a castle that is shunned by the locals because they fear that a vampire still lives in the crypt within. The girls joke around, but one of them gets cut while exploring and that is bad news.

Sure enough the villainous Radu (Anders Hove) rises from the crypt, gets a taste of the blood and starts stalking the girls. At the same time a mysterious young man named Stefan (Michael Watson) seems to know more than he lets on, and why does he only appear at night. Soon villagers end up dead, legends of the Bloodstone are unveiled and Michelle comes face to face with the fearsome Radu and his minions, the Subspecies.

Good Points:
  • Wonderful location shooting in Romania
  • Has some great creepy moments of atmosphere and suspense.
  • Hove is one hell of a vampire 

Bad Points:
  • Very traditional storyline that you’ll be able to predict
  • Some of the acting is pretty flat
  • Some elements of the script never seem to have a payoff


This movie manages to smash classic vampire folklore with the 1990s angsty vampire genres together and keep it all pretty entertaining. Hove is dark and unsettling as Radu, but Watson is pretty lifeless (pun kinda intended) as Stefan. Tate gives Michelle a bit of personality. But really this movie’s best points are the creepy settings and the Romanian countryside and castles. Plenty of riffable moments abound, but the movie is just trying to be a good time, and it succeeds. Not mandatory viewing and the sequels are actually a bit goofier and more riffable. But this is fine Halloween viewing if you crave some bloodsucking action.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Live from Romania, it is RADU!
Subspecies comes to us courtesy of the direct to video boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Full Moon Entertainment was cranking out medium and low budget horror films like it was no ones business. You did get some gems among the massive glut of films, but most of these movies were fun entertainment for a weekend viewing. I know a lot of folks have a big chunk of nostalgia for the Full Moon catalogue, and I admit movies like Trancers and Puppetmaster fall in that area for me.

But I just never got around to Subspecies. Looking at the date, I have to wonder if this movie was conceived of to cash in on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Coppola film that came out a year later. I can see the pitch now, “So we combine a vampire story with puppetmaster creatures and we get … um… Subspecies!” And yeah, I’m not sure how they thought that was a good idea, but that is what we ended up getting in a way.

The thing is, I don’t want to sell Subspecies short, because the movie has a lot of good points and there is a reason it makes for fun Halloween viewing. In its corner is the fact that the movie was filmed on location in Romania. In fact it is the first American film to be allowed to film in the country after the iron curtain collapsed. So for that alone, Subspecies gets some props.

Nothing wrong with a picnic in front of mouldering
medieval ruins, right?
But director Ted Nicolaou actually uses the setting to his advantage. Lush rolling hills and mysterious forests add a lot of atmosphere. But the two castles that house the bulk of the action give the movie some authenticity. The crew didn’t just film on the castle grounds, which offer some great scenes for Radu to lurk among crumbling ruins. But they also filmed inside the castle for a lot of the interiors. I really puts the girls in an world in stark contrast with their late 80s fashions and hair.

I also have to comment on some of the effects. Radu is a nasty piece of work. Hove has presence of course, but his make up highlights his angular features and makes him look demonic and otherworldly. They also use some fun effects with shadows and lighting to make it appear as if Radu is vanishing into thin air or moving with uncanny speed. It is all simple stuff, but Coppola used a lot of the same techniques in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and it was just as effective.

No guys, you're doing the YMCA dance wrong.
I can’t go without mentioning the titular characters, the Subspecies themselves. These little stop motion creations are muscular miniature demons that Obsurus Lupa referred to as finger demons. They are kind of cute and creepy all at the same time. It is neat to see old school effects even if there are moments where they just don’t seem to be quite standing on the floor. Makes you appreciate the magic of Ray Harryhausen.

I should also mention the goofy looking prop they used for the Bloodstone. This is supposed to be a mystical gem that holds the blood of all the saints in it. Any vampire who drinks from the Bloodstone… um… is really cool and stuff. They never really explain what the big deal is about it, but Radu and Stefan keep rambling on about it. Once again I’ll reference Lupa, because I thought the same thing she did – it looks like an overly ornate push pop that drips ketchup, I mean blood, on the vampire’s tongue. It is too silly looking to take seriously, and adds to the fun seeing all the vampires get in a lather over this goofy push pop.

The real Phantasm is his wig!
Sound effects are pretty solid. There’s lots of creepy atmosphere with wind howling in the woods, creaking crypt doors and crackling flames during the Vampire Festival. Nothing really crazy accomplished here, but it all works fine. The music is also solid. Looks like several composers were hired, or a wealth of library music was used. In any case, it is effectively spooky and haunting, but saturated with 1980s style synthesizers. This will either make your ears bleed, or just add to the cheesy awesomeness that is Subspecies.

Alas the acting is very uneven. Angus Scrimm (of Phantasm fame) has a cameo in the film. He plays the king of the vampires and he seems to giving it a good try, even if his wig renders him terminally goofy. Luckily he doesn’t stick around too long. Of the three girls Laura Mae Tate brings the most to her character (of course her character actually has an arc as opposed to the other two). I love the scene where she meets Stefan and they get googly eyed at each other. Or at least she does, I’m not sure what he was attempting.

"Stefan, I am your father! Get it! Like Star
Wars. Oh come on Stefan, its funny!"
But the real reason to enjoy these movies is Anders Hove as the villainous and over the top Radu. He skulks and looms like Count Orlok from Nosferatu. He speaks with a wheezing voice that is actually pretty disturbing. He often drools blood from his lips and looks just dementedly evil when the occasion calls for it. Hove brings the intensity to the part, and it actually makes Radu fun to watch but also intimidating and a bit of a wild card. You get a real sense of danger from Radu, and it makes you wish the rest of the story was less conventional and predictable.

Irina Movila as Mara and Michelle McBride and Lillian do solid jobs with very thin characters. Mostly they are around to joke with Michelle, run in terror from Radu, and then get drained of blood and come back as half naked vampire brides. They do it well enough. I blame the script for the flat characters.

Lili Dumitrescu as the Old Crone is wonderfully emphatic, over the top and difficult to understand with her thick accent. She almost seems like a Monty Python character, but it adds to the fun. I also liked Ivan Rado as Karl, the imposing groundskeeper who knows all about the vampires and tries to help the girls. He puts in some effort, and his eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting.

Our hero? Nice scarf!
Alas the real weak point when it comes to acting in Subspecies is with our hero Stefan. Michael Watson doesn’t bring much life to the role. His character is also supposed to be the sensitive vampire with the heart of gold. But he ends up sitting around looking a little sad eyed and mopey. He shows his most energy when fighting Radu during the climactic sword fight. But that is just hilarious for other reasons, so I don’t really count that. Maybe they were going for a contrast between the two vampires, but really Hove just blows Watson out of the water whenever they share the screen together. It’s not a big surprise that Stefan’s character doesn’t make it far into the sequel.

I’ve mentioned the script a few times already and well I’ll be honest and say that it is a bit of a mess. There are some really good ideas in the film, but none of them really get fleshed out. I like details like the Bloodstone becoming addictive to Radu – but nothing ever comes of that statement. Since they never explain what the Bloodstone does for vampires, if anything, it just doesn’t seem to have much of a point in the film. And yet all the vampire characters seem obsessed with it. I guess the blood of saints is like pumpkin spice latte to these guys.

And now I will know how many licks it takes to get
to the center of a Bloodstone,
Then you have the little Subspecies demons. While they are cool looking and have some potential to create some creepy scares, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with them. The most useful thing they do is open a secret door that Radu can’t get to. That’s it. Otherwise he just has them torment Mara in one scene, which is them just kind of jumping around near her. And then in another scene they bring Radu the Bloodstone, which is just lying on the floor a few feet away. They do fetch Radu’s head at the end of the movie, so we can have a sequel, but all in all they are just wasted special effects. It is so strange that they name the whole series after these guys. Radu is the main attraction and make no mistake.

Aside from those two odd details the rest of the plot is standard vampire stuff. The trio goes snooping where they shouldn’t. Radu picks up their scent and stalks them. Then you’ve got girl meets vampire, girl falls for vampire, vampire whines about how they can never be together, vampire fights evil vampire to save girl, girl is infected – oh no! It all ends with Stefan drinking deep from Michelle and they sleep it off in a coffin. You can see the beats coming a mile away. That is why it is so strange that the Bloodstone and Subspecies are around but don’t impact the story. A really interesting story could be made with Michelle finding the Bloodstone and that attracting Radu and Stefan, and the two attempting to get it from her. One using fear and threatening her friends. The other attempting to seduce her. Hell Stefan didn’t even have to be a good guy, just less insidious than his brother. I just made up that story and I think it is actually more interesting than what we end up getting.

Looks like Michelle is filled with strawberry
That said, Nicolaou does manage to tell the story pretty well. There are a few moments that almost seem like a travelogue, but I can forgive that since this was the first American film in Romania. The pacing can drag a bit here and there when Radu isn’t around. But the movie has plenty of gothic atmosphere, some moments of genuine dread and chills, and a powerhouse performance by Hove.

Subspecies is solid if a bit standard vampire entertainment. It sets things up for the sequels, which expand the story of Michelle and Radu. The sequels tend to go bigger in a lot of ways and have goofier moments that are plenty of fun. But you also get the feeling that the sequels know they are goofy, and so they are winking at the audience a bit. The first film is going for a genuine creepy feeling, and succeeds several times. Worth checking out if you want to shake up your Halloween viewing.

Romania? How the hell did you drive us to Romania?
Must have been that left in Albuquerque.
Oh my gawd! Stefan! Put your pants back on. No one
wants to see that.
No seriously, put your pants back on. 
The search for Stefan's pants drags into the night.
"And now Stefan, I will push you and a push pop!
"Slumber Party! I want to pillow fight first!"
Radu, ugly with the mask on and off.


  1. Back in the old days before computers a cool looking cover could sell a tape whether or not the movie itself was great or not. Word of mouth also was a selling point. I remember a guy at work telling me about the first Terminator film, which I'd never heard much about, and this was several years after it had been out and was on VHS (I didn't subscribe to a cable network at the time). Subspecies is one such movie. Herschell Gordon Lewis used to have such VHS boxes along with many others.

    I'll admit too that sometime the location becomes one of the attractions to the film. I saw The Grudge the other night too, and I love the house where the films begins in with the sick stricken woman--the architecture of it. Sometimes it's location, which a lot of westerns convey well.

    I watched Child's Play for the first time the other night. I've never cared for the Chucky franchise as those sorts of movies are a bit of a stretch of the imagination for me and tend to get too campy. But I'll admit the first film was interesting and is made well.

    1. Yeah the first "Child's Play" is like a really bloody "Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery" episode. I forgot how creepy it was in places. Not one of my favorites, but I did enjoy it when I resisted it a couple years back.

      Yeah the cover for "Subspecies" was really a great selling point. But the funny thing is, that scene never happens in the movie. The tiny demons are never that useful. :)

  2. This is one of the many October-appropriate movies of which I’m aware but never have seen. One has to give points for location shooting.

    It’s surprising how resilient and adaptable the whole vampire mythos is. Just when you think it is played out, someone puts a new spin on it as in Blade, Buffy, or (regrettably but still notably) Twilight, and the vamps are back in force. I suppose Anne Rice deserves some credit (or perhaps blame, depending on one’s view) for showing how it could be done back in '76.

    1. Yeah we seem to go through spurts of Vampire interest. I really think Anne Rice is the one who pushed the romance angle for the vampire genre. It was always in the subtext, but she really made romance and sex the text of the vampire mythos. And boy did that stick. Even "Buffy" had the vampire with the heart of gold concept in it. It feels a little played out to me at this point, but obviously it works for a lot of people.

      I do like to see scary and disturbing vampires in horror films though, since they are pretty rare these days. Most of them are super cool bad boys/girls with hearts of gold.

  3. A divergent, but since you've enjoyed the NaNoWriMo, here's a video by a guy that's participating. He has a good book vlog on YT as well: