Subspecies. 1991. Directed by Ted Nicolaou. Screenplay by Jackson Barr, Nicolaou, & David Pabian.
Starring Angus Scrimm, Anders Hove, Irina Movila, Laura Mae Tate, Michelle McBride, Ivan J. Rado, Mara Grigore, Adrian Vâlcu, Michael Watson, Lili Dumitrescu, & Ion Besoiu.
Full Moon Entertainment
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Vampire films come out by the dozens every year it seems. When the sub-genre of horror comes back into fashion, when a new book gets popular or a Dracula-style movie is coming out, people want more, so the studios pump them out. It isn’t anything new, it’s been that way since Nosferatu, followed by various iterations of Dracula, and it goes on, and on, and on. Easy to get sick of them after a while.
Then along come some of the more unique vampire fare. One of those being Ted Nicolaou’s Subspecies. He’s no stranger to inventive, different horror, having brought audiences stuff like Ragewar, TerrorVision; later in his career he did The St. Francisville Experiment, among other films. It isn’t surprising something such as this came out of his strange mind.
1991’s Subspecies is definitely part of its own catalogue, for many reasons. It’s the first American film shot on-location in Bucharest, Romania. The vampires, specifically the main baddie Radu (Anders Hove), are so much different than most of the others out there already. Maybe the whole film isn’t so hot, there are issues with pacing, action, other little pieces. Yet it doesn’t change the fact Nicolaou gives us a compelling bit of independent horror at the beginning of a decade many want to believe was terrible for horror. They seem to forget about everything outside the big Hollywood studio system.
“Here we are taught to respect the dead“
Initially, the locations provide a Gothic feel without much work. The whole aesthetic comes on fast, hard. The practical effects, the stop-motion puppets, the elaborate makeup for Radu; all supremely unique in the vampire sub-genre, no doubt. Clear from the first scenes, no matter how you feel about the film as a whole, Subspecies is unlike any other film of its ilk.
This leads us into the Gothic story itself. There’s an ominous, foreboding sense of place, a brooding horror on the periphery, as the main characters come into town in Romania and stumble onto a funeral, the solemn procession of grieving bodies out in the road. We begin seeing a disconnect, taking us across the bridge between the New World and the Old World. The latter of which is where death, ritual, tradition, folklore, myth all remain a part of daily life. In fact, folklore is the reason the three women wind up in that eerie place.
Nicolaou’s film is a vampire epic, a dark fantasy about a family of vampires and their kingdom, a mythical place right in the midst of reality. Warring brothers, a dead father, who happened to be king. It’s the epitome of the horror fairy tale, all the identifiable elements of an epic piece of lore. There’s castles, swords, the vampires and the strange subspecies creatures Radu commands out of his very blood. You’d be hard pressed NOT to call this dark fantasy, not merely horror.
Note: Radu’s name actually comes from Radu the Handsome, brother to infamous Romanian, inspiration for aspects of the character of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. A nice vampiric, Romanian connection.
Now, for what didn’t work. A major problem is the pacing, it lags after some time. The plot starts feeling stagnant, as if there’s no movement just a sort of circling around. Events lack suspense and thrills moving towards the end. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help with the interesting build up prior, and there’s a part of the potential Nicolaou has going that never gets past that potentiality.
Another of the biggest reasons Subspecies isn’t even better – because it’s already fun – is the lukewarm finale. It isn’t awful, by any stretch of the imagination, particularly not for an independent feature doing the best possible with all the elements available. But it’s also not as entertaining as it ought to be, the lead up falls short of being as engaging as the material requires.
However, this does not alter the uniqueness of Subspecies. It is in a league of its own, faults withstanding. Because rather than go for a tired, formulaic vampire story, or a slasher, or a teen horror as the fad became heading into the ’90s and onward, Nicolaou gives audiences an old school-feeling flick that tries carving out its vampire niche in the horror genre. You can’t beat a cool vampire look for Radu, a creepy, disturbing, uglier version of Nosferatu’s Count Orlok crossed with something Nicolaou saw in a nightmare, added to the mini subspecies demons made of the vamp’s blood, an inventive twist in and of itself.
So pop this on during October. If you want a different sort of vampire film, this is it! Took years for me to give it a chance. Although it’s nowhere near perfect, it doesn’t have to be, it’s strange enough in its own right to merit a watch or two. Hopefully others enjoy it as much as I did.