Producer/writer/director Charles Band has put his stamp on nearly 300 horror and sci-fi movies since the late 1970s, but he has yet to top the quality of the "Subspecies" series. These four vampire films were helmed by his frequent 1990s collaborator Ted Nicolaou, and they are not only among the best movies to ever bear Band's famous Full Moon logo, but they are among some of the best vampire movies ever made.
You can read more about Full Moon movies at my other blog "The Charles Band Collection", but I am posting reviews of the Subspecies series here as well, because they are movies that any fan or student of the vampire genre needs to check out. Those of you who enjoy vampire movies with more of a gothic flavor to them than we've seen in recent years will be especially appreciative of the tone and nature of these films. It's a shame it's not been as popular as some of their other creations, such as the Puppet Master films.
Starring: Laura Mae Tate, Irina Movila, Michelle McBride, Anders Hove, Ivan J. Rado and Michael Watson
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producer: Ion Ionescu and Charles Band
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Three pretty grad students (McBride, Movila and Tate) working on disertations are in Transylvania to study the local legends and folk customs, only to find themselves in the middle of a vampiric family feud that's been brewing for centuries and that is now reaching it's brutal, bloody finale.
"Subspecies" is one of the better vampire movies to come out of the 1990s, despite the obvious budget constraints it was made under. It's an interesting merging of the hideous monstrosity vampires from the real legends and early movies and the sexy vampire that grew increasingly popular during the second half of the 20th century, reaching the pinnacle of pop culture success by the mid-1990s.
The story feels a tad slow-moving, partly because the film telegraphs where it's going by leading with the vampires and their blood-feud and then cutting to our three soon-to-be damsels in distress--two very cute blonds and an androgynous brunette--for extended sequences as they wander around old castles and a beautiful countryside, broken only by scenes of the very creepy and disgusting vampire Radu (played by Anders Hove, in a fashion that makes Max Schreck's Count Orlock in "Nosferatu" look like a GQ cover model) rising from his coffin. Radu is so vile that you know he's going to be chewing his way through the cast, so you're going to be feeling a bit impatient with the film as it works its way toward the expected carnage.
However, the film is never dull, nor will you likely be tempted to turn it off. The cast are all good actors and they all play their parts well. The camerawork is excellent and the true Romanian settings lends an atmosphere of realism to the film that few modern-day vampire films can muster.
But when it gets going, it delivers vampire material running the gamut. We've got a disgusting, drooling taloned vampire that's a late 20th century take on the "Nosferatu"-style vampire, we've got sexy vampire babes in nightgowns who might have just flitted over from one of Hammer's Dracula movies, and we've got the male model modern vampire hunk love interest of one of the girls (played by Michael Watson, who was a soap-opera star when the "Subspecies" movie were made).
With all of the good things I'm saying about the film, why am I only giving it a Six Rating, you ask? Well, it's because of the inconsistencies and strange logic surrounding the pint-sized monters that are a mainstay of Charles Band-produced films whether they belong or not. Here, the tiny creatures are nasty demons that are created from severed tips of Radu's fingers, but they fail to seem real because of the truly crappy effects used to bring them to life. For example, in all but one scene, no one bothered to trick in shadows under the creatures, so they appear to be floating over the floor instead of walking on it. They look exactly like what they are: Puppets that have been placed in the scenes via special effects, and they ruin almost every scene they're in because of it.
Despite its flaws, "Subspecies" is a vampire movie that has a little something for everyone, including bare breasts. It's a good start for a series that only gets better.
Subspecies II: Bloodstone (1993)
Starring: Denise Duff, Anders Hove, Melanie Shatner, Kevin Spirtas, Michael Denish, Ion Haiduc and Pamela Gordon
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
Young Michelle (Duff) has recently been turned into a vampire and is on the run from the evil vampire prince Radu (Hove) and his twisted, immortal mother (Gordon). Her sister (Shatner) arrives in Romania hoping to help her, but what can a mere mortal do against an ancient vampire who is not only chasing Michelle because he want to possess her, but also because she has stolen the magical Bloodstone?
"Subspecies II: Bloodstone" is a direct continuation of the original "Subspecies"--it picks up just one single night after the final scene of the first movie--and it's one of those very rare sequels that manages to turn out better than the movie it follows. This is an especially remarkable feat because a near-total cast change has taken place and the film takes some very unexpected directions as far as story goes.
The only actor to return in the sequel is Anders Hove, who repeats his performance as the extremely vile, supremely creepy Radu. Although Radu doesn't actually kill anyone in this film--or even sink his vampiric fangs into a single neck!--he's an even more menacing presense than he was in the first film. He developes a maniacal need to possess Michelle, the mortal woman who was made a vampire by Radu's brother Stefan and he seems to start deluding himself into thinking that she will care for him, partly because he murdered Stefan to gain her as a possession. This insanity makes him even spookier than he was in the first movie.
Radu also seems more creepy because of superior camerawork and lighting present in this film. From beginning to end, there is a consistant mood of dread and darkness in every frame of the film, most of it created with simple lighting techniques and camera angles. (The same is true of a number of low-cost effects that seem to make the vampires beings of living shadows--something that is created through well-considered placement of spotlights and cameras and the result is far more effective than more costly special effects could ever have been. (The one time where there is an animated shadow, it looks cheesy, but every time Radu's arrival or departure is demonstrated with shifting, giant shadows it's very dramatic and cool.)
Aside from the competent camera work and lighting, the film also sports a great soundtrack that is fresh yet still reminicent of the one present in the first film. The featured actors also do an excellent job in their various parts, with Denise Duff being particularly noteworthy for stepping into the role of Michelle quite nicely (even if one has to wonder why they chose to go with her as Michelle when Melanie Shatner, the actress who plays Michelle's sister, bears closer physical resemblence to the actress who played Michelle in the first movie) and Michael Denish for serving as the film's comic relief as a scatter-brained Van Helsing-type scholar.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film when one considers it was produced by Charles Band's Full Moon Entertainnment is the fact that the film follows continuity from the first film very closely. Even with a near-total cast change and the film shifting in tone from Hammer-style gothic horror to a more modern sensibility, the storyline and all the characters remain consistent. Other Full Moon series, like "Puppet Master" and "Trancers" seem to almost go out of their way to screw up story continuity between the various movies, but writer/director Ted Nicolaou chose to actually pay attention to what he'd done before and remain consistent with it even though he took the story in a very different direction than the ending of "Subspecies" seemed to be leading toward.
Subspecies III: Bloodlust (1993)
Starring: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Melanie Shatner, Kevin Spirtas, Ion Haiduc and Pamela Gordon
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
After failing to rescue her sister from the clutches of the evil vampire prince Radu (Hove), Becky (Shatner) enlists the help of a young American diplomat (Spirtas) and a frustrated Romanian police detective (Haiduc) to stage a raid on Castle Vladislav. Meanwhile, Radu is educating the fledgling vampire Michelle (Duff) in how to use her new supernatural powers while attempting to corrupt her soul in order to make her is vampire bride in body as well as spirit.
"Subspecies III: Bloodlust" picks up at the ending of the previous film, seamlessly continuing the storyline of Michella, Radu, and the fearless (but hapless) vampire hunters led by Michelle's sister Becky. Characters who had minor roles in the previous film take the spotlight in this one and they launch a concerted and believable (once one buys into the idea that vampires and witches exist) effort to bring down the vampires.
Once again, the cast all give admirable performances, with Anders Hove making Radu even more disgusting in this installment than he had been in the previous ones. At the same time, however, he manages to evoke some degree of sympathy in the viewer as well. (He's a hideous, murdering monster who has more than just a few screws loose, but the love he has developed for Michelle--however twisted--and the pain it is causing him that she doesn't love him back gives the character a dimension that both makes him increasingly creepy but also gives the viewer something to relate to.)
In some areas, this film continues the trajectory started with the first "Subspecies" sequel, increasing the quality of the film instead of decreasing it as is the usual pattern when it comes to sequels. In other areas, the film holds its own quite nicely, and the end result is a film that will provide a satisfying viewing experience for lovers fo vampire movies of all stripes.
The script for this installment of the series is the best so far. I've already touched upon the great performances given by Anders Hove and Denice Duff, performances that wouldn't have been possible if they hadn't been provided with a great script as their starting point. The scripts quality is also manifested in the comic relief character of Lt. Marin (portrayed by Ion Haiduc), who has scenes that manage to inspire laughter on the heels of, or even during, some of the film's most intense and scary moments. The only complaint I have with the script is that I would have liked to have been given a bit more of a solid ending, but what we have isn't decent enough so that's a minor complaint.
The film isn't as impressive in the photography and lighting area as its predecessor was, with many of the shadow and transformation effects being acheived with animation or composite shots instead of simple lighting and camera tricks. The overall look of the film also isn't quite as dramatic as "Subspecies II", but it's still far beyond the average low-budget horror film and it is still good enough to place this film among the best movies to ever emerge from the Full Moon film factory. It is without a doubt evidence that the Golden Age for Charles Band and his Full Moon label was in the early 1990s. (Band may yet rediscover how to mount productions as impressive as this one, but nothing he has produced in recent years even comes close.)
"Subspecies III: Bloodlust" is one of the very best vampire films ever made. It should be on the "must-see" list of any serious fan or student of genre.
Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998)
Starring: Denice Duff, Anders Hove, Floriela Grappini, Jonathon Morris, Mihai Dinvale, Ion Haiduc, and Ioana Abur
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producers: Charles Band, Kirk Edward Hansen, and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Free of her master Radu (Hove), fledgeling vampire Michelle (Duff) enters the care of a doctor who claims he has discovered a method to reverse her undead condition. But Radu is not ready to let her go yet, and he launches an effort to retrieve her, with the reluctant help of Bucharest's most powerful vampire, Ash (Morris).
In the annals of unnecessary sequels, few are more unnecessary than "Subspecies 4". The 1993 third movie in the series provided a satisfying conclusion to the core story of the series--Michelle resisting Radu's attempts to turn her to evil--and the heroes driving off into the sunrise as Radu was burned to ashy oblivion was a nice period at the end.
But, Charles Band being Charles Band, a successful film WILL have a sequel no matter what, so four years later, Nicolaou was back in the director's chair at the helm of this film, which is an unnecessary sequel not just to the first three "Subspecies" films, but to the tangentially related "Vampire Journals", which was also written and directed by Nicolau. (Or maybe it's a prequel to "Vampire Journals"? With Full Moon's trademark disregard for continuity, I never can be 100 percent sure what they're intending....)
All that said, despite being a wholly unnecessary add-on to the other vampire films, it stands with the original "Subspecies" films and "Vampire Journals" as one of the most visually striking films to ever come from the Band direct-to-home-video assembly lines. Nicolaou really knew how to get the most out of the grand Romanian locations, especially at night. He also continues his flair for stretching his minimal budget to the point where he creates an end-product that looks better than films that cost ten times as much to make.
And while the film is not as good as "Subspecies 3"--the best film from Nicolau I've seen so far--it is an improvement on the overly slow "Vampire Journals".
As for the story, it's a tangle plots and counter-plots that rival the storylines envisioned by the creators of the 1990s roleplaying game "Vampire: The Masquerade" which these movies have always seemed like the perfect adaptation of. Radu plotting to conquer
Michelle, Ash plotting to destroy Radu, Dr. Niculescu's hidden agenda and dark secret... all of these intrigues swirl around Michelle who continues to resist the call of evil and dream of reclaiming her humanity. If you like the Anne Rice-style vampire genre and/or the 1990s White Wolf-style roleplaying games, you'll enjoy this movie.
You'll also enjoy the film if you liked Anders Hove performances in the previous "Subspecies" films. Hove's Radu is every bit as disgusting as he's always been, although he is also even more pathetic in this film that ever before, with his desire for Michelle now fully transformed from its initial need to possess into unrequited love. The rest of the cast do a good job as well, with Jonathon Morris actually being better as Ash in this film than he was in "Vampire Journals" and Ion Haiduc providing gallows-humor comic relief as a police detective turned bumbling vampire (making him the only returning character from the previous two films aside from Michelle and Radu).