by Arthur B

A vampire cuts some of his own fingers off so that they turn into little imps. He needn't have bothered.
Once upon a time the vampires of Transylvania were ruled over by the wise vampire king Vladislas (Angus Scrimm), who was able to exert his authority through the use of the Bloodstone - a stone that drips what is believed to be the blood of the saints and gives its bearer certain powers over and above those of a basic bloodsucker. Vladislas had two sons - his elder son, Radu (Anders Hove), is the son of a sorceress and thus bears some of her infernal powers, whilst Stefan (Michael Watson) was the son of a mortal woman and made a point of denying his vampire heritage as much as he could.

Come the present day and the region around Castle Vladislas is the site of an ongoing conflict between Stefan and Radu. King Vladislas wants to hand over his power to Stefan on the day of a great local festival, commemorating a battle when the vampires intervened to stop the Ottomans from conquering the area. Radu. who had been exiled from Vladislas’ realm, pre-empts this by confronting Vladislas and demanding the Bloodstone from him - which he takes after murdering Vladislas with the aid of the Subspecies, a trio of tiny devils spawned from Radu’s severed fingertips.

Matters are complicated by the arrival of three postgraduate students in the area; Michelle (Laura Tate) and Lillian (Michelle McBride) are American folklorists who befriended local woman Mara (Irina Movila) when Mara did her undergraduate degree in the USA. A study of the legends and more of the Vladislas area not only plays to their professional interests but lets them enjoy a reunion holiday in the bargain. They end up arranging to stay in a local monastery, now disused and maintained by the Romanian government as a residence for visiting scholars - and that just happens to be Stefan’s base of operations. Stefan purports to be a zoologist studying nocturnal animals to cover for his nightfly habits, but what Mara, Michelle and Lillian mostly notice about him is how studly he is - and he doesn’t fail to notice Michelle either. Naturally, this gives Radu all the excuse he needs to target the students out of spite - drawing them into the fratricidal conflict.

Spawned from the mind of B-movie master Charles Band, this was directed by Ted Nicolau from a script by Jackson Barr and David Pabian. It’s notable for being the first American-helmed movie to be filmed in Romania, with the shoot taking place a mere year or so after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime. The country’s dire economic straits at the time doubtless helped Nicolau get more bang for his budget than he otherwise might have, and he also makes great use of some absolutely fantastic authentic ruins in the region. (If nothing else, the movie is an outright masterpiece of location scouting.)

Other visual aspects of the movie have more mixed results. The makeup for Radu isn’t always convincing in well-lit scenes, but in darker scenes is a triumph; whilst he clearly only has those nasty long Salad Fingers-esque digits to provide an easy way for him to “cut his fingertips off” to spawn imps, they’re also a deliciously nasty Nosferatu-esque feature which really sets him apart from the common run of 1990s Crow knockoffs.

The Subspecies themselves are fun, but they’re tiny little stop-motion gremlins; they only foil Vladislas’ attempt to confine Radu because Vladislas more or less lets them, not only failing to lift a single finger to resist what they are getting up to but actually stepping out of the way so they can work the mechanism that lifts the cage Vladislas dropped on his shitbag son. In fact, they play such a minor role in the movie that it kind of feels like they were thrown in as an afterthought.

I can picture it now: they cast Angus Scrimm as the vampire king, and then they remembered that amazing bit in Phantasm where one of the Tall Man’s fingers get cut off and shut away in a box but when the box is opened later the finger’s turned into a buzzy little demonic fly thing, and they thought “Hey, this would be a cool power for Radu to have to establish that he’s more than a vanilla vampire”. They’re a cool idea, but you could very viably put together an edit of the movie which removed them entirely and for the most part the story would remain entirely the same. That’s not a great look for the thing you are naming your movie after.

(Apparently, all the stop-motion in the movie was hastily done to replace the originally filmed Subspecies sequences, which had local Romanian actors in rubber suits acting on oversized sets to accomplish the effect but didn’t achieve the desired look, so I suppose it’s possible that the movie was subjected to hasty rewrites and amendments to dial back the Subspecies content and save a bit of budget.)

As far as the story goes, for the most part it’s rather standard-issue early-1990s direct-to-video fare. It’s a bit sad that out of the three lead women more or less all of them get upstaged in the protagonists by Stefan, though Michelle as the last survivor does get a bit more to do than the others. Out of the trio of potential victims for Radu it’s nice that the rather intellectual short-haired one is the final girl rather than the standard-issue All-American blonde, which makes a welcome break from how these things usually go - on the other hand, it’s deeply disappointing how Mara spends much of the late film sitting around in Radu’s basement wearing a big shirt ripped carefully to show her nipple off. It’s also a little startling just how intensely othering it is of the local culture, to the point of presenting Romanian folk traditions (or entirely invented folk traditions) as being outright Wicker Man-esque.

The end of the movie feels saggy and threadbare, all told - it feels padded out, like they ran out of plot points too early and needed to fill time with Michelle running around in Radu’s basement failing to escape for a while before you get to the climactic sequence where Michelle is reduced to an entirely ineffectual state of victimhood and all the male characters step in to tie up the loose ends. (OK, I tell a lie: Michelle gets to wave a torch around a bit and then stake Lillian once she’s already defeated, whilst Stefan and Radu have one of those ghastly movie swordfights where they just stand there very obviously just whacking each other’s swords and not making it even look like they are attempting to hit each other.)

Believe it or not, Subspecies actually spawned its own little franchise with Nicolau writing and directing all the sequels, though only Anders Hove remains from the cast from movie to movie as Radu. (Michelle remains as a common character throughout, but is played by Denice Duff instead of Laura Tate.) The subsequent films may well be amazing, but the mediocrity of the original doesn’t leave me inspired to see them.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2017-10-31
I recognized what movie this was going to be from the title and description before I read the article—and I’ve never even seen the movie.

But a couple years ago, I did watch this video review, along with the reviews of the three sequel films. From the sounds of it, the mediocrity remains in full force throughout the whole of the series—and apparently there’s a four-part side series which ups the mediocrity levels to such an extent that she didn’t even bother trying to review them, but which nonetheless ties into the final film. She also derives a great deal of comedy out of Michelle’s complete uselessness as a protagonist over the course of the series—to the part where it’s a newly introduced character who finally defeats Radu in the fourth movie (although, as I recall, this time it is a female character).

Also, the titular subspecies is given even less to do in the sequels, which I remember thinking was a shame, as it appears to be the one creative idea the series had going for it, with at least a little storytelling potential.

(Incidentally, the same reviewer also did two videos covering the first four Phantasm movies, made several years before the fifth came out.)
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