Friday, October 8, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Subspecies

Subspecies (1991) is a study in how to make a low-budget vampire movie with great atmosphere. A Full Moon production directed by Ted Nicolaou, it's terribly hokey in some parts, but I'll be damned if the locations don't make up for it. Also of note is the awesome Anders Hove as Radu. His raspy voice and creepy Nosferatu-esque finger-claws make him a ghastly looking freak. In a time where most women are in love with sparkly vampires (or at least vamps that seem to buy their clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch), it is refreshing to pull out this gem and remind ourselves that vampires were meant to be scary, dammit! (Though later in the month I'm going to contradict that statement a bit).

Opening up the film we have an old vampire (Angus Scrimm with simply the worst ball of cotton on his head that I have ever seen) - he is drinking from a stone that is filled with blood. Watching him from the other room is our bloody fine star, Radu. This dude, despite his pasty white (and badly made-up) face, just reeks evil. You know right away from his creepy hands curling around the doorway that Radu is up to no good. He questions his father about the fact that dear old dad has decided to give his reign to Radu's younger half-brother. He's more than just a bit angry, arguing that the bloodstone is his birth right and that his dad is a has-been. Obviously a bit scared of his nutso son, drops a cage on Radu, like presto-chango! Right from the ceiling! If only we had that power in daily life. I can think of a few people I'd like to put behind bars!

To show his pops he's not intimidated by the restraints - Radu snaps off several of his long-ass fingers, which in turn writhe around on the floor before turning into creepy little demon men, complete with red skin and horns. Seriously, WTF? Truly a hilarious turn of events, and we're only five minutes in.

These little devils are pretty awful stop-motion dudes - with glowing eyes and six pack abs. And they used to be fingers!! Aaahhh! Bad, bad, bad special effects, but I can let that slide, for now.
They also make this weird noise not unlike the Sleestak of Land of the Lost. They hop and shuffle over to pull a lever and release Radu from the cage, to which Radu celebrates by sticking a dagger in his father, effectively ending Dad's existence and assuming his power.

The premise is simple yet effective. Three students (all women, natch) are in Romania, studying the myth and folklore of Transylvania. Michelle (Laura Tate), Lillian (Michelle McBride) and Mara (Irina Movila) get set up at the Prejnar fortress (which is quite impressive all on its own, before we even get to any vampire-infested castles.) Karl (Ivan Rado), the caretaker of the fortress, has tales to tell - including one about Vlad Dracul leading his army against the Turks, and how some of the survivors of the bloody battles holed up in the fortress, eventually venturing outside to discover quite a few of the Turks, slaughtered by vampires...or so the legend goes.

When the girls go exploring a bit too close to sundown near the ruins of Castle Vladislas (Radu's stomping grounds), Lillian (stupidly) attempts to gain access to the castle but cuts her arm and so they have to leave. At that moment, Radu awakes, observes them from afar, and quickly takes a liking to Michelle.

When they are back at the fortress, they meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger (of course). Unbeknownst to then, it is one of Radu's more amicable family members - his half-brother Stefan, and he is one fine looking vampire. (So see, there's something for everyone! I'd certainly take my chances with him.)
Michelle can't stop staring at him and Stefan also makes googly-eyes at her in return. Stefan explains that he is "cataloging the behavior of native nocturnal species in the region".
But seriously, he's a pretty hot dude, even with his jaunty scarf!

There are so many great aspects to this film. The folklore of Romania is observed in several instances - in particular when they meet a morbid funeral procession, and at a festival celebrating how the vampires helped the people of Prejnar. An old gypsy woman tells the legend of the Bloodstone and warns them to steer clear of Castle Vladislas, stating that it is still where the vampires sleep.

When the girls go back to the castle (duh! so much for heeding a warning!), they fall asleep on the grounds (!) and when they wake up it is quite dark. It is the first time that Radu makes himself known, and of course the girls are scared shitless and run for their lives. Stefan shows up out of nowhere though and saves them, dragging their sorry asses back to the fortress.
Stefan goes back to the castle and discovers his father, dead. Radu appears and starts choking Stefan, rambling about being pissed and how their dad is a fool. A dead fool. He allows Stefan to live though. Because the movie's only half over and you can't kill off the only sexy guy that soon!

At night, while Lillian sleeps, Radu comes into her room and slurps her blood out of her wounded arm like a noisy trash compactor. Naturally she doesn't awake, even when he tries to bite her neck. He's stopped by Stefan and Karl, who's in on the secrets.

Stefan heads back to Castle Vladislas, with every intention of killing Radu, but he weakens as the sun rises and is unable to complete the task. Radu, strong from the bloodstone, teases Radu, saying he's going to take special care of Stefan's favorite girl.
Luckily, caretaker Karl appears with a covered wagon and Stefan's coffin to save the freakin' day. Yay! Sharpen the stakes, we're on a mission here!
Back at the ranch fortress, Stefan and Karl have a heart to heart about how they should have killed Radu when they had the chance, how they are going to do it now (Stakes made of ancient oak! Spears of black hawthorne! Bullets made from wooden rosary beads!), and how obvious it is that Stefan wants to bump uglies with Michelle and he needs to keep his antiquated hormones in check.

Lillian, sick with a fever, stays behind while Michelle and Mara head to the festival to celebrate with the rest of the village. There is much excitement to be had - horses jumping over graves, folks pretending to stake the undead, and everyone dancing like freaks while dressed in crazy masks.

When Stefan shows up to try to convince them to go home, Mara leaves the two lovebirds alone. Lamentably, Mara is kidnapped by Radu and left tied up in a dungeon, half naked, to hang out with his little demon buddies.
Lillian, in the interim, dies of her vampire attack and is buried in consecrated ground - just like in every other vampire movie...ever.

Now it is up to Michelle and Karl to vanquish the evil Radu for all eternity, if for no other reason than Michelle just really wants to get it on with Stefan and Radu is certainly cramping her style. The final showdown is rather predictable but it really is just old-fashioned goodness! With the exception of the rather useless and almost retarded subspecies creatures, the film works on most every level.

So what have we got? An old school vampire movie, terribly clichéd, poorly acted, and with some really lame special effects - but the fact that it was filmed on location holds so much credibility here that it stands well above the atmosphere of nearly all other vampire flicks. The film has an undeniable sense of dread, a superior score, and on-target ambiance. Sure, it's campy as hell and over the top but hot damn I love this movie.


Mr. Gable said...

My respect for you and this blog just shot up 1000 points. Subspecies RULES! Excellent film. I own 2 & 3 but haven't seen them yet. I've heard good things about the entire series.

Strange Kid said...

I've heard of this series, never seen it before though. Despite it being campy, the still shots of that vamp look pretty damn creepy.

Christine Hadden said...

Well, Mr. Gable - your respect for me should shoot even higher...I own the entire Subspecies 'Epic Collection' - all five discs in a box set. I'm obsessed!

SK: You need to at least see the first one. It's such great atmospheric camp, seriously.

Andre said...

Wow. Sadly I have never even heard of Subspecies (terrible I know, but don't worry I slapped myself for you). I really need to watch this ASAP and just realized it's on Instant Watch. Thank you for opening my eyes!

Christine Hadden said...

Andre, I soooo can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one. Should be an awesome review, good or bad, lol..

Anonymous said...

Gotta love Subspecies! I remember watching it a very long time ago and the fact that I remember it speaks volumes because I try to flush out movies that are, somehow, not redeemable.

William Rockingham said...

check out this extremely scathing and gobsmackingly ignorant review of Subspecies by some jackass in Australia:

Let him know WE think Subspecies is awesome!

Anonymous said...

I'm friends with the Director of the Subspecies films, Ted Nicolaou. Great films and he went through HELL to make them.