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  • nickkarner

Subspecies (1991)


“Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma. I believe that everything happens for a reason.”

-Peter Venkman. Parapsychologist. Ghostbuster. Possible sexual offender. Seriously, why did he have those drugs on him?


Whether or not Dr. Venkman had ulterior motives when he arrived at Dana Barrett’s apartment, his comment about luck, fate and karma remains remarkably prescient. Acting does indeed require a great deal of luck as well as skill, although considering the talent of some famous actors, luck seems to be the dominant force in that equation. Often, it’s a “right place at the right time” situation. Johnny Depp accompanying Jackie Earle Haley to the Nightmare on Elm Street auditions. Danny Trejo’s unique look gaining him an onscreen role in Runaway Train. Rosario Dawson wandering over to the set of Kids. And of course, the legendary (and probably apocryphal) story of how Mel Gibson snagged the role of Mad Max. Then there’s the story of how Anders Hove landed the role of Radu, a vampire abomination spawned from an unholy alliance between an evil sorceress and the king of the vampires, in the 1991 Charles Band-produced, Ted Nicolau-directed, straight-to-video hit Subspecies.

Hove and his onscreen half-brother Stefan, played by Michael Watson, were appearing on General Hospital at the time of the Subspecies auditions. Watson had gone during his lunch break and upon his return, remarked to Hove that the production was looking for someone to play the bad guy. Although Hove isn’t 100% certain, he believes his tryout took place the same day after he was prompted by Watson to head over. If his co-star hadn’t been kind enough to mention the auditions, we may have been deprived of Hove’s deliciously malevolent presence throughout the underrated Subspecies franchise; a role which has spanned four films and an upcoming fifth.

Director Ted Nicolaou is something of a major/minor figure in the horror world. If you don’t know who he is, it’s understandable, but if you do, then he’s a big deal. His beginnings are impressive. A sound operator on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Originally an assistant editor on “the most dangerous movie ever made” Roar, he would move up to be the primary editor due to the heavy crew turnaround. You know, like how everybody was being mauled on the set of that film? He’d also edit the highly underrated Tourist Trap, which would put him in contact with Charles Band, with whom he’d have a very long partnership. A consummate professional, he’d edit famous Empire Pictures productions like Trancers, Ghoulies, and The Dungeonmaster, which would also mark his directorial debut by shooting the “Desert Pursuit” segment. Due to the reception of his now-cult classic TerrorVision (1986), he wouldn’t direct another film for five years. He’s gone on record as saying TerrorVision nearly destroyed his career. Fortunately, he’d bounce back in a big way with Subspecies, a franchise in which, in a feat rare for a film series, he’d direct all of the subsequent sequels.

This is not meant as a knock against the film, but Subspecies is what I’d call a ‘quaint film.’ It features a small cast and relatively few locations, yet it doesn’t feel insular like other Empire films, particularly Dolls. Following the execution of Romanian dictator Ceausescu, a producer (Ion Ionescu) representing the Romanian government, offered Band the opportunity to shoot in Romania, with all costs covered save post-production, above-the-line costs and film stock, which is quite a good deal. After Empire, which by then had become Full Moon Entertainment, went to golden boy Stuart Gordon, who passed, the project fell upon Nicolaou, who quickly warmed to the Romanian locations and the talented, though non-English speaking director of photography Vlad Paunescu. What was expected to be a four-week shoot turned into a hellish fourteen-week shoot which tried the patience of everyone involved, but out of which came a small-scale but solid film.

While the three women around which much of the film revolves are scholarly types, they also basically come off as morons. American students Michele, a bookish-type with a thing for hats played by Laura Mae Tate (I Love Trouble) and boy-crazy Lillian (Michelle McBride, Prey of the Chameleon) meet up with their old classmate and Romanian native Mara (Irina Movila) at a train station. They’ve arrived in Romania to study local history and folklore. As Lillian claims, “We’re smarter than we look.” Maybe book smart, but not street smart, honey. Their piss-poor decisions result in disastrous consequences for all three, mainly of the vampire variety. This is all followed by a memorable opening prologue where we meet the evil villain of the piece.

Sporting simple but effectively creepy makeup by Cannom Creations (Four Academy awards, including Mrs. Doubtfire and Vice), Radu stalks into the lair of his father, King Vladislav, played by Phantasm’s own Tall Man, Angus Scrimm, wearing a gigantic, afro-sized fright wig. The face of the deformed prince is ghostly white and his fingers are shockingly long, made even longer by sharp claws. His features resemble a modern-day take on Nosferatu, with a punk twist. His scraggly hair often falls in front of his eyes, making him look like a precursor for emo/goth culture and a frequent shopper at Hot Topic. Although Radu is the rightful heir to Vladislav’s throne, the great king knows his son isn’t fit to rule, what with being pure evil and all, so the mantle is expected to be passed onto Stefan, whose mother was a mortal and who resents his vampiric roots and prefers to live amongst the humans incognito.

This opening sequence shows the intelligent, simplistic approach the film takes toward the vampire mythology we’ve all come to know. While the main protagonists are simply reactionary, some of the best scenes in the film involve the local Romanian villagers imparting wisdom and regaling the three women with historical tales. An old crone, played by the compelling Lili Dumitrescu, answers a question which has always bugged me about the Dracula legend. Although vampires can’t enter a home or building without being invited, I’d always wondered why the villagers and gypsies stuck so close to their creepy Transylvanian neighbor's castle despite being aware of the danger. She explains, “Vampires killed the Turks. And in gratitude, the people said, ‘Let them have the greater winds, which is where the vampires sleep.’” Since the vampires still thirsted for blood, a gypsy stole an object known as “the Bloodstone” from the pope and gave it to King Vladislav. The stone was said to “drip the blood of all the saints.” This established the truce between the humans and the vampires and it’s for this reason that none of the inhabitants have ever been bitten.

Working from an idea by Charles Band, David Pabian and Jackson Barr’s script is full of mythical dialogue like this and it works very well to establish a mysterious atmosphere, enhanced by Vlad Paunescu’s impressive photography, much of which was shot with natural light in authentic locations.

If Radu gets his hands on the Bloodstone, he’ll become too powerful. It’s not exactly clear what kind of powers he’ll receive by drinking the blood of the saints, but either way, he wants it. King Vladislav tries to imprison Radu, but being a monstrosity who possesses the genes of a sorceress, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve. He snips off his own fingertips, which fall to the ground in bloody little nubs. Blood gushes forth and they transform into the titular “subspecies” of the title, although the term “subspecies” could also be applied to both Radu and Stefan since they’re not exactly pure-blooded vampires themselves. The little monsters who do Radu’s bidding were rendered in stop-motion by Oscar-nominee David Allen’s company. Trivia claims that Nicolaou was displeased with the live-action performers selected to portray the diminutive and Satanic-looking little beasties, so he opted for stop-motion creatures instead. It’s...not particularly convincing. Fortunately, the film itself is quite good despite the integration between the subspecies devils and the live-action footage being extremely rough, laughable even. I was reminded of the Mr. Show sketch involving Puny Devil Knee Socks “They devilishly come up to your knees.” They’re cool to look at, no doubt, and have a Harryhausen feel to them, but certain moments, particularly when they need to walk across the screen, are shockingly poor. Still, they’re loyal, and they free Radu, who kills his father rather easily and feasts on the blood of the fallen king.

The other MVP of the film is Karl, played by Ivan J. Rado, who would appear in a handful of notable films including the classic The Wild Bunch, Mask, Puppet Master II, and the magnificently awful Mac and Me. He’s a total badass who comes off as a grumpy, foreigner-hating caretaker but turns out to be a decent, flawed man who wishes to keep the peace between vampires and humans. He arms himself to the teeth for the fight against Radu. “Stakes carved from ancient oak. Spears carved from the heart of a black thorn tree. And this (picking up an axe)...for chopping off his head.” He even fills bullets with rosary beads. He reveals his imperfections: “I would have destroyed him myself but...I was afraid.” and he elaborates on the mythos of vampires: “There is good and evil among vampires, as there is among men.” His explanation of the Bloodstone working like a “drug” for Radu is also fascinating.

Hove is having a grand 'ol time and sells the hell out of his role as the monstrous Radu, particularly by using his long, spindly fingers. Nicolaou and Paunescu’s use of Nosferatu-inspired shadow work and simple scenes of Hove creeping through underground tunnels turn the relative lack of a high-budget into an advantage. The makeup process took 3 hours to apply, but it’s very much worth it. Rather than intricate CG effects which would almost certainly have been unconvincing, much of the magic is left to the viewer’s imagination. There’s also an excellent contrast between the dripping, gooey blood that hangs from Radu’s mouth and his pasty visage. There’s a messiness to the bloodletting which brings a welcome level of realism to the proceedings.

Utilizing local talent, there are a few large-scale sequences, most notably a festival scene where dozens of extras jump about in masks amidst the celebratory atmosphere. The film’s authentic locations have a lived-in quality and the stony castles and buildings evoke a more realistic depiction of the vampire legend rather than the wonderful but very phony Hollywood sets of the Universal films.

Everything culminates in an exciting but clumsily-edited finale. Lillian and Mara have been turned into vampires and Michele stupidly rushes out of the safe haven of a church after hearing Lillian’s call despite the fact that she just buried her dead friend a few hours before. There’s some gratuitous nudity, with Mara’s blouse torn to shreds but being absolutely dead set on not covering her breasts. Stefan and Radu unconvincingly duel with swords while Karl struggles with vampire Mara. In the end, the bad guys die and Radu gets it the worst, having a stake driven through his heart and then getting beheaded. Stefan and Michele are in love and he wasn’t able to stop Radu from biting her, meaning Stefan must finish her transformation or lose her forever. It’s an appropriate and even romantic ending as he closes her coffin. The subspecies devils show up at the last minute and begin to revive Radu before the credits.

Sporting a surprisingly strong but very synth-heavy score by a jaw-dropping four composers, Subspecies is all about atmosphere. The film represents a prime example of using real locations to enhance what should be a crude little low-budget horror film into something respectable. While the other leads aren’t particularly impressive, Hove’s iconic work as Radu and the solid supporting performances by Rado and Dumitrescu keep the story afloat. It’s a fine and clever take on a tired genre which needed the likes of Nicolaou and co. to give it a shot in the arm. Or rather, a bite in the arm.