Support Us!
Powered by
Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!



Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Long Live Radu: Why ‘Subspecies’ Still Soars as a Unique Vampire Movie Over 30 Years Later

Full Moon’s Subspecies is an interesting franchise. It started in 1991, right at the dawn of a decade that’s all-too-often considered to be a mixed bag of horror offerings, catering to the direct-to-video market that was booming at the time. Until now, with the release of Subspecies V: Bloodrise on SCREAMBOX June 2, there had not been an entry in this series since 1998, nor had there even really been much merchandise until the comic book miniseries by Cullen Bunn a few years ago; and yet the vampire franchise still persists as a cult classic.

Subspecies is a seminal vampire franchise, Radu has many loyal followers and that fandom has sustained for decades, with long, long stretches without anything to feed it. That is a true testament to the talents of writer/director Ted Nicolaou, original screenwriter David Pabian, and of course Anders Hove as the villainous Radu. The franchise has many rabid fans and people continue to discover it thanks to outlets like Full Moon Streaming and Amazon Prime. But its success, on one level, is both unlikely in that it could have been doomed to fail and predetermined in that both vampires and the video market were absolutely booming in the early ‘90s, when that fateful first movie was released.

One of the best things about Subspecies, though, is that it doesn’t look quite as cheap as it actually is because of its locations. The locations are often the standout stars of this series, and that’s true for the original most of all. The film was shot in Romania, the first modern vampire movie to actually shoot in Transylvania, and that does so much to provide the movie with a sense of place and an inherent mythology, as well as a general mood and atmosphere. The vampires work so much better when they are creeping around actual crumbling castles and dark forests. These are the sorts of locations so feverishly described in Dracula that had never so faithfully been depicted in cinema up to this point.

Shooting in Romania was also a relatively new concept at the time. Subspecies was the first Full Moon production to shoot in Romania and almost immediately after making it, Charles Band and producer Vlad Paunescu opened Castel Film Studio there, where a great many Full Moon productions would shoot throughout the ‘90s. Since Band’s time with the studio, films like Seed of Chucky, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and The Nun have shot there as well. So, in a way, another huge element of the success of Subspecies is that it led to the creation of a noteworthy studio where major productions are still shot to this day. 


But Subspecies, just on concept alone, was a perfect fit for a testing ground for a Romanian production. It was one of the few movies to shoot there that actually played to its location, something that it did exceptionally well. Centering on a group of grad students documenting local folklore, it was both an old and new exploration of vampires, perfectly embodied in its opposing undead brothers serving as the good and evil forces of the movie. Radu, our antagonist, is a classic vampire in the Nosferatu tradition, even a vampire torn from the pages of folklore. Like the vampires of legend, but much unlike vampires in entertainment of the time—especially in film—Radu is ghoulish to look at and distinctly un-subtle in virtually everything that he does.

It’s hard to say how many influences that went into the character of Radu are intentional, or how many are simply reflections of a long history of vampire cinema. Radu echoes many different vampires that have appeared on screen in the past century, as does the film itself. When he walks down a crumbling corridor, a silhouette with his shadow stretching out in front of him, it obviously brings to mind Murnau’s classic Nosferatu. Aspects of Hove’s performance as Radu, particularly the way he talks in a grating whisper, as if he is so dead that even using his lungs to speak is done with great difficulty, is reflective of Klaus Kinski’s Count in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake. And when Radu actually attacks the girls, drooling, biting, groping, definitely not charming or suave but rather animalistic and blunt, and shot without an ounce of expressionism or over-stylization, it looks much more like the vampire films of Jess Franco. It is these varied interpretations of vampires all being depicted at the same time that make Subspecies so special, and they are never more obvious than in the movie’s portrayal of its two brothers.

Stefan is a vampire for the ‘90s. He is a perfect vampiric hero for a time in which Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles were still at their peak. This was, after all, only three years before the highly anticipated Interview With the Vampire finally made it to the big screen. Here’s someone who, like Interview’s Louis, does not embrace being a vampire. It’s much more of a curse for him, something he’s constantly battling. He tries to do his best to appear human. While Radu sticks to the ruins of his castle and only leaves it to feed on the unsuspecting travelers, Stefan crafts a human persona for himself. He uses the alibi that he is staying at the abbey because, like the girls, he is a grad student, only he is studying nocturnal wildlife. Which is actually a great excuse for a vampire, and it’s surprising that no one had really used that up to this point.


Radu adheres to many of the classical folkloric vampire traditions. He lives in an old castle, he is a monstrous, often animalistic presence and clearly a being of pure evil. He can (supposedly) be killed by a stake to the heart, by burning, by decapitation, sunlight and is repelled by crosses and rosary, all of which are at least traditions of many Dracula adaptations and a couple of which originate in the novel itself. In addition to this, there is an historical significance to Radu’s own name. This was right around the time that Dracula films and TV shows were making clear connections between the fictional Count and the real Vlad III Dracula, Wallachian prince most infamously known as Vlad the Impaler. But Vlad also had a younger brother, named Radu.

When Vlad and Radu were sold to the Turks as a token of their father’s loyalty to the Turkish Empire, Radu became a favored child of the Sultan after Vlad was freed. The Sultan trained the boy to hate his own homeland, and when Vlad fought off the invading Turkish army during his reign as prince, it was none other than his little brother leading the Turkish troops as general. So even in historical context, the story of Radu is one defined by sibling rivalry and contempt.

The vampires that Radu creates all appear to be very similar to “classical” definitions as well, at least in literary terms. When Lillian and Mara are turned, they take on personas and appearances very similar to the Brides depicted in Stoker’s Dracula. Lillian calling Michelle outside even echoes dead Danny Glick appearing at Mark’s window in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. And the general aesthetic of the female vampires harkens back to both the Hammer era and even the cinema of Jess Franco. In short, these are very clearly classical, old-world vampires, though the inspirations are taken from many different sources.

Stefan, on the other hand, represents the Anne Rice vampire, the vampire that would also later on be popularized by Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and his self-titled spinoff). But this type of character had been around for some time, dating back at least to the conflicted Barnabas Collins of the Dan Curtis soap opera Dark Shadows. Gradually, vampires had been gaining a sense of morality—or at least melancholy—in pop culture. After Christopher Lee ended his run as the inherently evil Count Dracula, Frank Langella offered a much more romantic take, turning the Count into something more of an antihero. Jack Palance’s Dracula (again by Dan Curtis) also gave a more romanticized take by introducing a reincarnation plot that would go on to become a staple of future adaptations after being popularized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

While the vampires of Fright Night, Near Dark and The Lost Boys in the 1980s were still largely villainous, they each showed moments of genuine emotion and empathy. Both Evil Ed in Fright Night and David in The Lost Boys shed tears in their respective death scenes, and the victory in dispatching them is portrayed as largely bittersweet. In the 1980s, Anne Rice returned to the world of Interview With the Vampire to begin turning it into a series that centered on complex, morally ambiguous vampires with The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. Throughout the 1990s, that series grew exponentially both before and after the success of the film. On television, even before Buffy, viewers could watch a vampire play the hero in Forever Knight and Kindred: The Embraced, the TV adaptation of the popular role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade.


Like Stefan and Radu, these two kinds of vampires are often at odds with one another. They’re incredibly different and therefore don’t really mix. So it was somewhat innovative for Full Moon to include them both in the same film.

And yet, in perfectly Full Moon tradition, the film weaves together its own, wholly original vampire mythology as well. There are things that are lifted right out of history and legend and then there are completely new concepts that truly separate Subspecies as its own unique entity. Firstly, there’s the Bloodstone, the MacGuffin of the film and the franchise as a whole. This loosely defined relic is a perpetual source of blood, one which is said to drip the blood of the saints. Granted, which saints these might be is never explained. This is what drives the plot, but in some ways it often defines the sibling rivalry. Stefan, after all, does not want to be a vampire, at least not as much as Radu. After the vampires made peace with the local people, as is said in the film, it appears that their father, King Vladislas used it as his only source of blood.

The Bloodstone would completely prevent Stefan from having to take a life ever again. For a morally conscious vampire, it is a dream solution. Stefan has every reason to want it. And Radu, conversely, has absolutely no reason to want it as much as he does, save for its likely addictive qualities. He simply wants it because his brother wants it and because it represents a peaceful family legacy that he wishes to destroy.

The subspecies themselves don’t actually have much bearing on the plot. But they’re a distinctly Charles Band concept. One of Radu’s many powers is that he can remove his own fingers to create new minions to do his bidding. Although, in this movie at least, that bidding is not much more than moving the Bloodstone from place to place. Still, these creatures very much feel like Full Moon’s answer to Renfield, a very Band-ish reworking of the archetypal servant character and would almost be more fun to watch if it they had had the time to truly complete the effects.

The score—which is one of the most underrated horror film scores of all time—also echoes the juxtaposition of the gothic and romantic elements inherent in the story. Through much of the movie, especially when focused on Radu, the music is extremely sinister and moody. Yet there is also a love theme between Michelle and Stefan that is much more in keeping with the sort of Rice vampire that Stefan embodies.

By the end, again echoing The Vampire Chronicles, Subspecies sets up a sequel by teasing that Radu is still alive and turning Michelle into a vampire so that she can be easily introduced into the world of vampirism by Stefan. This is one reason why the original film stands out from the rest of the franchise, because that’s not what actually winds up happening. In the opening moments of the second movie, Stefan is unceremoniously killed in his coffin and the story—which was more centered on the two brothers in the first—now becomes about Michelle and her struggle to come to terms with being a vampire without Stefan by her side to guide her through it. To its credit, each entry picks up where the last left off, often with the same cast. In that respect, the Subspecies franchise is kind of Full Moon’s Phantasm.

On paper, Subspecies shouldn’t work even half as well as it does. Conceptually and thematically, it sounds far too ambitious for an early ’90s direct-to-video film, and even if the rough edges are more obvious in some moments than others, it feels twice as big as it is. This is a movie with both a sensitive, romantic vampire and a foul thing from the grave at its center, and the two wildly different kinds of vampires and their many inspirations are all blended seamlessly in this melting pot of vampire tropes and folklore. And they blend into each other, as well, which I think is key. There are moments when Stefan considers giving in to his hunger, or being overcome by his rage. Equally so, there are moments when you can glimpse the humanity in Radu, when his loneliness is clear, and his jealousy of the life Stefan got to have and he never did is made explicit. These moments with Radu, sparse as they are in the original, appear more and more throughout the series, until they pretty much become the very basis of Subspecies V.

With the arrival of that new movie, there’s no better time to revisit the original. It is one of the best vampire movies of its era. It is more ambitious and clever than I think it is given credit for, and because of that, it’s a minor miracle that it even exists at all.

Radu returns in Subspecies V: Bloodrise, on SCREAMBOX and Full Moon Features on June 2.

The post Long Live Radu: Why ‘Subspecies’ Still Soars as a Unique Vampire Movie Over 30 Years Later appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!