I can’t say Subspecies made a large impression on me as a kid discovering Full Moon Features for the first time.
In retrospect, I’d argue that the best of Full Moon Features’ catalog usually comes from original, standalone features, rather than their various different franchises. Re-Animator (which I know did have sequels, but they weren’t from Full Moon or Empire) is one of them. Dolls, Head of the Family, or The Creeps are ones I would also single out.
All the same, Full Moon wouldn’t be Full Moon without series’ like Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, Killjoy, Trancers, Evil Bong, Subspecies and Gingerdead Man (for better and for worse).
For me, Subspecies and Trancers always felt like they were the black sheep of the Full Moon franchises.
They aren’t that different, if taken as standalone movies, but it’s the fact they become enduring franchises that did it. In the early days, Full Moon Features went into some weird places. It is actually one of the most endearing qualities of their filmography. Trancers by itself, or Subspecies by itself, would feel at home with the rest of the catalog. The fact that both received half a dozen entries (if pairing the four Subspecies films with their spin-offs Vampire Journal and both Decadent Evils), however, is enough to raise a few eyebrows though.
I can wrap my head around a dozen Evil Bong movies, simply because I know Charles Band uses it as a vehicle to peddle stoner-themed merchandise, and that same train of thought applies to other brands he keeps on with.
But what’s the appeal of Subspecies?
I revisited Subspecies with an open mind.
The film was directed by Ted Nicolaou, a director whose handiwork can be seen throughout Full Moon Features’ filmography – beyond the rest of the Subspecies main series, Ted still directs movies for Full Moon today, with a background that dates all the way back to Charles Band’s former company Empire.
There are a lot of little things to love about the film – it was shot on location in Romania and utilized stop motion and rod puppet techniques as a way to achieve the unique look and feel desired for the titular creatures.
The idea of a Gothic, old fashioned vampire film plays to the wheelhouse of Full Moon as well. The aesthetic of films like The Pit and the Pendulum and Castle Freak feels like it can seamlessly be applied to such a concept.
Ironically, Charles Band actually owns a castle in Italy that was used for them but not Subspecies.
In Subspecies, a vampire named Radu Vladislas murders his father in order to claim possession of the Bloodstone, a stone that claims to drip the blood of the saints. On the human side, three college women come to Romania to gather research on a study they’re conducting on the city of Prejmer and the superstition surrounding it. As the women find themselves in Radu’s cross-hairs, his brother Stefan seeks to stop him.
Straightaway, I will say that Subspecies may be a little bit of an acquired taste as a film.
The film is ripe, and I do mean ripe, with cliches. They are absolutely spilling out of this film. The cinematography is chilly and glib, filled with all the classic parlor tricks, and the score is ghastly and melancholic, amounting to what I can only describe as “very Dracula-y”. If you are buying what they’re selling, which is neither unique nor wholly original, it’s a charming throwback. I personally particularly liked the score of the film and would consider it among the best parts of the film, even if I recognize it as cliched and derivative.
The special effects leave a little to be desired. I am always happy when I am able to write that a film uses puppetry and stop-motion effects, but it isn’t always as good in theory as it is in practice. The creatures, which are more or less minions for Radu to lead, unfortunately, add little to nothing to the film, and, in fact, I’d argue their execution even sullies the film because of how off they look in certain scenes in the film (the opening scene when they’re introduced being a prime example).
The acting isn’t the best. The delivery is stilted at the best of times and the dialogue, too, can feel self-important or melodramatic. In its own way, this does fit the tone of the film – reminding me a little of an old Hammer horror.
It isn’t without its Full Moon sensibilities, also. The brother Stefan strikes a romance with one of the lead women in the film, but it is unearned and under cooked. After one conversation, acquaintances of Stefan are claiming how he has ‘fallen in love with a mortal’ and all this, and it comes off like we’re missing crucial bits of why they feel that way. Full Moon likes doing this a lot, but usually it isn’t as noticeable because the film is campier. Something else Full Moon likes is full-frontal nudity. This film has it, and it does so in a way that feels so arbitrary that it actually lends a bit of unintentional humor to the film.
By the end, I would summarize my thoughts on the first Subspecies film by saying I appreciate it, but I don’t particularly care for it. The music is thematic and atmospheric, as is the actual cinematography (there are some actual good shots in the film), but somewhere between the acting and the story itself, it makes for a humdrum, even tedious experience. It is over in an hour and a half, but it does not fly by. Still, it is competently made and I appreciate Full Moon Features trying to make something, maybe, a little more grandiose.