The mysterious land of Transylvania, now a part of modern day Romania, has long been a staple for gothic horror. From the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the expressionist masterpiece of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, 1922), the landscape conjures up imagery of vampires, castles, and primitive superstition. With the end of the Second World War, Romania would be one of many countries to fall behind the iron curtain, and popular culture would carry on the romanticism associated with the isolated nation. It wasn’t until the fall of communism in the early 1990’s that the country would open its borders to American director Ted Nicolaou. The task before him was the first entry in a new series of vampire films entitled Subspecies (1991). This would be the first time an American film crew shot in Romania, and it marked a new chapter in the history of films associated with vampire lore. As one of the many titles distributed by Full Moon Studios, Subspecies had a guaranteed shelf life in video stores, not to mention several appearances on cable television. With so many vampire films that have come and gone throughout the years, the question becomes: “What makes this one so special?” There are a few mitigating factors that make Subspecies a unique entry in the canon, so let’s take a look at some things that go bump in the night…
As any real estate agent might tell you, the first is ‘location, location, location.’ Because the film was shot in Romania, there’s a pseudo authenticity that emanates from the scenery. While it’s not the first time gothic architecture and foreign landscapes have been staples for a film of this nature, there’s something about the old ruins and country roads that draws the viewer’s attention toward them. The mark of a good film is one that takes you on a journey, whether it’s unfamiliar territory or the deep recesses of your own mind. Subspecies takes place in a Transylvania where vampires are not only real, but also a necessity for maintaining the natural order of things. For a film that was released directly to video and referred to as ‘B movie’, it contains enough folklore that acknowledges the land in which it takes place in, and lays the foundation for a self-contained mythology of its own lore. A point that’s been made by others who have analyzed the film is that it doesn’t take itself completely seriously. To be completely honest, this is something I agree with wholeheartedly. While there is a serious tone to be found in the film, it doesn’t stifle itself with attempting to be bleak and dreary.
One criticism that gets leveled against Subspecies that I strongly disagree with is the overuse of many clichés found in other vampire movies. It’s an unfair assessment that borders on lazy thinking. While you sometimes get a movie like The Addiction (1995), with director Abel Ferrara exploring the need for the vampire to survive in an urban setting, there’s only so much that can be done with a story such as this. In short, crucial tropes and elements are bound to repeat themselves sooner or later. One of the best things about Subspecies is how the old methods are utilized in an updated timeframe. This is nowhere more apparent than taking a closer look at the films main antagonist, Radu Vladislas (Anders Hove). Max Shreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Klaus Kinski are all names synonymous with classic vampire portrayals. Living up to the standards set by these names is almost impossible, and a challenge for almost any actor. Donning the makeup and fangs, Danish actor Anders Hove accomplishes this task in droves. Although best known to American audiences as a Cesar Faison on the soap opera General Hospital, he shines as the undead prince of darkness. While Radu has an outward appearance similar to that of Nosferatu, he also possesses an updated wardrobe more akin to a character from The Lost Boys (1987). Hove somehow manages to channel the subtle movements of Max Schreck and impersonate the raspy voice of Kinski, all the while making the character his own. As the series progressed with sequels, Hove would be instrumental in adding more dimensions to the character, almost making him sympathetic. In particular, the introduction of a domineering mother makes him similar to Robert Graves’ interpretation of Tiberius from I, Claudius. From the very beginning, Radu establishes himself as an anti-hero as opposed to a villain you’re supposed to loathe. As the driving force behind the film, he’s a character fueled by ambition. Murdering his father King Vladislas (Angus Scrimm) for possession over the Bloodstone, a source of power, said to be addictive like a drug. Much like Graves’ celebrated work, the turmoil of an inner family struggle is introduced early on.
The secondary plot concerns an American student named Michelle Morgan (Laura Tate) and her friends, Lillian (Michelle McBride) and Mara (Irina Movila), who have come to the country to study Transylvanian folklore. While it’s the old cliché of students travelling abroad and finding themselves involved in a situation that’s all consuming, it’s through these characters that the film explores traditions carried out in present day Romania. As our trio goes about exploring their new surroundings, they encounter a traditional Romanian funeral and a celebration called the Festival of the Undead, which is loosely based in part on a custom emerging from the northern part of the country. As the group arrives at an old fortress to set up lodging, the film briefly ties itself to historical fact, mentioning some of the military campaigns against the Ottoman empire that took place in the 15th century. In the movies self-contained lore, it was the vampire who helped push back the Ottoman forces, thus necessitating the need for them to exist. This also connects the story with Vlad Dracul, father of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the fair. While it’s a smaller aspect to the greater whole of the story, it celebrates some of the cultural norms that are found in the country. Not to mention it shows its citizens as proud people who are steeped in tradition, and not a trembling group of villagers living in constant fear of what happens when the sun sets. While elements of xenophobia and superstition are certainly present, they reinforce the aura of the films location.
Three sequels would follow, Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993), Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994) and the series would conclude itself with Subspecies IV:Bloodstorm (1998). While certain liberties were taken with both continuity and tone, they’ve since become a staple for genre fans. Swedish black metal band Marduk would pay homage to the film on their 1998 album Nightwing, and there’s still rumors of a fifth entry in the series yet to be developed. Although more vampire movies are certain to emerge, and more creatures of the night will rise from the crypts, there will only be one Radu Vladislas.