One of the best games to play with history is the "what-if" game. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the original Constitution hadn't been ratified by all of the colonies? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed and gotten Jackie instead of Jack?
Now here's one: What if Charles Band hadn't had the bright idea of shooting Subspecies in Transylvania?
This was not only the first Full Moon movie shot on location in Romania; if was the first movie, period, to be shot there after the fall of the Communist regime. One might even credit Charles Band with rebuilding the Romanian film industry almost single-handedly.
The upshot of it all? Nowadays, at least every other Full Moon flick is shot in the same damned castle, with a handful of American actors and a crew of uniformly Romanian names.
Now, I can't begrudge Subspecies itself for this; the Transylvanian settings add much of the value to this film. But you can't help playing, "What if...?"
Anyway. Back to the beginning: In shadow-haunted Transylvania lives Vladislav, King of the Vampires (as played by Angus Scrimm, in the most godawful fright wig you ever did see). Vladislav is a kind and benevolent type, owing to the fact that he possesses the Bloodstone -- a Catholic relic from which miraculously flows the blood of the saints, thus giving vampires sustenance without the necessity of preying on the populace. (It looks like a half-melted cherry Popsicle in a Dixie cup.) Being that he's getting old, Vladislav wants to pass on the kingship, and the bloodstone, to his younger, half-human son, Stefan (Michael Watson) -- which raises the ire of the elder son, Radu (Danish actor Anders Hove), the weird-ass fruit of a union between Vladislav and a sorceress, who apparently wanted a "different" child. Well, bubba, she got it; Radu looks a lot like the classic Nosferatu (long, spidery fingers, the old-fashioned frock coat, pasty skin), with stringy hair, a warped face, and the impression that he smells like something you discover in the crawlspace under your house a month after you put down rat poison. He's also got one of the only faces that looks natural with prosthetic teeth in place (although moving them one in from the canines probably helped there). If, by the way, you want to know what Hove looks like without the latex, probably the easiest place to find his face in America is in Critters 4.
Have I gotten off-track? We're still in the first scene. Radu comes back home to claim his birthright, and gets himself caged by his own dad. But he has a, er, novel plan for escape: He breaks off the fingers on one hand! That's right, he snaps them off, and they fall to the floor, where they wriggle and transform into... tiny, red, demonic cow-looking things! These, you might surmise, are the subspecies of the title. They immediately run into the gears of the cage trap and release it, whereupon Radu knifes his dad in the gut. (A knife? You can use a knife against a vampire? Whoa.)
Okay. We cut to our sympathetic characters now -- three students come to study local folklore, two American girls and one native Romanian. They stay in on of the impressive historical fortresses associated with local vampire folklore, and meet Stefan, who's there in the guise of a zoologist studying Romanian "night life." That's not the only thing he studies; he's immediately smitten by Michele (Laura Tate), the short-haired brunette of the trio, and apparently the feeling is mutual.
Well, it doesn't take long before the girls get the standard warnings about the ruins at night, and end up attracting Radu's attention. Stefan acts as their protector, but without telling them what exactly they need to be on guard for, he can't very well keep them from hiking around for their researches. Lillian (Michelle McBride), the American blonde, gets a mysterious wound while reaching through a doorway in one old ruin, and starts to suffer from an (ahem) unusual form of anemia -- exacerbated by the fact that Radu creeps through her bedroom window nightly.
The centerpiece of the movie is the local festival of the undead, in which masked villagers parade through the cemetery, leading a white horse across the graves to detect the undead and ceremonially plunging stakes into the fresh earth above the recently deceased. The fact that the costume designer was a native Romanian helped this scene immensely; the masks are decidedly non-Western, and their counter-intuitive design and color helps the feeling of authenticity.
In fact, this movie exudes authenticity all over the place. The castles, fortresses, ruins, and such have immense visual authority, and enough of the real history of Romania is mixed into the proceedings to give the feel of verisimilitude. The Romanian extras (as well as Irina Movila, the native of the trio) also ground this tale in time and place.
That's not to say that there aren't major annoyances to be dealt with here, the Big'Un being the subspecies critters themselves. Aside from their not-terribly-frightening visages, they seem just plain irrelevant to the main action; thy show up in so few scenes, and contribute so little to the action, that you just can't see them as more than an irritating sidetrack. The VideoZone segment after the feature goes a long way toward explaining this: There had been oversized sets built in Romania, and local stuntmen in costumes had originally performed the parts of the subspecies, but director Ted Nicolaou was dissatisfied with the end product, and thus excised their footage from the finished product; instead, he and FX specialist David Allen had found film frames before or after the stuntmen entered and inserted their stop-motion and rod-puppet versions of the new subspecies design. (You can see the original subspecies footage in the VideoZone segment, as well as the original trailer for Subspecies, to be found at the beginning of The Pit and the Pendulum.) Gotta tell you, I think this was a mistake; the men-in-suits versions may have been no great shakes, but the inserted models just aren't as convincing. There are some horrendously matted scenes in which the subspecies walk across birghtly-lit floors with no shadows, their own red skin looking almost lavender due to lousy color correction. Plus, having to shoehorn these models back into the action after the fact, the scenes in which the subspecies can appear are necessarily truncated. They're almost edited out altogether.
To this we can add some nitpicky plot points, and a lighting effect that looks really cool, but causes giggles on reflection: Would Radu really have a coffin with a light source inside it so that he can cast nifty shadows as he rises nightly?
Not nearly as irritating, but still a flaw, is the general lack of urgency. It's not a lot of story to stretch out to feature length, and those gorgeous shots of Romanian castles can only work so often. Our hero and heroine are both fairly bland in comparison to Radu's stinky-looking histrionics, and ultimately none of the good guys (with the possible exception of fortress caretaker and erstwhile vampire hunter Karl (Ivan J. Rado)) really have us rooting for them.
My opinion of Ted Nicolaou has always been that he's a talented director who would really blossom in larger projects (despite the fact that he can't do comedy), but because for whatever reason he's stayed a member of the Full Moon stables, he has actually ended up doing smaller and smaller movies. It's a pity, although it does mean that the continuing Subspecies franchise hasn't suffered so badly as it might have.
In the final assessment, it's not a great movie, but it's a well-meant one, with a setting to recommend it. And it's place in the history of Full Moon cannot be downplayed. Indeed, what if...