Everyone has a cinematic guilty pleasure — the movies you know are really not great, but you love them anyway. For me, it is terrible vampire movies. Their low-budget earnestness often delivers more of what I want out of a vampire movie than any of the big name offerings seem to manage. And, more importantly, they are just plain fun. So, with “fun” as our codeword, here is the inaugural entry in our Terrible Vampire Movies column.
We’re starting with one of my (apologies to Chloe) personal favorites: Ted Nicolaou’s Subspecies.
There are apparently four — soon to be five — movies in this series, but I won’t drag you all that far down the rabbit hole. We will be focusing on the original 1991 film, which I trot out for viewing every October like clockwork. The leaves turn orange, and I have a Pavlovian need to watch it. The basic premise of Subspecies is classic horror movie fare: three folklore students working on their Masters theses come to the small Romanian village of Prejnar to study local vampire stories, only to discover that there is more truth to the legends than expected. So far, pretty much as expected, right? Well, buckle up, friends — it’s going to get a little weird.
The movie opens with an elderly vampire drinking blood from a strange glass vial that never seems to empty. This, we will later learn, is the Bloodstone; a mysterious holy relic somehow filled with the blood of all the saints, able to keep the vampire sated forever. Quite a concept, really. Soon, his son Radu — who is blatantly the villain from the moment he arrives, in all his scenery-chewing glory — comes to challenge him. Although his father attempts to imprison him, Radu breaks off his fingers, which grow into small minions that help him escape. Radu kills his father, and takes control of both his castle and the Bloodstone.
From here, we jump into the main drama of the movie. Michelle and Lillian — American grad students — are met at the train by their friend Mara, a Romanian citizen who attends college with them. The three women head off to Prejnar, where they are staying at a former medieval monastery that was the site of a much-storied battle with the Turks. According to local legend, a vampire saved the town by slaughtering the Turkish army that had been laying siege to the fortress. In exchange for their help, and a promise to not harm the local population, the vampire was gifted the Bloodstone. Every year since, the village has held a small festival in celebration of their salvation. The story and the festival are the reason for their visit, and apparently an integral part of their (never really discussed) theses.
The monastery’s caretaker, Karl, is rather taciturn, but he tells them a bit about the battle, and also that the only other guest currently in residence is a young man named Stefan. They are unlikely to see much of Stefan, as he is studying the nocturnal creatures in the woods nearby. As you may have guessed, Stefan is also a vampire. Don’t worry, though — he’s a nice vampire; Radu’s younger half-brother, the result of their father’s romance with a local human woman many generations previously.
[From here, my description is going to spoil the rest of the movie. I’ll be brief, so if you want to skip ahead, feel free.]
Over the course of their research, the girls (naturally) get caught up in the power struggle between the two brothers. Lillian and Mara both become Radu’s victims. Radu, realizing that Michelle is the true focus of his brother’s affections, kidnaps her with the intention of turning her into a vampire as well. This scene really double down on the rapey undertones of vampirism in a way that is both interesting and really uncomfortable to watch. Stefan does manage to stake and behead Radu, but he has already bitten Michelle. Rather than risk turning into a creature like Radu, she begs Stefan to turn her into a vampire like himself instead. He agrees.
The movie ends with the tiny minion-creatures collecting Radu’s head, which laughs evilly.
[End of spoilers]
We are going to take a moment here to appreciate how much I love the makeup design for Radu (played with wonderful, raspy-voiced malice by Anders Hove). His creepy elongated fingers are a great factor in and of themselves, but combined with the interesting use of pallor and facial prosthetics, he makes for a very memorable vampire. And, he is one of the few vampires whose feeding is truly disgusting. It is messy, wet, and very clearly both a violation and am act of parasitism. He’s disturbing, and awful. I love him as a villain; and Stefan as a hero pales somewhat in comparison. Sorry, Stefan.
Subspecies does have the dubious distinction of being the first American-made movie filmed in Romania. It certainly would lose a great deal of its charm without the distinct atmosphere offered by the location. In an interview with VideoFugue, Nicolaou recalled:
[David Pabian and Charlie Band] asked me if I wanted to go to Romania and I was sort of up for an adventure. In June of that year I went over to Bucharest and the producer, Ion Ionescu who was an expatriate Romanian, had a villa on Lake Snagov which is kind of where all the former securitate officers used to live. And he introduced me to Vlad Paunescu who was the director of photography, and his girlfriend who later became his wife, Oana Tofan who became the costume designer. And Vlad did not speak any English at the time, but Oana spoke English and so she would translate between us. And I really liked them, and eventually they took me all over Bucharest, to restaurants and theaters, kind of introduced me to the artistic life of Bucharest. And I love them for that. They took me all over Romania to scout locations, too, and the locations we were able to access were spectacular, for the budget. Basically, when I came back to the United States, I told Charlie “Yeah, I’ll go do it” so they sent me over around September of that year. And it was a freaking nightmare of a shoot.VideoFugue, Sept 1, 2017
It would seem that they were more or less given free reign of the woods and ruins in the area of the shoot, and they certainly lend the movie a great deal of its spooky vibe and feeling of authenticity — even if you will never see them at night. Bearing in mind their low budget, and the fact that this movie was filmed within a year of Ceaușescu’s fall, I think we can give them a pass on the daylight shots. Characters clue you in to the lateness of the hour with dialogue, so just use your imagination! There are a few actually dark scenes, largely filmed on a soundstage in Bucharest, but there is something really fun in the use of the actual mountains, woods, and castles of the area around Brasov. I truly cannot imagine this movie without the visual feel of the scenery. You can smell the ozone and dried leaves of autumn when you look at it.
There are certainly plenty of inconsistencies in the film. As mentioned, the night/day split is not always clear. The timeline feels a little collapsed. But, overall, it is far more coherent than many of its contemporaries. And, if nothing else, I really like Michelle, Mara, and Karl.
One of the biggest question marks, quite honestly, is the point and purpose of the eponymous subspecies. They are introduced in the first scene, offer some minimal help to their creator, and are then largely forgotten for most of the rest of the movie. Even when they reappear (in the dungeon with Mara, and then to collect Radu’s head in the final shot), they don’t particularly offer much. In an interview on the podcast Moose’s Monster Mash, Ted Nicolaou said: “I have to admit, even though it will upset people who like the film, I was not a big fan of the little minions.”
Personally, I am less upset than relieved.
Nicolaou admitted that the minions were part of the original imagery on the poster, and part of the pitch for the film; but no one was entirely sure what to do with them. When he brought that up with Charlie Band, he was told that the uniqueness of the subspecies was how he sold the idea of the film, so it was expected and they better just work around it. Which is definitely how the minions are treated in the original — as a bit of a work around. Their role becomes more integrated in the sequels, though it’s still an odd device.
Intriguingly, the minions ate up quite a bit of time and budget as well. The original plan for filming was to use a forced perspective of size, using oversized sets and stuntmen in costumes. Large versions of the dungeon, the Bloodstone, and other necessary sets and props were prepared on the soundstage in Budapest. Scaffolding was rigged so that they could film from a high angle. Prosthetic costumes were made. And the final result was deemed to be utterly ridiculous. The mind boggles at how bad it must have been to get that label. So, in an eleventh-hour change, they brought in David Allen (a visual effects artist, and student of Ray Harryhausen, who is still well-known for his work on films like Clash of the Titans) to do the stop-motion creatures who populate the final product. They do have a classic movie feel, which adds a certain charm, but I largely agree with Ted Nicolaou’s original assessment.
There’s also something to be said for how much I love characters who are aware of the type of story they’re in. By having our heroines be students of vampire folklore, they comment on the story cycle, on the things they’ve been led to expect. Given that vampire movie fans tend to like vampire stories (go figure), it makes them entry-point characters without flattening them to featureless avatars. It’s an enjoyable bit of meta that in no way saves them.
My favorite part, I have to say, is when Michelle and Mara attend the village’s vampire festival. The design of the masks and costumes draw wonderfully from folk tradition, and are both beautiful and creepy. It is one of the few truly nighttime scenes, so the lighting is some of the best horror movie lighting you get in the whole film. And, importantly, it has a wonderful, frantic energy to it that borders on the bacchanal. That animation, juxtaposed with Radu’s slow and deliberate movement, makes for a truly creepy scene.
All of this boils down to say: it’s a fun movie. Not perfect, but it does not need to be. It offers a good mix of camp and creep, some solid performances, and a lot of good visuals. It doesn’t try to take itself too seriously, which helps, but still does its best to offer a satisfying narrative — and it delivers, if you don’t go in expecting it to be a big budget film. It’s one of those movies that I enjoy beyond what I can readily explain.
To my delight, jumping onto Rotten Tomatoes showed Subspecies’ current rating as 83% fresh. The general consensus seems to be that it’s nonsense, but unique and fun to watch. I agree completely. So, if you’re looking for a good way to spend an October evening with friends: pop some popcorn, crack open a beer, and put on this movie. You’ll have a blast.
An aside: According to his IMDb page, Ted Nicolaou currently has forty-five directorial credits. He wrote nineteen of them, including the Subspecies sequels. A quick perusal of the list shows a lot of direct-to-video horror, and — intriguingly — a smattering of kids’ movies and westerns. Full disclosure: I have only ever seen Subspecies. But I think I might need to track down Dracula the Impaler (2002) and The Etruscan Mask (2007). An additional fun fact: it would seem that Nicolaou’s start in movies came by working as a sound recordist for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Cult horror has always been his roots!