Review by Nia Edwards-Behi
I confess to not being particularly familiar with Charles Band’s body of work. I know I’ve seen a Puppet Master film, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you which one. All I know is that I didn’t like it, but I can’t remember why I didn’t like it, which is possibly even more indicative of my stupendous indifference to such a prolific genre producer. So, when Subspecies and Subspecies II: Bloodstone showed up in my post box for reviewing I wasn’t exactly enthused. Let this be a lesson to us all about making assumptions about films, shall we? Subspecies is frankly a bit ace, and only somewhat marred by its significantly inferior sequel.
Subspecies follows three students as they study folklore in Romania. Through their studies they find themselves embroiled in a blood feud between step-brothers Radu and Stefan, both vampires, one evil, and one benevolent. Radu has previously killed his father in order to gain possession of the Bloodstone, a mysterious artefact said to drip with the blood of the saints. Stefan befriends the girls, and as they become more familiar with local myths and tales, Radu begins to target the girls. Stefan tries to protect them, which only further agitates his brother. The three students find themselves at the centre of a violent, mythical conflict, and not all of them will escape it alive.
Now, the premise doesn’t sound necessarily promising, but in execution the film is actually quite impressive. Yes, it’s full of vampire clichés and ponderous dialogue, but there’s something quite convincing about the film. I’ve no doubt that this is down to the location shooting in Romania. The sense of authenticity is present throughout the film, so the artifice of the dialogue or stop-motion blood monsters never fully distracts from the story world. Buying into that story world is perhaps made easier because the film bothers to set up a legitimate reason for the girls being in Romania in the first place. Although it seems that more attention is paid to the vampire brothers, at least in synopsis and publicity for the film, the three girls, Michelle, Lillian and Mara, are the film’s protagonists. They’re surprisingly likeable, and within the confines of the story are fairly active as characters that could quite easily have been eye candy and little else. This does make the film’s weakest aspect – the shoe-horned romance – all the weaker. However, this being a vampire film the shoe-horned romance is inevitable, and the film makes up for it by being pretty dark in some of its other aspects. We grow to like many of characters, and very few of them make it to the end of the film.
There are some quite specific references to a certain heritage in Subspecies that, while really quite obvious, are welcome nods to a broader history to cinematic vampires. This is clearest in the design of Radu’s make-up, making the nefarious sibling resemble a rock star Count Orlock. The references to Nosferatu don’t stop there, with some expressionistic stair climbing throwing back to Murnau, and the make-up design and some of the feeding scenes recalling Herzog’s Nosferatu in a very overt way. Radu even has something of the Gary-Oldman-in-Coppola’s-Dracula about him, though Subspecies precedes the more ‘prestigious’ film by a year or so. The brothers Radu and Stefan really do crystalise those two sides to the vampire coin – animalistic monster, or Byronic hero. Given the major successes that would follow soon after (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with the Vampire), Stefan’s triumph at the film’s end makes for quite the inadvertent metatextual prediction.
The relatively clichéd ending of the film – human girl must be turned vampire by her lover – is flipped right on its head at the start of the sequel, Subspecies II: Bloodstone, which is impressive in that regard. However, the film is, overall, a massive disappointment, featuring almost everything that I had mistakenly expected of the first. Repetitive, dull plotting, gratuitous nudity and flat characters make for a truly disappointing sequel. Not even the deranged witch ‘Mummy’ – Radu’s mother – can save the film, entertaining though she is. Bizarrely the film does, mercifully, manage to fly by, despite being 20 minutes longer than its predecessor (either that or I really did stop paying attention). Perhaps the sequel suffered in my experience of viewing it – having so unexpectedly enjoyed the first film – so it might well be quite fun on its own terms. I also admit that the film did perhaps lose me completely at its gratuitous shower scene, barely 15 minutes into the film. There’s much to technically commend about the film, I suppose, the practical effects being quite impressive, but I’d quite like those effects to hang off an entertaining narrative, if not necessarily a lucid or original one.
The disappointment of Subspecies II doesn’t stir the slightest interest in me for the remaining instalments of the series, but then, neither does it detract from the enjoyment of the first film. Subspecies is impressive low-budget and independent filmmaking which displays a respectful awareness of the genre in which it places itself. Well-worth watching or revisiting, Subspecies might even convince me to rethink some other Charles Band productions… maybe.
The Subspecies movies are out now on Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray from 88 Films.