Subspecies is an interesting franchise. It started in 1991, right at the dawn of a decade that’s widely considered to be a mixed bag of horror offerings, catering to the direct-to-video market that was booming at the time. There has not been an entry in this series since 1998, nor has there even really been much merchandise until last year’s comic book revival, and yet it persists as something of a minor classic. While not the most well known or regarded vampire franchise, Radu has many loyal followers even now and the franchise has many rabid fans and people continue to discover it thanks to outlets like Full Moon Streaming and Amazon Prime. But its success, on one level, is both unlikely in that it could have been doomed to fail and predetermined in that both vampires and the video market were absolutely booming in the early ‘90s.
One of the best things about Subspecies, though, is that it doesn’t look quite as cheap as it actually is because of its locations. The film was shot in Romania, the first modern vampire movie to actually shoot in Transylvania at the time, and that does so much to provide the movie with a sense of place and inherent mythology, as well as a general mood and atmosphere. The vampires work so much better when they are creeping around actual crumbling castles and dark, vast forests. These are the sorts of locations so feverishly described in Dracula that had never really been cinematically depicted up to this point.
Shooting in Romania was also a relatively new concept at the time and one that Full Moon was one of the pioneers of. Charles Band opened a studio there after a few films were shot in Eastern Europe, beginning with Subspecies as a sort of testing ground. Low-budget movies would continue to shoot there due to the low production costs into the 2000s, until big budget studios caught on. Once films like Underworld and Eurotrip began shooting in Romania, it was impossible for low budget DTV companies to keep up.
But Subspecies, just on concept alone, was a perfect fit for a testing ground for Romanian production. It was one of the few movies to shoot there that actually played to its location, something that it did exceptionally well. Centering on a group of grad students documenting local folklore, it was both an old and new exploration of vampires, perfectly embodied in its opposing undead brothers serving as the good and evil forces of the movie. Radu, our antagonist, is a classic vampire in the Nosferatu tradition, even a vampire torn from the pages of folklore. Like the vampires of legend, but much unlike vampires of the time—especially in film—Radu is ghoulish to look at and distinctly un-subtle in virtually everything that he does.
Stefan, meanwhile, is a vampire for the ‘90s. He is a perfect vampiric hero for a time in which Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles were still at their peak. This was, after all, only three years before the highly anticipated Interview With the Vampire finally made it to the big screen. Here’s someone who, like Interview’s Louis, does not embrace being a vampire. It’s much more of a curse for him, something he’s constantly battling. He wants to do his best to appear human. While Radu sticks to the ruins of his castle and only leaves it to feed on the unsuspecting travelers, Stefan crafts a human persona for himself. He uses the alibi that he is staying at the abbey because, like the girls, he is a grad student, only he is studying nocturnal wildlife. Which is actually a great excuse for a vampire, and it’s surprising that no one had really used that up to this point.
Radu adheres to many of the classical folkloric vampire traditions. He lives in an old castle, he is a monstrous, often animalistic presence and clearly a being of pure evil. He can be killed by a stake to the heart, by burning, by decapitation, sunlight and is repelled by crosses and rosary, all of which are at least traditions of many Dracula adaptations and a couple of which originate in the novel itself. In addition to this, there is an historical significance to Radu’s own name. This was right around the time that Dracula films and TV shows were making clear connections between the fictional Count and the real Vlad III Dracula, Wallachian prince most infamously known as Vlad the Impaler. But Vlad also had a younger brother, named Radu.
When Vlad and Radu were sold to the Turks as a token of their father’s loyalty to the Turkish Empire, Radu stayed as a favored child (in all the horrific connotations one could imagine) of the Sultan after Vlad was freed. The Sultan trained the boy to hate his own homeland, and when Vlad fought off the invading Turkish army during his reign as prince, it was none other than his brother leading the Turkish troops as general. So even in historical context, the story of Radu is one defined by sibling rivalry and contempt.
The vampires that Radu creates all appear to be very similar to “classical” definitions as well. When Lillian and Sarah are turned, they take on personas very similar to the Brides depicted in Stoker’s Dracula. Lillian calling Michelle outside even echoes parts of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. And the general aesthetic of the female vampires harkens back to both the Hammer era and even the cinema of Jess Franco. In short, these are very clearly classical, old-world vampires, though the inspirations are taken from many different sources.
Stefan, on the other hand, represents the Anne Rice vampire, the vampire that would also later on be popularized by Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and his self-titled spinoff). But this type of character had been around for some time, dating back at least to the conflicted Barnabas Collins of the Dan Curtis soap opera Dark Shadows. Gradually, vampires had been gaining a sense of morality—or at least melancholy—in pop culture. After Christopher Lee ended his run as the inherently evil Count Dracula, Frank Langella offered a much more romantic take, turning the Count into something more of an antihero. Jack Palance’s Dracula (again by Dan Curtis) also gave a more romanticized take by introducing a reincarnation plot that would go on to become a staple of future adaptations after being popularized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.
While the vampires of Fright Night, Near Dark and The Lost Boys in the 1980s were still largely villainous, they each showed moments of genuine emotion and empathy. Both Evil Ed in Fright Night and David in The Lost Boys shed tears in their respective death scenes, and the victory in dispatching them is portrayed as largely bittersweet. In the 1980s, Anne Rice returned to the world of Interview With the Vampire to begin turning it into a series that centered on complex, morally ambiguous vampires with The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. Throughout the 1990s, that series grew exponentially both before and after the success of the film. On television, even before Buffy, viewers could watch a vampire play the hero in Forever Knight and Kindred: The Embraced, the TV adaptation of a popular role-playing game of the time.
Like Stefan and Radu, these two kinds of vampires are often at odds with one another. They’re incredibly different and therefore don’t really mix. So it was somewhat innovative for Full Moon to include them both in the same film.
And yet, in perfectly Full Moon tradition, the film weaves together its own, wholly original vampire mythology as well. There are things that are lifted right out of history and legend and then there are completely new concepts that truly separate Subspecies as its own unique entity. Firstly, there’s the Bloodstone, the McGuffin of the film and the franchise as a whole. This loosely defined relic is a perpetual source of blood, one which is said to drip the blood of the saints. Granted, which saints these might be is never explained. This is what drives the plot, but in some ways it often defines the sibling rivalry. Stefan, after all, does not want to be a vampire, at least not as much as Radu. After the vampires made peace with the local people, it appears that their father, King Vladislas used it as his only source of blood.
The Bloodstone would completely prevent Stefan from having to take a life ever again. For a morally conscious vampire, it is a dream solution. Stefan has every reason to want it. And Radu, conversely, has absolutely no reason to want it as much as he does, save for its likely addictive qualities. He simply wants it because his brother wants it and because it represents a peaceful family legacy that he wishes to destroy.
The subspecies themselves don’t actually have much bearing on the plot. But they’re a distinctly Charles Band concept. One of Radu’s many powers—while not explicitly explained, he has more than a normal vampire because his mother was a witch—is that he can remove his own fingers to create new minions to do his bidding. Although, in this movie at least, that bidding is not much more than moving the Bloodstone from place to place. Still, these creatures very much feel like Full Moon’s answer to Renfield, a very Band-ish reworking of the archetypal servant character and would almost be more fun to watch if it they had had the time to truly complete the effects.
The score—which is one of the most underrated horror film scores of all time—also echoes the juxtaposition of the gothic and romantic elements inherent in the story. Through much of the movie, especially when focused on Radu, the music is extremely sinister and moody. Yet there is also a love theme between Michelle and Stefan that is much more in keeping with the sort of Rice-ian vampire that Stefan embodies.
By the end, again echoing The Vampire Chronicles, Subspecies sets up a sequel by teasing that Radu is still alive and turning Michelle into a vampire so that she can be easily introduced into the world of vampirism by Stefan. This is one reason why the original film stands out from the rest of the franchise, because that’s not what actually winds up happening. In the opening moments of the second movie, Stefan is unceremoniously killed in his coffin and the story—which was more centered on the two brothers in the first—now becomes about Michelle and her struggle to come to terms with being a vampire without Stefan by her side to guide her through it. To its credit, each entry picks up where the last left off, often with the same cast. In that respect, the Subspecies franchise is more or less Full Moon’s Phantasm.
With the second movie beginning a new arc that continues throughout the franchise, many people prefer it—and sometimes even 3 and 4—to the first. But I think the original movie is smarter than its given credit for, and even its more unpolished B-Movie moments feel like a perfect love-letter to the likes of Franco and Rollin. It weaves together old and new vampire themes to create a minor classic franchise, something that maybe not everyone has seen, but is often cherished by the ones who have.