Chris Jordan examines Full Moon Entertainment's early-'90s vampire saga, Subspecies.
Following the success of 1989’s Puppet Master, Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment rapidly grew into a straight-to-video horror and sci-fi powerhouse during 1990. They made four films that year – three originals called Shadowzone, Crash and Burn, and Meridian, plus the inevitable Puppet Master II – all while cultivating a highly recognizable style and brand. Then, as 1991 began, Full Moon decided to launch another ongoing franchise. They looked to the example of movie history’s most iconic horror studio, Hammer Film Productions, and created their own gothic vampire saga in homage to that legacy. Thus, Subspecies was born. Like Puppet Master, this franchise would continue once Full Moon broke away from Paramount and became a lower-budgeted independent studio, with five films ultimately being made in the series. But for now let’s focus on the original trilogy, made during the prime of the Paramount/Full Moon period. While this trilogy never quite reached the level of cultural ubiquity that the Puppet Master films did, they are hands-down the better movies, and arguably are the pinnacle of Full Moon’s early reign as the kings of straight-to-video horror.
- Subspecies (1991)
|"Pardon me, is this the audition for the|
Ray Harryhausen movie?"
Subspecies set out to do something arguably more ambitious than anything Full Moon had tried so far: to recapture the rich atmosphere and gothic splendor of the classic Hammer Dracula films within the constraints of a straight-to-video budget. To do this, Charles Band made the decision to shoot the film on location in Romania; the first production to do so since the country’s recent revolution. While apparently it was a pretty rough shoot full of logistical problems and cultural clashes, it worked. The authentic castle and crypt locations lend Subspecies an eerie, atmospheric power that really sets it apart. It still has its share of flaws – going on location likely ate a lot of the production’s money, and its low budget is evident elsewhere – but it is probably one of 1991’s strongest straight-to-video productions.
The film follows a trio of anthropology grad students who visit Romania to study the folklore of vampires, and become the targets of a monstrous vampire warlord and his demonic minions. The story is steeped in classic vampire lore, and pays homage to several classic tales from the genre’s roots. The crumbling old castle that is the film’s central location brings back memories of Dracula, and the grad students even discuss the origins of the Count Dracula legend with the locals. The vampire warlord, Radu, is a Nosferatu-style beast with long, spindly fingers and a pale, almost skeletal face. The film even takes a few pages from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles with its brooding, tortured-romantic vampire hero, Stefan, who helps the grad students in their struggle. Some reviewers have used this evidence to write Subspecies off as a cliché compilation of genre tropes, but I would argue that it is a very deliberate pastiche; an attempt to revamp classic vampire lore for the ‘90s.
The film’s story accomplishes this quite well, creating some twists on the lore and some mythology of its own, and a very strong villain with a unique identity. The raspy-voiced Radu (played by Danish actor Anders Hove) may look and move like Nosferatu, but his brand of scheming villainy is something different. Also different is his army of Ghoulies-style imp-like minions, claymation creations of Puppet Master effects artist David Allen. However, while the story provides some fresh takes on the formula, the script does not set itself apart nearly as much. The dialogue can be clunky and wooden, and the script doesn’t always move with the momentum that it should. The first half in particular is a bit too slow, although it builds to a much stronger third act. The locations, atmosphere, and lore do quite a bit to compensate for this, but the first chunk of the film is nonetheless clearly flawed.
The performances are equally uneven, with several actors being nearly as wooden as their stakes. Laura Tate is the strongest of the bunch, giving a likable performance as smart and resourceful grad student Michelle. Her two fellow researchers don’t stand out very much. As the mysterious and heroic Stefan, Michael Watson is effective but unspectacular, and clearly shows his roots as a soap opera actor. Imagine an early-90s soap version of Joss Whedon’s Angel character, with the same black trench coat, perpetual brooding, and perfect hair, but without Whedon’s great writing; that’s Stefan.
|"I'm going to open the Hellmouth, and there's|
nothing you and your perfect hair can do
to stop me!"
Fortunately, the leanings towards soap-opera-style acting work because of how strongly the film embraces genre archetypes; or at the very least, it is consistent enough with the overall goth-opera tone. The whole film, and everyone involved, is also just tongue-in-cheek enough to sell the more obvious low-budget flaws, both in acting and effects. There’s a slight air of camp to the Hammer-throwback atmosphere that is both a lot of fun in its own right, and allows a higher suspension of disbelief. This is especially fortunate for the effects used to bring Radu’s miniature minions to life. David Allen’s claymation is extremely cool, and charmingly retro, but the matte work used to integrate the monsters into their scenes is sometimes really bad. Only occasionally do the creatures actually look convincingly like they’re in the locations; they usually just look like nifty stop-motion effects done in front of a green screen. It’s a good thing that Radu is a strong enough in-the-flesh villain to steal the scenes back from them.
Subspecies is certainly a film with some flaws, but it’s also very enjoyable despite those flaws, and is ultimately quite strong for a straight-to-video movie. It picks up steam along the way, and delivers a very good last act that realizes the film’s potential. This is definitely one to check out. It’s a much better film than the original Puppet Master, and ultimately is probably the quintessential early Full Moon flick. And it only gets better from here, as the young studio improves and moves forward, and does a much better job than they did with Puppet Master II at growing a solid franchise.
- Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993)
Full Moon knew they had something special with Subspecies: a pulp-gothic horror saga that could grow into something with greater potential than just another straight-to-video series, if they handled it right. So when it came time to make the inevitable follow-up, they learned from the mistakes of Puppet Master II, and took their time rather that just rushing out a flawed film while the iron was still hot. Over the next two years they rallied a better script and better resources, and made a sequel that successfully improves upon the first. Bloodstone: Subspecies II is probably the best film that Full Moon ever produced, and is certainly the best-looking and most polished.
|"I hate it when I can't open the Capri Sun!"|
In just about every way, Bloodstone takes the flawed potential of its predecessor and fully realizes it. The script it better, and the film is much better paced, moving with a strong, suspenseful momentum from the very first scene. The location shooting is just as strong, and the film has a higher budget that allows the rest of the visuals to match. And crucially, while Puppet Master II was largely unrelated to its predecessor plot-wise, Subspecies II is a direct continuation of the first film’s plot, building it into a horror serial with large-scale narrative ambitions, and just the right touch of camp.
Picking up almost immediately where the first film left off, Bloodstone continues Michelle’s quest to break free from Radu’s spell and stop him from gaining power over the vampire realm. Some new characters are added to the ensemble – like Michelle’s sister, played by Melanie Shatner (yes, that Shatner) – but the primary focus is on developing the antagonistic dynamic between Michelle and Radu. The action shifts from Radu’s spooky old castle to the city of Bucharest, and the city’s juxtaposition of modern downtown and ancient architecture gives the film a rich and ethereal atmosphere.
The cinematography and moody lighting design paired with the real-life sights of Bucharest are both eerie and beautiful; a perfect starting point for the film’s strong visuals. Unlike the first film, the locations are not the biggest things that Bloodstone’s visuals have going for them: the special effects this time are exponentially better. The opening scene is a fantastic effects set-piece that feels almost like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it proudly announces the degree to which this sequel has upped its game. Even Radu looks better this time around, with his ghoulish makeup impressively overhauled. The first Subspecies looked good for a straight-to-video film; Subspecies II looks like it could have been released in theaters.
|"When is the Bauhaus show? I'm supposed to|
meet David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve."
One odd difference between the two films is the re-casting of the central role of Michelle, with Laura Tate replaced by Denice Duff. She’s good in the role, and grows into it more as the film goes on, but she feels like a noticeably different, weaker character. This Michelle too frequently resorts to acting panicked and afraid, while the first film’s Michelle was self-reliant and cool under pressure. This change is partly understandable in the context of the story, but often she isn’t very believable as the same person. Meanwhile, the newly-introduced character of her sister Rebecca is much more like the Michelle of the previous film; it would have made a lot more sense if the two actresses had swapped roles. Speaking of her sister’s character, I’m happy to say that Melanie Shatner did not inherit her father’s penchant for stilted overacting; she’s a pretty good lead.
The script still has its moments of unevenness, both in Michelle’s odd personality change and in some incongruous moments of comic relief that don’t fit the gothic tone. But ultimately it’s superior to the first film, and the flaws are easy to forgive when it moves with such momentum and is so much fun. It remains, at heart, something of a B-level vampire tale with more than a bit of camp, but within that context it is very well-done. If you like this variety of pulp gothic horror yarn, it’s hard to not have a good time with Bloodstone.
- Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)
As Full Moon developed Subspecies as an ongoing serial narrative, Bloodstone and its sequel Bloodlust were written as part one and part two of a continuous story arc, and were shot back-to-back. Bloodlust again picks up exactly where its predecessor ended, and continues the same narrative of Michelle and Rebecca’s fight against Radu. The choice to make them one large arc proves to be a good one, as it allows Full Moon to craft a cohesive saga in way they never really have before or since. Bloodstone and Bloodlust could have been put together and split up into a five or six-episode goth-opera TV miniseries, and I mean that in the best way.
|"Hey you two, is this the Tales from the|
It has its moments of camp soap operatics as the tale of intrigue among vampires and vampire hunters unfolds, but that just serves to make it all the more fun. Since the film begins with its plot already laid out by part 2’s ending, it gets to spend the first half of its running time developing its ensemble of reasonably strong – if slightly cheesy – characters, and its vampire mythology. It builds momentum towards its last act in a way that feels less like the progression of a film, and more like a TV show moving towards a season finale. Again, I mean that as a compliment: Full Moon’s effort to develop this into something unique for the straight-to-video medium is as commendable as it is effective. Shooting the two films back-to-back also gives them a nicely consistent aesthetic: once again the movie looks great, with wonderful gothic atmosphere and very-good-for-the-budget special effects. It isn’t quite as uniformly well-paced as Subspecies II, with a couple sequences feeling slightly padded, but this isn’t a big problem, and it ultimately is every bit as enjoyable. The characters – especially Radu and Michelle – are interesting enough that this extra breathing room is not a bad thing.
If Bloodlust is effectively the season finale of Full Moon’s Subspecies miniseries, it is quite a good one. It builds to an impressively solid conclusion, and gives some very cool moments of gothic horror along the way. It solidifies the Subspecies trilogy as a truly memorable series of movies which stand as Full Moon Entertainment’s very best. It is certainly a B-level pulp saga at heart, but it’s a very good one, and it embraces that identity. It walks just the right line between camp and quality, taking itself seriously enough that we can too, but having enough sense of humor about its low-budget genre tropes that it can get away with being as cheesy as it sometimes is. They may not be masterpieces, but I challenge you to find any other straight-to-video series that is this enjoyable and well-made. If you’re a fan of gothic horror with a bit of a sense of humor when it comes to B-movies, the Subspecies trilogy is definitely worthy of a place on your Halloween watch-list.
Bloodlust offers a perfect ending to this saga, and ties it all up into a cohesive three-film arc that could stand on its own just fine, and certainly doesn’t cry out for another sequel. But it is not in the nature of Charles Band or Full Moon to stay away from a series that still has some marketing potential left in it, so it was only a matter of time before the Subspecies saga was resurrected once again. Two more films were added to the series in 1997 and 1998. The first, a spin-off called The Vampire Journals, is an attempt to expand the franchise into a larger-scale Vampire Chronicles-type universe with more characters. The second, Bloodstorm: Subspecies IV, ties that spin-off back in with the main narrative. Are they worthy continuations, or just cash-ins on the popularity of the original trilogy? That is a question we’ll have to answer in a later review, although given post-Paramount Full Moon’s track record, I am not hopeful. Regardless, it’s best to let this trilogy stand on its own, as the finest example of what the studio was capable of during their prime. If you want to see why so many people have such nostalgic fondness for early-90s Full Moon productions, start here.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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