‘Subspecies’ (1991): Atmospheric, pre-CGI fun

It didn’t start a cinematic revolution, but still spawned a handful of sequels. On second thought, it was a bit of a revolution for young viewers like me in the early 90s.

By Review Staff

For many videostore and cable fiends in the early 90s, Full Moon Features was one of our generation’s go-tos. When you saw that logo, you knew what you were getting – low budget, quirky filmmaking with the charm and atmosphere to keep us interested in that VHS tape playing on the old Curtis-Mathes deck.

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So it was with Subspecies, a 1991 vampire horror/romance that resonated with direct-to-video connoisseurs with its good-enough-to-be-spooky stop-motion special effects and moody atmospherics thanks to location filming in then-newly post-revolution Romania.

The film stars Anders Hove (General Hospital) as Radu Vladislas, a vampire hellbent on controlling the Bloodstone, which apparently drips the blood of the saints. Michael Watson (Bold & the Beautiful) plays his brother, Stefan, a good vampire who prefers living in the open among the humans. Laura Tate, Irina Movila and Michelle McBride round out the main cast as Michelle, Mara and Lillian, three college coeds visiting the Romanian town of Prejmer on a college trip to study Romanian culture and superstition.

Also notable is actor Angus Scrimm (Phantasm‘s Tall Man) in a small role as King Vladislas, Radu and Stefan’s father.

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1991, Romania. Michelle, Mara and Lillian wind up in the middle of a power struggle between good vamp Stefan, who takes a liking to Michelle, and bad vamp Radu. Who will wind up with the Bloodstone and control of ancient Castle Vladislas? Who will live and die? Who will get bitten and turn into a vampire?

So many questions, such little run time. (The film clocks in around 80 minutes, and that’s a good thing!)

Fans of low budget horror will no doubt eat this up. (Pun intended.) The acting, largely the work of then-current and future soap opera stars, is sometimes over the top but decent, and the special effects aren’t laughably bad. The short run time keeps the film moving at a decent clip so even modern audiences weaned on speed-plotted TV crack can stick with it without falling asleep during slower interludes.

Anders Hove plays Radu with flair, clearly enjoying his vacation away from the trappings of television soap General Hospital. It wouldn’t be his only horror film in 1991; he played the role of Rick in Critters 4. And when you think Radu finally gets his comeuppance, the door is left open for future turns, which Full Moon producer Charles Band took full advantage of by producing three followup films throughout the rest of the 1990s, all starring Hove as the cursed Radu.

Michael Watson, as good vampire Stefan, plays the part closer to how he likely played his soap opera role in Bold & the Beautiful. He’s good looking, suave, has a sexy accent and new wave hair; he could have been an 80s James Bond!

Irina Movila (as Mara) and Michelle McBride (as Lillian) play fairly interchangeable characters, save for Movila’s accent. Her Mara plays host to Lillian and Michelle when they arrive to visit her in Romania.

More interesting is Laura Mae Tate as Michelle, the short haired brunette beauty and object of Stefan’s affection (and vise versa).

Tate would score roles in films such as Dead Space (1991) and Diggstown (1992) before settling into a spotty career consisting mostly of television guest appearances on shows such as Thirtysomething and Sisters. Her final credited role appears to be in the 1999 film California Myth.

So whatever happened to actress Laura Mae Tate? In Subspecies, she’s engaging and believable as the vampire’s love interest. And unlike Stefan, Michelle (Tate’s character here) would return for all three of Subspecies‘ sequels, but with a different actress taking over the role. (Denise Duff plays Michelle in all three sequels.) It would have been nice to see Tate continue playing the part.

The location shooting in Romania is taken full advantage of by director Ted Nicolaou (The Dungeonmaster, TerrorVision, Finding Happiness). In the additional ‘making of…’ featurette, Nicolaou speaks highly of the atmosphere he was able to achieve on such a small budget thanks to the moody castle locations. The film happened to be produced just after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the residual fallout of which still caused some headaches during filming.

I remember catching Subspecies in high school, either on late night cable or the direct-to-video VHS it was originally released on, and the moodiness, spooky atmosphere and creepy stop motion monsters are still a hoot to watch.

Our version here in the MoviesAndDrinks library comes from the 5-DVD compilation Subspecies: The Complete Chronicles, which was released in 2011 as a 5-movie set with the Subspecies sequels and Vampire Journals, a series spinoff.

The quality of the standard DVD of the first film is on par with that VHS rental from 1991, complete with the original 4×3 aspect ratio.

For a widescreen, HD experience, there is a Blu-ray set featuring the first three films of the series available as well.

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