Monday, January 24, 2011

Wendigo Meets SUBSPECIES (1991)

Were the years around 1990 the golden age of straight-to-video movies? At the time, that sounded like a category for which a golden age was unimaginable, but from the perspective of 2011, when genre films on TV seem all the more blandly prefabricated to SyFy's not exactly exacting standards (imagine greater my ass!), there's at least a temptation to find virtues in the films of the previous generation. They can't have been as self-consciously stupid, as insulting to the memory of honestly bad movies, as the stuff you see on Saturday nights nowadays. That doesn't mean they can't stink, and with that caveat Wendigo and I turned on the Netflix and selected Ted Nicolaou's history-making vampire story, the first of an eventual series of four films (and one godawful spinoff) made over eight years by Full Moon Entertainment. You used to see those films, or at least the early ones, on the shelves of all the old corner video stores in the last days of their struggles with Blockbuster -- how time flies for everyone! I'd never seen it before, and Wendigo remembered the first film only vaguely. For all intents and purposes we would both watch Subspecies with fresh eyes.

The history part is the fact that it was filmed in Romania. Subspecies was reportedly the first American movie filmed in the former dictatorship after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, and Nicolaou makes the most of the opportunity. As ever, creative use of locations compensates for limited budgets, and the touristy bits help pad the film out to a featurely 83 minutes. Since he was there, the director had no reason not to make a movie thick with folklore and history, even if most of it was made up.

Location, location, location: Romanian landscapes (above) and rituals (below) give Subspecies a traditionally exotic flavor.

We learn the details as the film goes along, but let's sum it up all at once. Back in Vlad Dracul's time there were vampires in the land. One such band saved the town of Prejnar from the Turks by drinking the besiegers' blood. Before the vampires could turn upon the natives, a truce was sealed by the villagers' acquisition of the Bloodstone, a relic with the blood of the Catholic saints on perpetual tap. Offering this to the vampire king (Angus Scrimm) allowed peace to reign between living and undead. As time went on, the old king finally had to think of his legacy; not even vampires live forever. He has two sons. The elder, Radu (Anders Hove) is a hairy Orlok of a monster, perpetually drooling because he can't close his mouth with all those fangs in it. He was sired on an evil sorceress and inherited her evil nature -- as opposed to a vampire's whatever nature. The younger son, Stefan (Michael Watson) was sired on a virtuous peasant girl. He is pretty, studious and noble. Physiognomy is destiny.

The old king tells Radu that Stefan is getting the inheritance, including the Bloodstone. He somehow lures Radu into standing in exactly the spot that will allow him to be trapped in a descending cage. That was easy, except that Radu has an escape plan for occasions like this. The plan is to snap off a few of his hyperextended fingers and throw them on the floor. The fingers commence to bleed, and from the blood puddles spring four little red dudes, homunculi who serve Radu. For your information, these guys, and not the vampires, are the subspecies of the series title. As the king watches and apparently does nothing, these industrious fellows liberate Radu, who promptly kills his strangely unresisting dad.

Subspecies guys are helpful and curious. How could you feel threatened by those adorable little men?

At the same time, a trio of female college students descend on Prejnar to witness the Festival of the Undead while researching their anthropology dissertations. They're promptly set on a collision course with Radu, and everything you might expect to happen pretty much happens, from one of the girls falling in love with Stefan to at least one of them falling under Radu's skunky power. Aided by a knowledgeable villager with a shotgun full of rosary beads, Stefan is destined for a sword-swinging showdown with his obnoxious sibling, with somebody's soul at stake.

When Wendigo first saw Subspecies, he wasn't all that impressed. He's more impressed now. What makes the difference? The fact that Nicolaou was out to make an honest B-movie instead of a Saturday night joke. On top of that, Subspecies is an interesting, almost ambitious synthesis of true folklore (including the vampire-detecting white horse last seen in John Badham's Dracula) and Nicolaou's own idiosyncratic inventions. There's an inventive intelligence at work instead of a rote repetition of stock genre conventions.

Wendigo is also somewhat jaded by modern CGI, and thus more impressed by the reality of Nicolaou's locations and the film's practical and stop-motion effects. The director actually achieves some effective atmosphere, and the pictorial effect of the shadowy Radu (sometimes portrayed literally as a shadow rather than a man) stalking the village streets is genuinely creepy.

Subspecies is a film of its time, a moment when modern vampire lore was in flux. The Anne Rice influence hadn't yet saturated movie culture, and Subspecies finds the subgenre poised between the oldschool horror/gothic tradition and the more romantic fantasy trend that prevails today. Radu and Stefan embody the film's transitional nature, the master monster and the handsomely brooding antihero. Because "urban fantasy" hasn't been born yet, or at least hasn't spread, we're spared some of the commonplaces of future films like the police investigation angle. Wendigo found the absence of contemporary convention refreshing -- and it's not as if he hates contemporary conventions. He just likes creativity more.

The Vlaidslas Brothers: Above, Anders Hove as Radu; below, Michael Watson as Stefan.

One pleasantly old-fashioned aspect of the entire Subspecies series is its focus on the villain. Anders Hove is the only actor to appear in all four films, and in a different time he might have been a horror star for the rest of his days. He's unrepentantly unromantic, yet also truly charismatic as a master vampire should be. I don't think anyone ever roots for Radu, but the three sequels are testimony that people wanted to see him get another chance. The man definitely gives his all here, shamelessly. By comparison, Michael Watson's Stefan is beautifully bland, and in fact only a secondary character compared to his love interest, Michelle Morgan -- played here by Laura Tate and by Denise Duff in the sequels. Their romance points to the future of vampire film, as Radu's wickedness forces a choice on the lovers: let the girl die, only to become an evil vampire on Radu's pattern, or allow Stefan to finish her off, so at least she'll become a good vampire. Just plain death is apparently not an option, nor is a cure.

Michelle (Laura Tate) becomes a vampire fighter, while Radu (below) becomes a severed head. But dispatching a vampire isn't as easy as you were told.

The rest of the films will follow her war with Radu, since Stefan will be bumped off early in the second movie. That'll probably make the sequels seem even more modern. We'll find out eventually. Subspecies 2 is also available on Netflix, and we were impressed enough by the original that we'll be watching the sequel soon. Subspecies itself is the kind of cinematic junk food that cleans the palate with its simplicity and tempts you to want more.

Deadman36g uploaded this trailer to YouTube:


The Vicar of VHS said...

In college I subsisted on a steady diet of 49¢ rentals from Hastings, many of them Full Moon productions. I liked many of them--not all or even most for the "right" reasons--but Subspecies stood out as one of the objectively better efforts, mainly for the wonderful sets and the weird made-up vampire folklore. I am not alone in getting extremely tired of the whole Gary Oldman "I have crossed oceans of time to star in your romance story!" vampire (I know, he wasn't the first, but that line of dialog sums up for me the whole class), and seeing the juxtaposition here of a Nosferatu type with a Langella type is rather refreshing. I dig the Monster Vamps--and the director is from Romania, so he should have some measure of authority on what a vampire should look like, right? That's my story, anyway. :)

Sam Juliano said...

"Wendigo is also somewhat jaded by modern CGI, and thus more impressed by the reality of Nicolaou's locations and the film's practical and stop-motion effects. The director actually achieves some effective atmosphere, and the pictorial effect of the shadowy Radu (sometimes portrayed literally as a shadow rather than a man) stalking the village streets is genuinely creepy...."

Most interesting Samuel, though I am unfamiliar with this series (further validated I see here by 'The Vicar of VHS') It's telling the the director had much more freedom after the fall of Ceaucescu (which you note here) and was able to utilize a far wider scope of style and settings. You make a grudging admission to "junk food" at the end by prior to that you make a pretty convincing argument as to the film's modest artistry. Like Wendigo, I too often warm to films after a medicocre first visit, and the serious tone would certainly be reason to take notice. Serve me up a good vampire film anyday, and I'll stand up and take notice. Very fine essay on a film that may has escaped the radar for some.

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar: Forty-nine cents, huh? I was never quite so lucky. I missed most of the straight-to-video "classics" of the era because my rental priorities back then were 1)Mainstream Hollywood product; 2)Foreign art films; and 3)porn -- and not necessarily in that order. Meanwhile, if the director is an authority on vampire appearance, the bloodsuckers apparently can look any old way they please.

Sam J: I'm glad the review piqued your interest. A solid, straight-faced B picture is nearly a lost art now, and Subspecies could well pass for one.