Full Moon Entertainment was never known for really making movies that were “of the time.” They weren’t relevant to current cultural issues. Charles Band simply wanted to produce films similar to the Roger Corman pictures he grew up with. They were all done cheaply, some of them looked it, some of them managed to look much more expensive than they probably were. While his previous company, Empire Pictures had taken its cues from Corman’s monster movies, the early Full Moon era took its cues from his Poe adaptations and other gothic work he had done starring Vincent Price. While Full Moon’s own version of The Pit and the Pendulum is the most obvious of these, Subspecies, Castle Freak, and even a few of the Puppet Master pics fit the bill.
But Subspecies is always the one that immediately comes to mind. It’s not just a gothic homage from Charles Band and writer/director Ted Nicolau. It taps into some more specific things, which may be why it comes off as so cheesy to newer audiences. Of course, Subspecies is absolutely low budget camp. But so much of it is very pointed and intentional. It’s not just a movie in the old gothic tradition; the influences of Subspecies are much more specific. It feels very much like a Hammer horror film, with all of those little quirks that come along with that.
It’s shot very similarly to the old Hammer films. There’s use of the full frame, there’s not much kept hidden from the camera. The vampire Radu makes his first appearance by simply stepping into the frame. The shots all hold for a long time too, much like a play. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does, some of that comes down to the actors—Anders Hove in particular—but most of it comes down to the film’s other visual influences.
One thing that Subspecies holds over even some of the classic vampire movies is the locations. It was the first movie to be shot in modern day Romania, something that is pretty standard now but definitely was a bold move at the time. While it made for a difficult shooting process, man does it pay off. A lot of my love for Subspecies comes down to the scenery. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Transylvania and more than any Dracula movie, this is the reason why. Because this is what Transylvania actually looks like and it’s gorgeous. The endless forests and ruins of castles, these are things you cannot recreate on any set, no matter how spectacularly designed it is.
While the tone and cinematography/editing of Subspecies borrow heavily from Hammer, the main romantic subplot feels more similar to another classic 1960’s production: Dan Curtis’s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. That soap opera virtually introduced the concept of the reluctant vampire in the form of Barnabas Collins. Subspecies centers on two vampires, one evil and one good. Stefan is attractive, poetic and a very tragic figure, whereas Radu is cruel and crude and looks like Nosferatu’s Graf Orlok took over as frontrunner for a Eurotrash band.
Stefan represents the modern vampire, but the 1960’s/’70’s is still as modern as this movie is willing to go. Which is fine and in some ways the film works all the better for it. Sure, the movie is still set in present day 1991 but it’s hard to think of it as actually being part of that era because it’s done in very specific styles from a few decades before that.
Make no mistake about it, Subspecies is campy. When we look at films like Horror of Dracula, Brides of Dracula and the Corman movies like House of Usher, we don’t try to mimic the way in which they were made even if we are still influenced by them. It doesn’t occur to most people to try and make a film in that same way, with those same choices of pacing, costuming, etc. But that’s exactly what Ted Nicolau wanted to do with Subspecies and he absolutely succeeded in that. The pacing of it is very deliberate, even if it at times it feels more like a TV movie than a feature film. Yet, despite all that, it manages to feel much more cinematic than it probably should given its budget.
Subspecies has always been one of my favorite vampire movies and I have no problem admitting that. Some of that comes down to the fact that I was a Full Moon fanatic as a kid and saw it at a very young age. But I think, more than anything, it was the fact that I was a fan of the same things this movie was a fan of. I loved Horror of Dracula. I watched Dark Shadows whenever it was on. The interests of the filmmakers were my interests as well and that really helped me to connect with the movie and what it was trying to do. Of course there were other things I loved about it. Anders Hove gives a chilling and truly underrated performance as Radu. The use of light and shadow is impressive, the makeup is great and it truly has one of my favorite film scores of all time. I absolutely adore the music in Subspecies.
But at the end of the day, I’m a fan of gothic films, of old vampire films from things like Dracula: Prince of Darkness all the way back to Nosferatu. They all fascinate me and you can see plainly just by watching the movie that Ted Nicolau shared that fascination, and that is why Subspecies works as well as it does.