Low-budget, but high audacity, and maybe sometimes just high, Charles Band’s Full Moon production company made fun, schlocky, direct-to-video horror and sci-fi its hallmark through a couple iterations in the 1990s, loading Blockbuster shelves full of guilty pleasures and fan favorites like Puppet Master and Trancers. And while they may have gone into torpor for a few years here and there, they’re not dead yet. In recent years, Charles Band got together a traveling Full Moon roadshow, they have their own streaming service, and Full Moon Pictures is still making instant classics like the Gingerdead Man series – oh, yes, there’s more than one — in which Gary Busey is a vengeful cookie. But for their cult classic 90s vampire series, Subspecies, they’d play it pretty straight, starting by shooting among the villages and ruined battlements of the atmospheric (and cheap!) Romania – the first American production to shoot in post-Communist Romania, fun fact – and then summoning up a gleefully grotesque, folklore-authentic vampire in series villain Radu Vladislas. To realize the supernatural on the cheap, director Ted Nicolaou used puppets, stop-motion animation, artfully-sprawled shadows, and probably a quart of corn syrup in every close shot of Radu. Not everything ages well — not everything looked good at the time — but Nicolaou achieved a feel with the Subspecies series that’s priceless, a vampire saga truly grounded in its native earth. And it had guts, too. While the story capitalized on the perennial popularity of sexy, idealized vampires, it also challenged them by focusing on a vampire antagonist as ugly on the outside as he was on the inside.
Subspecies (1991) begins like so much in life, with an inter-generational domestic squabble. A vampire in the shape of an old man, King Vladislas (Angus Scrimm), puttering around his lonely castle, licks a precious few drops from the Bloodstone, the series McGuffin that is part holy relic, part Everlasting Gobstopper. Like the synthetic True Blood in Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series and the sexy HBO series it spawned, the Bloodstone enables vampires to subsist without killing people, as it miraculously leaks the blood of the saints on demand, and this special manic pixie dream blood also enhances the supping vampire’s power – although the powers of vampires in the Subspecies series can be inconsistent in any case. The King realizes he has company; it’s his exiled son Radu (Anders Hove), and Radu has a bone to pick with daddy. A festival celebrating the truce between the vampires and the Transylvanian locals is nigh, and during the festival, Radu has gleaned that his father intends to give the Bloodstone, his birthright, to his younger half-brother Stefan. The King rebukes Radu and traps him in a cage, but Radu responds by breaking off his own monstrous claw-like fingers, which then turn into several stop-motion homunculi. Everybody, meet the titular Subspecies. This is pretty much all they do, but they’re definitely more reliable thralls than your average Renfield and kinda cute to boot.
The story flits quickly from Radu’s vengeance to the arrival of American grad students Michelle (Laura Tate) and Lillian (Michelle McBride) on the home turf of friend and colleague Mara (Irina Movila). They’re studying the folklore of the region, which naturally enough includes staying at a local monastery and day trips to legendary vampiric haunts under the watchful eye of monastery caretaker Karl. The young scholars also run across Radu’s brother Stefan (Michael Watson), introducing himself as a zoologist studying the habits of nocturnal animals in the region. And the coffin Lillian found in the storage area above their room is totally not his, what are you talking about. Stefan, in stark contrast with Radu, is not a repugnant, drooling Nosferatu with freakish, thrall-sprouting fingers. No, Stefan is a brooding, smokin’ hot babe-variety vampire who’s trying to cut the human out of his diet. He and Michelle instantly fall into the wordless longing of nerd love. This does not go unnoticed by Radu, who begins picking off the women one by one in a bid to torment his brother, saving Michelle, of course, for last. As her friends go the way of the Bloofer Lady, Michelle forces herself into a sort of Scooby Gang with Stefan and Karl to hunt down and stake Radu, but let’s just say there’s three more Subspecies films after this (not counting the extremely peripheral and overwrought spinoff Vampire Journals), and Radu’s on the poster for all of them.
So while the first film ends happily-ish, with Radu deader than usual and Stefan snuggling newly-bitten bride of darkness Michelle* in his coffin, Radu comes back in the first moments of the sequel Bloodstone: Subspecies II, and brings with him a passion for Michelle that will not die. He kills sleeping Stefan immediately, but the rising sun saves Michelle, who then wakes and steals away with the Bloodstone. Radu gives chase, and this chase pretty much fills the next three films, all of which follow immediately after each other like a direct-to-video conga line.
Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993) and Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994) were, in fact, filmed back-to-back. There is the sense that maybe they could have edited some repetitive chasing and distilled it into a stronger single movie, but then, making the strongest possible standalone film when you could make two pretty good ones instead probably wouldn’t have been the more bankable choice for Full Moon. Both films follow a pretty seamless ebb and flow of Michelle (now Denice Duff) fleeing Radu, being caught by Radu, fleeing, being caught, eternal as the tides, juxtaposed with Michelle’s sister Becky (Melanie Shatner) searching for Michelle, finding Michelle, searching for Michelle, etc., with the help of the local police and a hunky embassy official. We also get to spend some time with Radu’s, sigh, Mummy (Pamela Gordon) the ancient gypsy witch who cast a spell on his father in order to hatch herself a powerful vampire scion for reasons. Mummy is at this point quite literally a mummy, and you really just want to set her up on a date with the Crypt Keeper so maybe she’d be a little less possessive of her son. But then, this series begins with domestic squabbles. A dominating mother figure for Radu doesn’t exactly go amiss.
Michelle’s flight from Radu gets a hard reset at the beginning of the fourth film, known both as Subspecies: The Awakening and Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998),when she and all the surviving supporting cast get into a car wreck. The sole survivor, she’s rescued by Dr. Ana Lazar (Ioana Abur), who unzips Michelle’s body bag in the sunlight and thus discovers Michelle isn’t so dead that she can’t scream. Ana brings Michelle, safely rezipped, to her colleague, former professor, and former snugglebuddy Dr. Niculescu (Mihai Dinvale), known to some as Dr. Blood, who specializes in weird blood transfusion techniques for the rich and famous and wears conspicuous dark sunglasses, and you guys know he’s a vampire already, right? OK, Ana’s a little slow to get there, even when he promises Michelle he can cure her vampirism. Anyway, I really like Niculescu. He’s mordant and sinister and funny, a breath of fresh air that anticipates the meta vamps of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or True Blood. Niculescu would have been a pretty good fit for Bon Temps actually, or maybe a mid-season bad guy on Angel. And while some of the performances in the Subspecies series are lacking, I admire Dinvale’s work as much as that of series star Anders Hove, and he just happens to be a character that’s a lot more fun. Of course, Dr. Blood isn’t on a poster.
Bloodstorm also makes everything a little Anne Rice-ier by importing the spinoff Vampire Journals’ characters Ash and Serena. With three new undead in the mix, the Subspecies series for the first time offers the shifting alliances, betrayals, and sexy bloodsucking common to full-on supernatural romances. Being a dick to his fledgling Ash and cuckolding him with Ash’s protégée Serena also gives Radu a chance to be the series villain again in a way that he hadn’t had for a couple movies with his unstinting focus on Michelle. Sure, he killed people here and there, but his inability to exert his will on Michelle vitiates his threat by the fourth film. It’s sort of how Mumm-Ra was a pretty impressive Big Bad in ThunderCats until the 50th time he gets beaten back into his sarcophagus. By Snarf.
Speaking of monsters whose weakness is their reflection, what I really enjoy about Radu — a little perversely since vampires are my monster of choice — is how his very existence calls bullshit on a whole legion of Byronic heroes of the night. Vampires of folklore, strigoi, were the corpses of your loved ones coming back to chew on you. They were rotting, and they were wrong. Like all bad relationships, they used your love for them against you, to make you their meat. While these vampires naturally answered the desires of the living to cling to the lost, in the immortal words of Pet Sematary’s Jud Crandall, sometimes dead is better. Vampires today speak more to the way we live and how we love rather than how we relinquish the dead, and I’ve always responded to the way they model a safe place for queerness, or failing safe, at least a desirable one. But they can and do often fetishize behaviors that should be artifacts in humanity’s past, from romanticized stalking to sublimated rape, blurring the wrongness of these actions with the attractiveness and selective vulnerability of their perpetrator. I don’t want to be too superficial about this, but it’s cool to me that Radu haunts Michelle like so much Edward Cullen, but there’s no tension there. There’s no question that Michelle will yield to him, even as she struggles with her own vampiric nature. No one will ever love Radu. Even if he weren’t too mean, he’s too ugly.
And Radu’s story is very comparable to the stories of more handsome contemporary vampires. He starts out the series unsympathetic and monstrous, though you can understand his complaint that his birthright is being stolen from him, but it’s a little like how Lestat went from the wicked, sadistic demon of Louis’ telling in Interview with a Vampire to the Vampire Chronicles’ favorite rakish hero. Radu is never a hero, but he mellows out a lot by the second movie, and from that point on, though he’s nominally chasing the Bloodstone, he’s really in it to win Michelle. If he has other fledglings, and that’s a safe assumption given what we can glean of his reputation in Bloodstorm and his relationship with Ash, he’s unconcerned with them. It may only be that Michelle is as yet unpossessed, but whatever his impetus, Radu is obsessed with her in a way that would be clearly romantic, if only he were cute. This is underlined when Radu’s Mummy turns on Michelle, hating the hold that the fledgling has over her son, like any jealous mama bear. Guys, their final confrontation is so Maury. Sure, they kill and eat people, but Radu and Mummy’s boundaries issues are what’s really gross.
Sometimes I think the Subspecies of the series title really describes Radu, rather than his little clay Resurrection Men. Radu is a half-breed, conceived through a witch’s curse, born to be powerful, raised to be cruel. Rejected by his pacific father, he lives in the shadows of shadows, equal parts Count Orlok and Robert Smith. Unlike brother Stefan, who is the very model of a modern vampiric hero, he embraces all the aspects of vampirism that more evolved vampires write florid journal entries about, before succumbing to the same behaviors anyway. Radu is everything a vampire like Louis or Angel or Vampire Bill or Edward or his own brother hates about himself. What makes Radu different though isn’t just his lust for undeath, but that he is unwanted. He is the Subspecies, not just because of what he does, as his father or Stefan would have it, but what it looks like when he does it. I think it’s important to look at Radu teasing the hem of Becky’s nightgown up so he can feast on the femoral artery just south of her panty line and appreciate its monstrousness, unrelieved by a corruption of consent. I think it’s important to notice how little the heroes of a lot of supernatural romances have evolved beyond Radu’s stalking and panty-peeking. I think it’s important to confront how that makes us feel. Because if the main thing that makes Radu different is his looks, then it might be our own undead, necrotic attitudes that we need to put back in the grave.
Subspecies 1-4 are currently streaming on Hulu.
*Stefan bites Michelle after Radu bites Michelle so Michelle won’t turn into a vampire like Radu. She does wake up in the coffin in Subspecies II recast as Denice Duff with long black hair, and Radu has long hair…
Angela would just like to offer Radu a Wet-Nap.