'Subspecies' is far from a good or even great movie, crammed with all the awfulness and shoddiness expected of a direct-to-video picture. The melodramatic plot pretty much meets soap-opera standards as it follows the rivalry of two vampire brothers fighting over a family heirloom. The acting is laughably mediocre as lines are delivered with forced sincerity and just the right amount of the over-the-top campiness to make it mildly amusing. The directing is somewhat crude and comically amateurish, though the movie does come with a few surprisingly inspired moments which hint at a deliberate attempt to shoot for the stars. In all honesty, the movie from Full Moon Entertainment is pretty bad.
So why do I actually like it? What's not to enjoy in a lavish production that genuinely takes advantage of its limited budget, works with what's it got, and aims to deliver more than it really should? 'Subspecies' is a B-horror feature that knows where it's coming from and openly celebrates it with a great deal of passion and charisma. Shot on location in Romania with unprecedented freedom to film in and around various ancient ruins, the filmmakers are able to turn lead into gold. Or rather, they successfully polish a turd, given the amount of effort and ambition they put into making it sparkle. It still may be a big, pile of crap beneath it all, but at least it doesn't stink up the place.
With the Transylvanian castles and forests serving as backdrops, the movie comes with an eerily moody and brooding atmosphere that feels natural and weirdly commonplace. Of course, much of that is due to our own stereotypes of the region, created by decades of archetypal tales set in the same or similar areas. The story, written by David Pabian and Jackson Barr, wisely starts with three college friends (Laura Mae Tate, Michelle McBride and Irina Movila) with a keen interest in the medieval history of the country. It's a convenient but also perfect excuse for relating exposition while giving audiences a travelogue approach without seeming contrived. It moreover grants the women with plausible deniability once they become the unsuspecting victims of bloodsuckers.
One of the finer and more appealing aspects of 'Subspecies' is director Ted Nicolaou's efforts to contemporarize (yes, I know it's not a real word) classic horror tropes like those expertly used by Hammer Film Productions. The whole ancient, evil vampire angle is an obvious given. But more importantly, Nicolaou saturates his movie with creepy, dank dungeons and cold, dingy castles crawling with cobwebs and flickering lights from the candles' flames. Radu (Anders Hove) is a clear homage to Max Schreck and possibly even Klaus Kinski, not only in appearance but also in mannerisms and movement in the shadows. His brother Stefan (Michael Watson) is our modern-day link, sporting a rock star haircut and looking like the fourth member of a-ha.
Taking advantage of its limited resources yet making excellent use of its Transylvanian backdrop, 'Subspecies' is every bit its budget can afford and a corny exploit of vampire clichés. But for a straight-to-video production that clearly enjoys what it is doing, content with what it accomplishes, the B-horror picture is cheese-tacular entertainment with a good deal of fun atmosphere. Director Ted Nicolaou has his moments of inspired creativity, imbuing his film with references to classic genre conventions and as homage to Murnau's, as well as Herzog's, vampire archetype. It's an amusing low-quality feature that shouldn't really be enjoyed for more than what it simply is: cheap horror escapism.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Subspecies' comes to Blu-ray as a 20th Anniversary Edition courtesy of Full Moon Features, which can at the moment only be ordered directly from the company's website. The Region A locked, BD25 disc is housed in the standard blue keepcase. Viewers are taken directly to the main menu with still of the new cover art and music.
'Subspecies' takes a disappointingly weak bite out of Blu-ray with this AVC MPEG-4 encode at a1080i/60 refresh rate. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there's little that could be reasonably expected from a B-horror movie of this caliber, looking every bit its low-budget could afford.
While the picture quality is a slight upgrade from previous home releases, it isn't saying much since a majority of the movie appears terribly soft and blurry. And this is exacerbated by the several scenes of stop-motion animation and dated optical effects. A few moments of good clarity and decent fine object detailing reminds us we're watching high-def video, but overall definition is an unsatisfying mess. It doesn't help that we also have some instances of telecine judder and very light mosquito noise on display. Contrast is fairly dull and falls on the lower end of the grayscale though black levels are surprisingly strong and accurate with strong visibility within the shadows. Colors, especially the primaries, are boldly rendered and natural with healthy flesh tones in the faces of actors.
In the end, the presentation is an inferior, second-rate letdown.
The audio fares a bit worse than the video, presented here in legacy Dolby Digital stereo. Most apparent is the feeble, troubling dialogue reproduction that actually makes the track seem like a VHS recording.
Voices often sound canned and distant, with light echoing at inappropriate times, and there are a few conversations that come in at slightly lower decibels though still intelligible. The mid-range is dreadfully cramped and confined with several instances of lightly audible noise in the music, limiting further the audio. There is no low-end to speak of, so the whole presentation feels dismally deficient.
The entire lossless mix is sadly wanting and flat, restricted only to the center of the screen without any sense of presence or space.
The bonus collection is the typical Full Moon fare — terribly light and greatly lacking.
Ted Nicolaou's 'Subspecies' is amusing, light entertainment, largely because he makes the best possible use of the limited budget and resources given him. The filmmakers don't seem to shy away from this being a B-horror picture, taking advantage of the Romanian locations so as to saturate the movie with classic genre tropes. It's a surprisingly atmospheric and cheese-tacular straight-to-video production that cult enthusiasts can enjoy. The Blu-ray arrives with a disappointing audio/video presentation though it is an improvement over previous incarnations. Supplements are terribly lacking as well, making this package worth it only to fans.