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A studio known for camp delivers a surprisingly smart, atmospheric, and unique vampire series sure to delight classic horror fans: Subspecies.

Subspecies follows the adventures of a reluctant newborn vampire, Michelle Morgan (played by Laura Tate in Subspecies and later replaced with Denice Duff in Subspecies II-IV), as she tries to escape the clutches of master vampire Radu Vladislas. Along the way, we’re introduced to the real vampires of Romania and their many intrigues. 

The first film, released on August 5th, 1991, begins with an aging king (Angus Scrimm) days before he prepares to host a large festival where his youngest son will assume the throne. However, his previously banished eldest son, Radu (Anders Hove), returns to claim his birthright.

The king tries to imprison his villainous offspring. But small gargoyle-like creatures, the titular subspecies, spring to life from the blood of the Nosferatu-esque Radu, releasing Radu and allowing him to murder his father.

We are then introduced to Michelle, an American college student on a trip to Romania with her friend, Lillian (Michelle McBride). The two girls meet up with a third classmate and native Romanian, Mara (Irina Movila). The three students are in Romania to study the folklore and culture in preparation for their doctoral thesis. 

They take up residence at a fortress in the shadows of the ruins of Castle Vladislas, a place with a dark reputation steeped in folklore. As the girls settle in, their host reveals the history of their lodging.

The village was once invaded by the Turks, who mercilessly wiped out much of the population. The few survivors were forced to hole up in a fortress — the same one where Michelle and her friends now stay. When the villagers finally emerged, they discovered that all of the Turks had been killed; their throats were slashed and they were drained of blood.

That’s when they learned that vampires had saved the people of Transylvania, even if only for selfish pursuits.

Thus begins the macabre fairytale created by Ted Nicolaou, who wrote and directed the Subspecies series.

After getting introduced to a bit of vampiric lore, the girls are hungry for more information and desperate to learn about the nearby castle whose history seems to have been wiped from the public record.

While conducting research in town, they try to break into the seemingly abandoned castle but are unable to. As they are leaving, they are spotted by Radu who is currently slumbering there.

Back at the fortress, Michelle continues to obsess over her inability to uncover any details about Castle Vladislas.

That’s when she meets Stefan (Michael Watson), a handsome zoologist who is also conducting research while staying at the fortress. He tells her most villagers choose to ignore the castle. There’s an immediate and palpable chemistry between the two. Michelle tries to get Stefan to stay and talk with them, but he insists he has work to do (he studies nocturnal animals) and quickly leaves. 

The next day, the girls head back out to conduct interviews.

In a scene reminiscent of Universal’s 1931 Dracula, they speak with an old gypsy woman who sheds more light upon the village’s history with the vampires. She explains that the upcoming Festival of the Dead commemorates the day where the villagers made a truce with the vampires.

After the vampires slaughtered the Turks, it did not yet mean peace for the village. The bloodthirsty vampires remained hungry and continued to prey upon the innocent townspeople.

But a young peasant heard rumors of of the Bloodstone, an ancient relic in Rome that was said to drip with the blood of all the saints.

The gypsy boy managed to find and steal the Bloodstone, which he gifted to the vampire king, Vladislas (the one we met in the opening scene), as a peace offering.

King Vladislas accepted the Bloodstone and agreed to live in peace with the human world. 

(It’s this same Bloodstone we see Radu coveting and drinking from at the beginning of the film.)

The gypsy woman warns the girls that the vampires still remain in the village and sleep amongst the ruins, which they should be cautious to avoid. Nevertheless, the girls decide to nap in the ruins, oversleeping and forced to return home in the dark. As they try to make their way back through the forest, they encounter the terrifying Radu lurking in a tree. The girls scream and take off running, bumping into Stefan who helps guide them back to the fortress.

Afterward, Stefan arrives at the castle and finds the king, who he refers to as father, dead. And we learn that Stefan is actually the brother of Radu, who quickly emerges from the shadows to threaten and mock his brother for his weakness and pathetic human emotions.

Radu then enters the fortress and begins to feed upon Lillian while she sleeps, before getting interrupted by Stefan. Chasing Radu out into the woods, Stefan discovers that Radu is in possession of the Bloodstone and is intent on turning all three of the girls — saving Stefan’s favorite (Michelle) for last to prolong her suffering and wound the sensitive Stefan.

The next night, while at the festival, Stefan confesses his feelings for Michelle and warns her that she and her friends may be in grave danger. Shaken, Michelle returns home to check on the ill Lillian, leaving Mara at the festival alone where she is attacked by Radu.

Michelle arrives home to find Radu once again feeding on Lillian, and Stefan once again shows up to rescue her. It’s then that Michelle begs Stefan to tell her the truth about what’s happening.

Stefan finally reveals his true nature and backstory to Michelle. 

In the Subspecies universe, vampires can have biological children. King Vladislas had two sons, Radu and Stefan. Radu’s mother was an immortal witch simply called “Mummy” (played by Pamela Gordon in Subspecies II where she makes her first appearance).

Mummy is one of the series’ many campy touches. Her name is a touch of camp, since Mummy actually looks like a decaying mummy. Her dialogue and mannerisms are also reminiscent of a Disney villain.

After King Vladislas banishes Radu and his mother, he meets a human woman who was Stefan’s mother. Stefan prefers to live as a human and rejects his vampire heritage, while Radu fully embraces his cruel nature. 

Stefan urges Michelle to leave as soon as she can, but she can’t leave without making sure Mara, now missing after failing to return home from the festival, is ok. Lillian dies of her wounds and is buried in the cemetery located in the ruins, later resurrecting as a vampire. Stefan goes to rescue Mara but is trapped by the subspecies. Meanwhile, vampire Lillian lures Michelle out of her church sanctuary so she can be captured by Radu.

She wakes up chained to a wall in the castle dungeon next to Mara. Managing to free herself, Michelle tries to escape with Mara. But she’s too late, and Mara turns into a vampire. Stefan eventually manages to overtake and kill his brother, but not before Radu has a chance to bite Michelle and mingle his blood with hers.

Stefan recovers the Bloodstone and is forced to turn Michelle with his own blood in order to keep her from becoming like Radu. As Stefan and Michelle sleep, Radu’s minions set about resurrecting their master.

Now fledgling vampire Michelle finds herself on the run from a master vampire intent on possessing her and the ancient relic revered among vampires, the Bloodstone.

Subspecies is a hidden gem among vampire movies.

Nicolaou constructed a vampire society that exists alongside the mortal world. It’s almost as if we’re in an alternate universe when his undead characters take center stage. He adds his own creative touches to vampire lore and provides a very interesting, fairytale-like backstory for the Vladislas family.

The story contains the melodramatic elements of ancient Greek or Shakespearian tragedy. It has a little something for everyone, including adventure and toxic romance. 

Considering that Nicolaou was working on a shoestring budget, he managed to create a vampire series that is fun to watch and hooks the viewer in with its soapy plot and subplots that are part adventure and toxic romance.

This straight-to-video 1990s series consists of five films: Subspecies (1991), Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993), Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994), The Vampire Journals (1997), and Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm, aka Subspecies: The Awakening (1998).

Charles Band’s Full Moon Studios co-produced with Romanian company Castel Film Studios. Full Moon is known for its campy independent horror films such as Trancers and the Puppet Master series.

What makes this series, as a whole, so unique?

They’re certainly not perfect films. However, they do weave an entertaining horror tale that serves as an homage to classic vampire films with some interesting creative flourishes added, along with an iconic character and imagery and atmosphere reminiscent of many classic vampire films.

To top it off, all of the movies were filmed in Romania, the home of the vampire who started it all, Bram Stoker’s creation, Count Dracula.

The Bloodstone is an excellent and creative addition to vampire lore.

As the king’s eldest son, Radu feels the Bloodstone is his birthright. At the beginning of Subspecies II, Michelle takes it and runs from the castle, which sets up the remainder of the series. 

We soon begin to see, however, that there’s more to Radu’s relentless pursuit of Michelle than simply spite or desire for the Bloodstone. In Subspecies III, Radu kills his mother as she is about to kill Michelle. He then tells Michelle that he killed his entire bloodline for her. He also tells her that he will love her till the end of time. Michelle responds that she will hate him until the end of time.

Besides the Bloodstone, Nicolaou also introduces several unique magical items to further enrich the lore. There are items among Mummy’s treasure which can harm vampires, including a dagger that Michelle stabs Radu with on more than one occasion. 

Another magical item introduced in Vampire Journals is the Blade of Laertes, a magical sword used to kill vampires. Vampire Journals is about a self-loathing vampire, Zachary (David Gunn), who was made against his will and hunts other vampires for revenge. Zachary uses the Blade of Laertes to slay vampires in his bloodline as revenge for turning him and killing Rebecca (Rodica Lupu), the love of his life. 

Zachary arrives in Bucharest in search of Ash “The Music Lover” (Jonathon Morris), Radu’s fledgling who runs a brothel and casino. Zachary intervenes as Ash stalks Sofia (Kirsten Cerre), a young pianist with whom Ash has become enamored. When Zachary attacks Ash with the Blade of Laertes, Ash takes it from Zachary. Ash says the sword belonged to Laertes, who was a vampire slayer.

He adds that the sword is endowed with magical powers and tells Zachary that it was stolen from him ages ago. 

Subspecies IV is a crossover of both Subspecies and Vampire Journals.

In Radu’s continuing pursuit of Michelle, he arrives in Bucharest.

He shows up at Ash’s lair and demands sanctuary. As Radu’s fledgling, Ash is obliged to grant his master’s request. He does so reluctantly. Radu sees the Blade of Laertes in Ash’s lair and takes it from him, saying that Ash stole it from him.

Subspecies and Vampire Journals manage to have an excellent effect reminiscent of silent horror movies.

In some scenes, we don’t see the action in front of us but in shadow on the wall. This was a very dramatic effect used in silent movies such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This effect is also used when the vampires take flight. We see their shadows “fly” as they slide up a wall.

In both Subspecies and Vampire Journals, Nicolaou plays with the tortured vampire with a conscious trope beside the pure evil vampire who kills indiscriminately.

Both Radu and Ash set their sights on young, moral women to initiate as protegees. They resort to all types of abuse and actual torture to break their wills to force the women to accept them as their masters. In both stories, their efforts backfire and lead to their downfall. But it must be noted that Ash and Radu don’t discriminate in who they try to dominate, which is refreshing; both men and women are targets.

Vampire Journals is a different story that follows the adventures of vampires descended from Radu’s bloodline. Ash and his group of vampires lead a hedonistic lifestyle in a nightclub and brothel.

The atmosphere is elegant, with an undercurrent of decadence and decay.

Nicolaou expands his story to include an underground city and a labyrinth that the vampires have beneath Bucharest. And Vampire Journals gets just as melodramatic as Subspecies — from the hero looking to avenge his lost love, to the innocent young woman stalked by a vampire intent on being her “master,” and additional drama within Ash’s lair. 

Everything from the scenery to the costumes to the way these films are shot is reminiscent of classic Hammer horror movies.

The entire series is an homage to classic vampire films, from Nosferatu to 1931’s Dracula.

Nicolaou shot the films in Romania, and the scenery is stunning. The viewer is treated to rolling hills in the picturesque Romanian countryside. The sets are medieval torchlit chambers, chapels, narrow tunnels, cemeteries, and cramped quarters inside a medieval fortress that looks untouched by time.

Everything has a stunning, medieval, ethereal, and romantic gothic beauty down to the costumes.

The vampire women look like they stepped out of a Hammer film with their romantic flowing dresses of white or gothic black. Meanwhile, Radu’s appearance is a homage to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu, with rat-like front fangs and even elongated fingers and claw-like nails.

So, we have atmosphere as well as visual references to classic vampire movies guaranteed to dazzle any vampire fan.

We also can’t forget a character who should be considered a horror icon, Radu Vladislas, played by Anders Hove. Hove has a commanding presence reminiscent of both Max Schreck and Christopher Lee. However, he doesn’t play Radu as pure evil throughout the series. He even adds a bit of camp and comedy to the performance, especially later in the series. 

Anders Hove and Denice Duff have excellent chemistry together throughout the series. Duff convincingly plays someone who is in a situation that is frightening and unknown to her. She’s a vampire fledgling fumbling in the dark looking to understand what is happening to her.

However, Michelle’s strong will and determination began to waver during Subspecies IV. I have the impression that this was portrayed as a part of vampire lore; Radu’s blood was finally taking over hers. Though, considering the ending, I also think it could have been Michelle playing to Radu to get him in a vulnerable position, especially when she willingly goes with him to Ash’s lair in Bucharest.

I also need to add that Michelle’s look has icon potential, especially when she goes vintage in Subspecies II and III.

Michelle stumbles into a museum and finds a glass coffin to sleep in and a wardrobe of vintage outfits that a 90s goth would love. The coffin, for me, evoked memories of Snow White, who was always my favorite Disney princess. Looking back on it, the imagery of Snow White, especially as Disney imagined the character, is vampiric — the pale, ebony-haired beauty, with lips red as blood, sleeping in a glass coffin. 

I saw Subspecies when it first aired on cable TV, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

I enthusiastically snatched up every installment as soon as I saw it on the shelves of the local video store. I eventually owned every movie on VHS, along with a Radu figure and a Subspecies III poster. Radu and his subspecies currently reside on my bookshelf, and the poster still hangs on my wall.

It is the ultimate vampire movie for fans of classic vampire films. Just watching it evokes memories of 1970s horror, especially Hammer films.

The atmosphere is perfect and captures the Romanian countryside in all its gothic beauty and natural splendor.

Subspecies does end with Michelle freeing herself from Radu and finally claiming her own life. We don’t see this but can imply it from the ending of the last movie.

One of the things I love is that Nicolaou boldly refused to offer her an easy way out, like allowing her to revert back to her human sate or giving her a magical cure to swallow. Instead, she remains a vampire and has to take control of her own destiny.

There’s been talk of a Subspecies V, which will be a prequel that goes into Radu’s story. There’s a YouTube video where Nicolaou briefly talks about his plans for the prequel. Anders Hove and Denice Duff are both on board. Duff won’t be playing Michelle, but Nicolaou hints she will be playing someone from Radu’s past — someone who Michelle perhaps reminded him of.

I, for one, cannot wait to see this compelling and original vampire series continue to be explored. There’s still plenty of life left in this iconic ode to the undead.

The entire Subspecies series is currently available to stream on Tubi.
Sources: “Subspecies V: Blood Rise (Deadly Ten Project),” Subspecies World, YouTube, April 19, 2019