Two American ethnology students arrive in Romania and meet a former fellow student – a Romanian native, it seems. They want to witness and study local customs and folklore, and use these experiences in their theses. Since the area apparently has no hotels or inns, they stay in an old fortress which has a connection to local vampire stories. Their host is not exactly enthusiastic about having them as guests, and the same goes for some of the locals. As the villagers prepare to celebrate an ancient, vampire-related festival, our three students realise that there may be more to these myths than meets the eye….
To say it right up front: Subspecies, which has gone on to spawn an entire franchise, is not a good film. It is not a particularly bad film either. It aims to be a solid B-movie – which it is, in a way. But it is also a rather bland affair that fails to create any excitement.
The story is not bad, but it is one of those stories with an “epic” background that would require some “epic” story-telling. And this film just could not deliver on that front, with the budget probably being the main obstacle.
Narratively, the film also jumps between two story-lines that happen at different points in time, but it is not quite clear how much time lies between them (possibly just weeks); and these jumps often happen in such a way that you need a few seconds to realise that you might be in the other time-line again.
The film has a net running time of a mere 77 minutes. I am not sure why this rush was needed, but this way there was no room for character development, no room to make either villain or hero 3-dimensional, and no room to let the relationship between any two characters develop in an organic way. Instead, the story is just told a bit matter-of-factly. First this happens, then this happens, and then…. Thus, there are too many fast-forwarded moments, where things are revealed to one of the characters that should have played out over a longer period of time, that should have included moments of realisation, etc.
Somehow, the filmmakers seemed more concerned with getting to the final showdown (which is not much to shout about) and not so much with getting there in the best way possible.
Sets and locations do look the part. The film was shot entirely in Romania, and they picked poor-looking villages and dirt roads to emphasise the remoteness of their theatre of events. And they threw in a crappy East-German car for good measure. While working on a presumably small budget, they made the most of the ruins, churches, and old cemeteries the area had to offer.
The adequate visuals do, however, not extend to the make-up and creature effects. There are local costumes and masks involved, and they do look the part; and I’d like to think that the local extras were paid to bring stuff from home. The villain, on the other hand, is visually rather odd. His body and his hands are clearly inspired by Max Schreck’s Count Orlok. But his facial make-up and his hair make him look like a mixture between The Crow and DC’s Joker. Somehow, it doesn’t fit.
The film also sports some other “creatures”, and whatever practical or CG effects may have been used there, they just look awful.
The acting in the film’s mostly unchallenging roles is solid. A special mention should go to Anders Hove, who hams it up just enough, and who gives his 2-dimensional villain-character some menace, in spite of his odd appearance.
One enjoyable artistic element is the use of shadows, even if it is limited to one or two scenes. I mentioned that the villain’s hands are based on Max Schreck’s make-up. Whether it was director Ted Nicolaou’s idea, or that of cinematographer Vlad Paunescu, the filmmakers opted for an old-school approach here, creating very effective frames of the shadows of these hands. It feels more like an imitation of old genre classics, and less like using the old and creating something new out of it. But it is definitely very well done.
The score music is fitting; but since it offers very little variation and is sometimes too loud by a notch or two, it soon begins to get on your nerves. There are some gory moments in this film, and also faint vibes of body horror and not-so-faint vibes of sexploitation.
All-in-all, I guess 3.0 to 3.5 out of 10 would be a fair rating. Not the worst film I’ve seen – there are many films that are inferior to this one. But there is simply no compelling reason why anyone should watch this film.