Back in 1991, legendary producer Charles Band and writer/director Ted Nicolaou sunk their fangs into the Dracula myth and said, what if we did the classic bloodsucker, but made him look really fucking cool? Thus, Subspecies was born! One of Full Moon’s best franchises, fans fell in love (or fear) with Anders Hove as vicious vamp, Radu, possessor of the powerful Blood Stone. Through four films, we’ve watched the impossibly long-fingered Radu bite, tear and slash his way through the necks of enemies and lovers alike. Now, Nicolaou has returned to bring audiences a fifth entry in Subspecies V: Blood Rise, a prequel which offers a rare look into Radu’s black heart and the events which made him the vampire he is today.
In Subspecies V, Hove is one of many faces to return, reprising his role as Radu and taking us back to the crusades when he was still human. Stolen at birth from his fanged father, Vladislas (Kevin Spirtas), he is raised as a warrior of the church. But when fate brings him back to his father’s castle, he encounters the fledgling of his deadly daddy, Helena (franchise regular, Denice Duff), who turns Radu to his vampiric side, setting him on a centuries long path to becoming the monster fans first met in the early 90s.
If you’re a fan-g of Subspecies like I am (you must be if you’re reading this), then I’m sure you’ll be as pleasantly wrapped in nostalgia as I was during the first few minutes of Subspecies V. The iconic castle. The chain-smoker rasp of Radu and the other vamp’s voices. That intoxicating theme (this time arranged by composer Sean McBride). It’s been over twenty years since Subspecies IV, so watching this is like stepping back into the blood-soaked foyer of home. That’s the benefit of having the same writer/director return for each entry. Everything from the look to the vibe to the vicious yet seductive nature of it feels the same. Subspecies V is a warm bite on the neck for those that have missed this world.
What’s different—and it’s a big difference—is how much more time we spend in the shadow of Radu.
Subspecies V is Radu’s movie. Whether that’s a positive or a negative depends on how eager you are to share a greater empathy with the monstrous vamp. The franchise has always pricked at the heart strings of Radu and his loneliness, but that’s never been the prime focus. In this prequel, Hove arguably delivers his best performance in the series as we delve into the soul of his character, the man he once was, and the series of tragedies which transformed him into a ruthless killer. Despite a somewhat different approach, though, Nicolaou tosses in all of the familiar franchise staples like Radu’s constantly gore-soaked mouth and an endless parade of topless women to be feasted on.
What impressed me most is the way Hove steps back into the pale skin of Radu like he never left. It’s been two decades since the actor last played the malicious vampire, but he hasn’t lost an ounce of the sinister presence which made the character so memorable. We get to see Hove’s full range here as he goes from tortured hero to lost vamp to cold villain, and it’s spectacular. Duff is great per usual as well, and the film also takes the opportunity to introduce a few new, interesting characters. Think of Subspecies V like Interview with the Vampire by way of Full Moon. Out of thirst for companionship, Radu takes a pair of siblings under his bat-wing, with Ariel (Stasa Nikolic) especially standing out as a blood-thirsty vamp in the vein of the Kirsten Dunst/Claudia role from Interview. Outside of that, though, well…let’s just say it’s not unusual for a Subspecies film to feature a handful of less than convincing performances.
In almost every way, Subspecies V looks better than the last couple of entries. Vladimir Ilic’s cinematography provides a rich picture with a shadowy depth that most modern studio films seem somehow incapable of capturing (why does everything always look so muddy now?). The production design and foggy atmospherics satisfy the gothic horror craving so many of us have been lusting for. For as gruesome of a story as it is, there’s a heavy sense of gothic romanticism flowing through the veins of Subspecies V, which is most often focused a little less on the horror and more on the way in which the vampire curse destroys everything from inspiration to love and the very sense of feeling.
The stake through the heart of Subspecies V? It also happens to be the least exciting and most bloodless of the series.
Subspecies V’s plot feels as if it’s missing a few fangs. Characters come and go as we skip from one century to the next without much antagonism to drive Radu’s adventures, leading to a third act which just sort of ends and leaves your thirst unquenched. The obvious step down in the effects department doesn’t help either. While I applaud Nicolaou for incorporating as little CG as possible, fans expecting loads of gore will find themselves underwhelmed by a surprising lack of blood-letting. There are bit necks galore, but nothing like the jaw-dropping decapitations or fire stunts populating the first few films. And I swear there were moments when I thought Radu’s prosthetic fangs might fall out. Then again, that just adds to the delicious cheese fans have become familiar with in these movies.
Subspecies V isn’t going to blow you away like vampire dust in the sun. The film struggles to get out of the coffin with a meandering plot and less than impressive effects—which has typically been a draw in the franchise—but Hove’s powerful performance and a deeper look into Radu make this prequel a worthy neck for Subspecies fans to sink their fangs into.
Subspecies V arrives in Alamo Drafthouse theaters tonight for one night only, followed by a release on Full Moon Features soon.
By Matt Konopka