In Trannsylvania, the King of the Vampires (Angus Scrimm) awaits the return of his heir. Unfortunately, bastard child Radu gets their first, stabs the King, and assumes control of the all-powerful Blood Stone. Three graduate students arrive in the village to study Romani folklore of the region and draw the attention of the villagers and Radu alike.
Director Ted Nicolau and writers Jackson Barr and David Pabian do not touch on much new ground in Subspecies. That’s not always a bad thing. If you a going to retread well-worn horror ground, you need to tell a good story and tell it well. Subspecies is a prime example of this.
Despite a low budget, Niclau helps craft some truly novel scares. The opening scene features a stop-motion and digitally enhanced animation sequence unlike any I’ve seen before.
Radu, trapped in a cage, begins methodically snapping off the top knuckles of his unnaturally long fingers. The fingertips begin to twitch on the ground, oozing and expanding into equally charming and disturbing demonic minions. They follow Radu’s every command in that wonderful and disturbing Harryhausen-style.
These creatures, designed by visual effects director David Allen, are wonderful. They create a visual link between the cartoonish monstrosity of Radu and the ancient structures of antiquities of the real world Romanian settings. The minions create a fantastic world where anything is possible. There is no fiction in the studied folklore when the folklore is proven real in the opening scene.
Similarly, the original music by Stuart Brotman, Richard Kosinski, William Levine, Michael Portis, and John Zeretzke is the perfect distancing effect for a vampire film. They use traditional folk instruments to establish the reality of rural Eastern Europe. It’s a different auditory vocabulary with different rules than you typically experience in Western cinema. Layered with the traditional horror traits of dissonant strings and otherworldly vocals, the score of Subspecies elevates the material to far grander heights.
The attention to detail at all levels of the visual production makes Subspecies a solid horror film. The plot, the structures, and the acting are fine. They’re benign. They don’t actively hinder the experience. They’re not a distraction from some good scares and suspense. The film would have benefited from a bit more time focusing on the whys and the hows of the events and characters.