Color, 1991, 90m.
Directed by Ted Nicolau
Starring Anders Hove, Laura Tate, Irina Movila, Michael Watson, Angus Scrimm, Michelle McBride, Ivan J. Rado
Full Moon (Blu-Ray/DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Echo Bridge (US R1 NTSC), Kangaroo (R0 NTSC) / DD2.0

After the success of Puppetmaster in 1989, the genre stalwarts at Full Moon decided to go franchise crazy by generating series based around concepts both old (Trancers) and new (Demonic Toys). Surprisingly, the next big hit came with only a minimum of gadgetry and toy tie-ins: Subspecies, an old-fashioned gothic horror film drawing inspiration from classic vampire films like Nosferatu and Horror of Dracula, with a dab of Harryhausen-style stop motion thrown in for good measure.

Shot in Romania, the story kicks off in high style as the region's imperious vampire king (Phantasm's Scrimm, wearing a white fright wig) slurps away at the Bloodstone, an ancient mystical relic that seeps the precious blood of saints. His grotesque son, Radu (Hove), shows up in a less than benevolent mood, forcing the king to trap him in a cage. Undeterred, Radu slices off the fingers of one hand which quickly turn into miniature demonic beasties which help him dispatch his upset dad. Cut to a trio of cheerful female college students who catch the eye of Radu's much more handsome half-brother, Stefan (Watson), who's engaged in a family war and hiding incognito as an animal behavior researcher. One of the girls, Lilian (McBride), becomes infected by the vampiric curse and must deal with the burden of bloodlust, while another, Michelle (Tate), becomes involved with Stefan -- and Radu begins picking off anyone who stands in his way.

The idea of shooting a vampire film in Romania, the original stomping grounds of the fictional Dracula, turns out to be a surprisingly effective idea here and a change of pace at the time from the usual Italian locales found in many Full Moon films of the period; however, as fans quickly learned, Romania would become a familiar spot in many of the studio's projects to come. The film is far more visually lush than one might expect given its low budget and mostly unknown actors; in fact, the latex-shrouded Hove is so good as Radu he would go on to reprise the role in three sequels, all of which were helmed by the same director, Ted Nicolau. This entry finds everyone essentially trying to find the right tone, mixing Eastern European atmosphere, an odd but effective synth-heavy score by no less than five composers(!), and some extremely uneven acting from its female leads. Though it's easily eclipsed by the excellent sequel two years later, Bloodstone: Subspecies II (still the best Full Moon film that doesn't have Stuart Gordon's name attached), this film remains a solid, compelling start to the most consistent and rewarding series in the studio's history.

As usual for a Full Moon title, Subspecies was released direct to VHS and laserdisc in 1991, and that tape master became the worldwide standard for two decades on DVD. It was fine at the time, but as technology moved on considerably since then, its shortcomings became obvious. Paramount never showed much interest in exploiting the films on DVD, but eventually a set of all four films (and the spin-off feature Vampire Journals) popped up as a mysterious "import" from Kangaroo Video, eventually getting reissued through Echo Bridge (a triple feature disc of the first three films); all were plagued with massive compression problems, with the box set boasting some distracting digital glitches as well. By default, Full Moon's Blu-Ray of Subspecies featuring a new HD transfer had to be an improvement, and when evaluating it, one has to take the film's history into account and also cope with the fact that it's 1080i (which may be due to the end credits being obviously culled from a video source, and the opening titles are obviously from an inferior source as well). Like Puppetmaster (the only prior Full Moon title to benefit from an HD remaster as well), this was filmed on a low budget in Europe and intended for a home video audience, so don't expect the crisp, glossy visuals found in major studio films. That said, it's a major improvement in many respects; the 1.78:1 framing looks much more balanced now that excessive space from the open matte version has been removed, colors are punchier and darker (especially the much richer reds), and detail improves across the board, giving the film a more ornate and classical feel than before. (Click on any of the images here for a full resolution frame grab, and click here for the first image from the DVD for comparison.) It's still imperfect in many respects given the limitations of the source, and a handful of the darker scenes suffer from uneven compression (that's much more pronounced on computer playback than on properly calibrated TV displays, where it's much less of a factor). Again, while this may not be a title for Blu-Ray perfectionists by any means, this will still be a godsend for Full Moon fans and hopefully paves the way for the superior sequels to get the same treatment. The two-channel stereo audio sounds fine throughout, and as expected, the big extra here is the original 10-minute Videozone making-of featurette (in SD), which features Nicolau and many of the cast and crew on location talking about the making of the film. Much focus here is given to the title creatures, which were originally shot with men in monster suits on large sets but replaced with stop-motion and puppet critters at a late stage. The end result is actually the biggest flaw in the film, but if that's what it took to get the series underway, then so be it. Also included are bonus Full Moon trailers for Evil Bong 3, Gingerdead Man 3, Killjoy 3, (sensing a pattern here?) Skullheads, Demonic Toys 2, and Puppetmaster: Axis of Evil.

Reviewed on July 30, 2011.