Subspecies V: Bloodrise Brings Back Radu and Classic Vampire Gore

A quarter-century after this straight-to-video horror series seemed dead and buried, Radu rises again in a fittingly gruesome Subspecies V!

Radu in Subspecies V
Photo: Full Moon Pictures

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema should offer a special brew spiked with drippings from the Bloodstone to celebrate their newest infernal partnership. After 25 years of dormancy, Full Moon Features is pulling the Sword of Laertes out from the chests of the vampires of Subspecies for a limited theatrical release of its newest open wound. And make no mistake about it, director Ted Nicolaou’s prequel Subspecies V: Bloodrise is a must-watch for Subspecies fans, and a should-see for horror fans in general.

Beginning with Subspecies (1991) and running through Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998), this movie series remained unique, without having to veil its most overt influence—which is all the most classic portrayals of the legendary creature on film or page, particularly by way of eastern European castles. Vampire origins are honored respectfully and malevolently mistreated in equal measure. The films are love letters to Romania, and all its most hidden occult secrets and superstitions, yet brutal self-assessments of courage and oppression under siege.

Humble Beginnings

While the first set of films progressed in continual, linear motion, each opening where the last one left off, Subspecies V: Bloodrise starts at the beginning, offering an epic which spans five centuries. Anders Hove reprises the role of Radu to tell the character’s origin story. Radu is the first-born son of King Vladislav (played by Angus Scrimm in the original, and in the new one by Kevin Spirtas) and Cersei (Yulia Graut), the demon sorceress.

Stolen from the womb at birth by medieval crusaders, the half-vampire/half-demon is trained as a warrior of the church by a brotherhood of mystic monks. Radu is kept in the dark about his pitch-black bloodline, and the patricidal prophecy he is expected to carry to term. Growing up as Radu the Fearless, he eventually joins the Knights of the Dragon, who are “slayers of the ancient ones,” and wields the supernaturally-charged Sword of Laertes on God’s mission to cleanse the earth of pagan influence and all of its residual evidence.

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On his tyrannical path as a destroyer of evil, Radu the Fearless winds up at his father’s Vladislas Castle to retrieve the Bloodstone, a holy relic which drips the blood of the saints. His own blood kicks in when Radu shows mercy to an enemy of the church. It’s an age old story, 500 years in this case, and one which should get due respect.

Personal Demons

Every installment of Subspecies has thus far been directed by Nicolaou, and this singularity of vision sets it apart from any horror franchise. It is obviously personal, as Nicolaou not only shows his passion for the cinematic traditions he is working in but also the history of the land he is immortalizing and the characters he helps bring back to life. He loves these monsters more than they will ever love themselves, draining them of all sentimentality. Even the underlying eroticism is consistently undermined by savage, unthinking, nature in these flicks. Yet Subspecies V: Bloodrise is also the filmmaker’s most contemplative take on the losses which come with eternal life.

As Radu ages into a bloodthirsty creature of the night, his reasoning becomes increasingly erratic. There is no overt recognition of the loss of humanity, only a deeper delve into pathological monstrosity. This is a brilliant counterpoint to most horror-by-numbers franchises, which take far more balanced approaches to deviltry. Larger-budgeted fright fests are designed to sell popcorn to people, not push plasma on addicted bloodsuckers.

In the 1991 Subspecies, Radu tells his half-human, half-vampire brother Stefan (Michael Watson), “Your pain, little brother, makes me sick. It is a mockery of human feelings.” The new film allows far deeper character development, providing insight into Radu’s thoughts on mortality and power.  Hove brings menace but leaks vulnerability. Radu has the capacity to love but not in a way that yields love in return. Yet in the new film, Radu is as hungry for a family as he is for the blood of the saints and he repeatedly tries to create one.

Subspecies V: Bloodrise fills in the backstory to Ash (Marko Filipovic), the piano playing music lover from the 1997 spin-off Vampire Journals (when he was played by Jonathon Morris). Subspecies V: Bloodrise also augments the role of Ash’s sister, Ariel (Stasa Nikovic), a flautist who can bring vampires to their knees with blue notes. Similarly, the score by Sean McBride is heavy with atmosphere.

The director retains quite a bit of his troupe, who give a deeper nuance to their animal nature. Denice Duff, who has been in the franchise since Subspecies 2: Bloodstone, returns in a new character, Helena, mother of Radu’s half-brother Stefan, and she has an incredible emotional arc. Vulnerable, deadly, and ultimately narcissistically self-absorbed, it is mesmerizing. We can see why Radu is so obsessed.

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Helena brings out an entirely different side of Duff than her long-running character, Michelle, a step ahead of danger over the course of the original franchise. Subspecies (1991) featured Laura Tate as Michelle, the most studious of a trinity of scholars writing their theses on Romanian culture and superstition, and staying at a renowned institution in Prejmer, in the former Transylvania, near the historically forgotten and locally hidden Castle Vladislas.

Location, Location, Location.

One of the most compelling aspects of all Subspecies entries are the locations. Early films shot extensively in the city of Bucharest; the Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Romania; and the rough terrain surrounding the area’s ruins. Subspecies V: Blood Rise was filmed in Serbia, and the characters similarly find obstacles to make them question their footing. Director of photography Vladimir Ilich and production designer Ivan Cirovic make artful use of the Belgrade fortress, including underground rooms with ancient storage. The production design makes it feel like a Hammer horror feature shot in its historic origins. This brings an authenticity to the Gothic surroundings and a tangible sense of foreboding while maintaining the unique feel of Subspecies.

Subspecies V: Blood Rise has come a long way since the Jason and the Argonauts-style animation that propelled the red demons in the first films. As a general rule, there is usually less blood wasted in Subspecies features. Performed in a more stage-informed theatrical way, it always appears the vampires are drinking their fill while dribbling every drop of rancid-colored-corn syrup onto prone flesh. The norm of modern vampire entertainment is to pour blood all over the place, which may look good on camera, but is not very nutritious. 

Judicious as the blood use may be, there are, however, a few overused effects in Subspecies V. Much of these are attempts to improve on sequences from previous films but even some of the effects within the film itself begin to grow long in the tooth.

While shadows still play out multiple roles in Subspecies V, the overt nods to F. W. Murnau’s 1929 impressionistic masterpiece Nosferatu are minimalized. As is the gore. This is not a slasher film. Most of the torture is on the audience, and is inflicted by way of disgust. I’m sorry, but how many creatures have licked that Bloodstone? It looks less and less appetizing and more horrific in the mind’s selective subconscious with every slurp.

Thankfully, some of the effects are still cheesy, allowing fans of contemporary horror to stretch the suspension of belief far enough to bridge the possible disappointment of practical effects. Imaginative as they are, they may not look as convincing as larger budgeted illusions. Even as there is a return to the sword fights of the first film, there is a lack of diversity in the gore. Nicolaou does nothing groundbreaking. It’s not entirely the director’s fault, Radu dies a lot. You really can’t end a Subspecies unless he’s on the mend from some dismemberment or another.

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After more than a generation, Subspecies V: Blood Rise is a welcomed resurrection, staying true to its original domain, and expanding into new territory. The internal logic occasionally bends under its twisting weight, but nothing goes too far over-the-top. It is filled with scary moments, and exquisitely chilling scenes, yet translates a monster’s inhumanity to man.Alamo Drafthouse Cinema will open Subspecies V: Bloodrise to a limited theatrical release on May 15.