Vampires vs. the Bronx (Film Review)
Story: Facing the gentrification of the Bronx, Miguel and his friends investigate the true nature of the newcomers in their neighborhood, only to discover they’re blood-sucking vampires hellbent on exterminating everyone in town.
Review: How do you like your takes on class warfare in modern America? If via a lively Bronx-centered tale with a heavy dose vampire-hunting intrigue and terror featuring plenty of references to Wesley Snipes’ BLADE and other vampire stories – but mostly BLADE – then VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX could be your flick. Of course, with this package also comes the STRANGER THINGS-type angle that is becoming a bit too commonplace in movies and television, but hey, when done with vampire fangs and a biting sense of humor, it makes up for a lot of the familiar teen hijinks.
Now, with the Netflix label attached to the film, it’s hard to ignore that second factor when you consider how fast they must have jumped at the chance to acquire it given it’s resemblance to their hit show. But then there are also movies like IT and SUMMER OF 84 reminding us all how fun it is to watch teenagers being chased by killers and monsters, meaning we should be ready for more and more filmmakers putting their stamp on the genre. That’s becoming harder and harder to do, given how much time needs to be spent on watching teenagers run around town getting into mischief and trying to convince adults that there is something spooky going on. But at least here, director Osmany “Oz” Rodriguez’s (also co-writing with Blaise Hemingway) take does have a unique, admirable dose of cultural relevancy, tackling the gentrification of the Bronx by featuring his young heroes trying to expose how some bougie white incomers are trying to destroy the very foundation of their neighborhood – in this case, the bougie white incomers being, in fact, immortal, blood-sucking garlic haters.
With the angle, it’s hard to not have fun with V.v.B. From the first scene featuring a vampire lurking out of the shadows, draping its long, white talon-like fingers across the shoulder of a nail salon owner before going in for the kill – all with a big-haired Shea Whigham grinning on the sidelines – Rodriguez hits the nail on the head when it comes to the sheer fun and spookiness of his flick. He has a clear love for vampire movies and tales – early on throwing out nods to Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and to F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (didn’t notice any for the Herzog remake…) – and just getting the overall vibe of their creepy presence and how they can make your skin crawl by simply lingering around. And as much as this is an ode to vampire history, it’s also a love letter to the Bronx itself. The lead teen, Miguel (Jaden Michael), is a passionate member of the community trying to throw a block party to save his favorite bodega, and over the course of his early scenes spreading the good word, we meet a fantastic assortment of diverse side characters who bring the city to life with their own energy and senses of humor. While we eventually spend the entirety of the movie with Miguel and his vampire-hunting friends, Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) and Bobby (Gerald W. Jones), there’s enough strong character work around the neighborhood that would make them worth exploring across a miniseries.
But these residents are all facing the Bronx as it’s changing in front of them, as a realty group is paying them all tons of money for their shops and buildings, all in the name of turning it into a new Williamsburg, meant to home to new artisanal shops and cafes that specialize only in different kinds of locally churned butter. Again, it’s a commendable approach to the storytelling that doesn’t simply find teens going up against vamps, but rather uses the villains as sharp-toothed figureheads to explore a very real issue affecting communities around the country. For the characters, some view this as a saving grace, being given a chance to escape the city and finally live a life of comfort in the suburbs, while others, like Miguel, see it as the destruction of his neighborhood and culture…and very soon the work of eternal night beasts who wish to exterminate the resident with each new acquisition. But true to form, no one believes the teens when they notice the real shit going on, so now Miguel and his friends have to study up on vampire lore in hopes of saving the day themselves.
The very nature of this part of the storytelling allows for us as an audience to spend more time among the community and it’s people – like Tony the bodega owner (The Kid Mero), the stern-as-hell Father Jackson (Method Man), and even Frank, the vamps familiar (Whigham, clearly having a good time) — as the teens try to put together the clues. There’s even a worthwhile B-plot involving Bobby’s struggle with staying out of gang life that adds a bit more drama to him and his friends’ relationship. And yet, Rodriguez and Hemingway’s script doesn’t quite figure out how to step out from the shadow of other similar movies – with this large section of teen-centric sleuthing not providing many vampire chills, thrills, or much else beyond a few laughs. The vampires themselves (Sarah Gadon, Adam David Thompson, and more) are definitely in the shadows, with not a ton left to do until the final 20 minutes outside of standing around and looking cool/creepy in their black clothes. In fact, it’s hard to discern any real bloodiness or carnage to necessitate even the PG-13 rating, feeling mostly like something geared strictly towards the teen-or-below market.
And while there’s much to admire about Rodriguez’s approach to the vampire lore and horror filmmaking – especially with plenty of deep reds and neon greens in the cinematography – it becomes a real shame to notice that when it comes to the social commentary and vampire elements, the movie doesn’t quite have the teeth to sink into the material as effectively as it could. Yes, the themes of gentrification and class warfare are present (much like another comedy this year, GET DUKED!), but it never goes explored beyond the surface. The intent of the vampires coming into the Bronx is never explored beyond the obvious, and while Miguel very much loves his community, the rest of the residents, while well-written as people, aren’t given time to reflect on the issues. We don’t get to hear from them about what they think about their community changing means, other than that change just always happens. They don’t even get in on the vampire hunting much themselves (at least until the final minutes), so it feels less like “Vampires vs. the Bronx” and more like “Vampires vs. three kids from the Bronx, and then kind of other people from the Bronx.” There were opportunities here to both really dig into the context of the social issues while also going bonkers with the genre elements, and the movie manages to do neither.
But, as I noted before, there’s something about the movie that hints its really only for the least demanding viewers in mind. Rodriguez puts enough of his mark on it to make it mostly stand out from its counterparts, but it still very much follows int their footsteps to the point where you can hit the beats on your own before the movie gets there. Even in the way of violence you’d have to do a frame-by-frame to notice the drops of blood. And yet, as I said, thanks to a great sense of humor and some colorful moments that break up the routineness of most of the story, it’s hard to not have at least some fun with VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX. Plus, if the movie gets young viewers to check out BLADE, or go even further back and check out NOSFERATU, then it achieves a special kind of success that’s truly worthy of praise. I mean, anything that gets people to remember how much Snipes kicked ass as Blade should be a winner in anyone’s book.