As Halloween 2020 approaches there is an arguable acknowledgment that nothing can be more terrifying than just looking plaintively out of the window whilst we try to withstand a global pandemic. Of the Netflix movies that have dropped the likes of Hubie Halloween, and now Vampires vs The Bronx, the tone is one of comedy rather than out and out scares. But where the latter reached for the easiest gags in the cobweb covered toybox, Vampire vs The Bronx succeeds in having something intelligent to say among the New York flavoured hubbub.
Directed by Saturday Night Live alumni Osmany Rodriguez and with legendary SNL producer, Lorne Michaels aboard, Vampires vs The Bronx certainly feels like it has its roots in a sketch comedy bit. “Yeah, vampires are ancient and dead-ass evil, but how would they cope with a hood full of gully Bronxites?”* It would have been simple to leave the premise as simple as that but Rodriguez wisely fleshes out the idea into feature-length by staking a parallel between the insidious creeping presence of vampires and the pervasive gentrification of deprived neighbourhoods that slowly push out local residents.
Teenager Miguel ‘Lil Mayor’ Martinez (Jaden Michael), Vivian (Sarah Gadon, Alias Grace) and a bunch of friends are working to save their beloved local bodega run by father figure Tony (The Kid Mero). Like many local businesses, Tony’s Bodega is struggling for custom and faces getting bought out by high-end real estate company, Murnau Properties. Lil Mayor bikes around like crazy trying to promote a community block party, but when he stumbles across a low-level gang member having the life drained out of him by a tall silent guy who casts no reflection, he drags in the help of friends Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) to sound the alarm.
The result is a mashing together of Lost Boys style vampire hunting and Attack The Block like community fight back. The title of the movie suggests long sequences of Bronx attitude facing off those perennial pain in the neck folklore monsters, but expectations of a schlocky b-movie bonanza are quickly dashed when it becomes clear that the vampires are not really the focus of the movie.
Whilst the link between vampires sucking the blood out of victims and gentrification draining the life out of communities is not a particularly subtle one, its originality lends Vampire vs The Bronx an unexpectedly welcome aspect of social commentary. Also welcome is the depiction of Bobby, whose frustrations at the limitations of his academic abilities and fiery temperament mean he is prime fodder to be groomed by local gangsters for indoctrination into street crime. The dynamic between Lil Mayor and Bobby, and how the latter is torn between friendship and perceived fellowship makes for a strong core around which the otherwise mythical battles can revolve.
One downside to exploring a black community narrative is that it is done at the expense of having much horror in this ostensibly comedy horror movie. The vampires are low in numbers pending clinching a final deal and splatter fans will certainly be left wanting. They hang over the movie as a threatening unseen presence but thankfully their absence is filled by some great warm-hearted comedy throughout.
There are plenty of family chastisements with a dash of male teenage embarrassment shaken into the mix that means most scenes will leave a smile on your face, and the young core cast is complemented by a great support of adults including Method Man as a no-nonsense reverend and Sarah Gadon as the all smiles earnest white woman in a predominantly Black, Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood.
It’s a shame that friend third wheel Luis is somewhat left in the cold, relegated to nerdy knowledge and the tired ‘illnesses mean weak mentality’ trope. Luis may not be able to crowbar any emotional leverage between Lil Mayor and Bobby, but there are great laughs to be had in his usage of the movie Blade as an instructional vampire fighting tool. There are also some original additions to vampire lore such as an inventive holy water early warning system and surely the only weaponisation of a communion wafer in cinema.
Vampire vs The Bronx is a deliberately evocative title that is designed to make you think of wisecracking attitude caricatures going for the undead jugular. The ending battle leans almost reluctantly towards this image in a scene which smacks a little of ‘we ran out of money for the fight we wanted’ but considering the preceding 80 minutes delivers a warming blend of relatable and respectful characters with wry comedy and insightful commentary, then desire for a blood-soaked finale crumbles to dust in the sunrise.
Words by Mike Record
*This is what happens when an English guy from the East Midlands googles New York slang to seem legit.