Director: Oz Rodriguez
Stars: Jaden Michael, Sarah Gadon, Imani Lewis
There are strong Attack the Block vibes coming off of this New York teen-horror picture new to Netflix. Set within the neighbourhood of the title, Oz Rodriguez’s playful feature takes aim at opportunistic real estate firms buying up properties to wholesale gentrify urban communities. Capitalist whitewashing. Economic blood sucking as literal vampirism. As metaphors go it lacks a certain subtlety, but with a youth audience most definitely in mind, nuance isn’t exactly a priority when it comes to subtext. Fun is the order of the day.
The film opens with whiter-than-white Vivian (Sarah Gadon) moving into the neighbourhood. She gets her nails done by Becky (Zoe Saldana) who has just sold her business to Murnau Properties (a little nod to Nosferatu‘s F.W.). Cue the arrival of head honcho and vampire’s familiar Frank Polidori (Shea Whigham, quaffed to Viggo-in-Eastern Promises severity), seeking Becky’s final signature on the paperwork. He brings along more than unsigned contracts, however. Becky will never be seen again…
Local kid Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael) is wise to the threat, already plastering the district with flyers for a block party; raising money to resist the encroachment. He’s brisk to make the supernatural connection, mustering his friends (Gerald W. Jones III, Gregory Diaz IV) for some Stranger Things-style investigation. The boys quickly find themselves in over their heads. “Every one of you could disappear and nobody would even notice,” Polidori tells Miguel and his pals, rather bluntly invoking the inherent racism that often lies beneath such shrewd corporate aggressions.
The peripheries of the story tilt toward some cliché stereotypes (the assumption that a new hat must be stolen; the threat of gang-bangers also preying on the neighbourhood kids), yet Vampires vs the Bronx doesn’t fall foul of the same cultural tourism that Vivian seems to aspire to. There’s heart in this picture, for sure, but when set beside Joe Cornish’s 2011 thrill-ride or the Duffer Brothers’ fellow Netflix resident, Rodriguez’s film feels lacking in similar smarts, sophistication or memorable moments. With it’s younger audience in mind, it’d often rather tell than show. It’s pleasant enough, but a little basic. The emphasis on the political stance is admirably constant, but the adventure side of things is tepid, with exposition frequently prioritised over excitement.
The young cast are capable, but it’s the players in the margins that feel like they offer the most. Eight Grade supporting actor Imani Lewis gets to sparkle again in a similarly sidelined role as vlogger Gloria. You’d rather she was in the mix with Miguel and his friends, steering the action. Saldana’s sole scene makes you wish there had been more here for her to do, too. The same goes for Method Man, cast as a local minister, contrasting starkly to his most well-known work in HBO’s The Wire.
Miguel – who knows his blood-suckers – is right at every turn in assuming their mythos. Reflections, coffins, holy water; the whole bit. Even the vamp make-up comes directly from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer make-up box. As such, surprises are a shade sparse. Vampires vs the Bronx has pluck, but where it lacks is in originality or a sense of escalating threat. Things feel as though they end as soon as they’ve begun.
What is given credence here is the need for street smarts from a young age. That due to circumstance, there’s an expectation on these kids to have the nous for survival that their more privileged white counterparts don’t often require. An imbalance of innocence, if you will.
It feels like poor sportsmanship to look too negatively on Vampires vs the Bronx, especially as intersections of genre cinema with minority voices are always welcome. This is breezy watching, efficiently made. Kids will go for it. Rodriguez employs handsome lighting throughout. His Bronx is a warm place, evoking a spooky summer rather than a more festive autumnal adventure. By night he contrasts cool teals with deep reds, tilting into the neon expectations of urban vampire myth.
For a more thoughtful exploration of inner city poverty through the eye of vampirism, I might suggest a look at Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration. It’s more dour and introspective (and certainly not for kids), but it lingers far longer than this relatively fleeting addition to the urban bloodsuckers sub-genre. What we have here is nice enough, but remains safely within a seemingly pre-set boundary.