A film review by Craig J. Koban October 14, 2020


2020, PG-13, 86 mins.

Jaden Michael as Miguel Martinez  /  Gerald W. Jones III as Bobby /  Gregory Diaz IV as Luis Acosta  /  Coco Jones as Rita  /    /  Sarah Gadon as Vivien  /  Method Man as Father Jackson  /  Shea Whigham as Frank  /  Vladimir Caamano as Papo  /  The Kid Mero as Tony  /  Adam David Thompson as Alexis

Directed by Oz Rodriguez  /  Written by Rodriguez and Blaise Hemingway


What's worse then gentrification, you may ask?   

Gentrification caused by an invasion of blood thirsty white vampires (not metaphorically...literally).   

This is part of the darkly amusing and novel hook of the new Netflix original film VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX, which is about as specific of a title as one will come across lately.  Directed with great energy and style by Oz Rodriguez (who previously made a name for himself helming many lauded digital shorts for Saturday Night Live), the film takes the very overused premise of vampires running rampant in the present day and takes it one step uniquely further by having these creatures terrorize a bunch of African American teens in the titular location in question.  I had a rather large smile on my face while watching VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX, mostly because it kicked in my nostalgic vibes to throwback fright fests of yesteryear like THE MONSTER SQUAD, which also featured adolescents waging battle against the undead.  At an ultra nimble and fast paced running time of 86 minutes that mercifully never wears out its welcome, Rodriguez crafts an infectiously likeable horror comedy romp that also manages to engage in some sly social commentary about real ills facing minority neighborhoods.   

We're quickly introduced to the main young protagonist in Miguel (a truly winning Jaden Michael), who loves his local Bronx neighborhood with a passion, but has grave concerns over what he has been witnessing as of late that threatens to transform it for the worse.  It seems that a very mysterious corporation, Murnau Properties (nice nod to silent film NOSFERATU director F.W. Murnau), is buying up properties on Miguel's block by the dozen.  The company's front man in Frank (Shea Whigham) just seems to have a way with convincing business owners to sell, which might have a lot to do with the fact that his bosses above him are trying to suck the life out of everyone caught within their crosshairs.  And their blood...because, yes, they're vampires.  Without knowing more about these strange invaders (including their secrets), Miguel decides to plan a large block party to support local business and the people that run them, including a convenience store owned by Tony (Joel Martinez), which is an establishment that Frank and his BFFs frequently on a regular basis. 



Miguel has a slew of other nagging problems.  Firstly, he has great difficulty with the young ladies, especially since he's chronically shy around them and often has his mother Carmen (Judy Marte) yelling at him from their apartment building window at the most inopportune and embarrassing times (I mean, it's hard for a young dude to impress the older school girls when his mother asks in front of them both whether he needs a babysitter for the night while she's out).  There's one other larger issue that plagues poor Miguel: He witnesses with his own eyes one of the Murnau Properties vampires revealing himself in a dark alley while murdering one of the local gang members.  Trying to convince all of the adults around him that there are vampires in the Bronx that are attempting to kill everyone and permanently set up shop there proves to be fruitless, so Miguel decides to enlist the aid of his two buddies in Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) and Bobby (Gerald W Jones III), the former of which is hilarious dubbed by the other two as the "Puerto Rican Harry Potter" for his pulp culture knowledge and understanding of vampire lore.  The gang then decides to do what all kids in the Bronx would to prep for battle against an army of darkness: they watch a DVD copy of BLADE and start filling water balloons with holy water.

It can be said that the vampires themselves in VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX aren't all that particularly original and Rodriguez doesn't do much to alter this famous movie monster's core DNA, which is somewhat disappointing (the creatures here look like they stepped off of just about any other vampire movie set).  But, it's Rodriguez's novel handling of the underlining story that scores huge points with me, especially with the highly compelling commentary this film engages in when it comes to the multiple evils of gentrification.  Some may find this a bit too thematically obvious and blunt, but Rodriquez deserves brownie points for at least having a fresh take on subject matter that has seen the light of day in too many films to count over the last century-plus.  He actually makes VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX be about something beyond its obvious and more clear cut horror and comedic elements.  There's also a sobering subplot involving one of the boys - recently expelled from school - being targeted for gang recruitment at such a young age by some ruthless minded local thugs.  I appreciated how Rodriguez is able to make the more earthbound coming of age aspects of the plight of his youth characters flow together so smoothly with the ghastly supernatural elements of the plot.  These lads are facing multiple threats to their lives on all fronts. 

Rodriguez casts his film impeccably well too, and he gets thoroughly natural and lived-in performances from his young cast, with all of them having such an easy going and fluid chemistry with one another.  VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX may have its decidedly out-there and broad elements, but it thanklessly manages to humanize its teen heroes and make them feel like authentically realized people.  Also appealing is the fact that these kids are good and well meaning souls caught in way over their heads with the emergence of dangerous entities that threatens their lives and the continued existence of their neighborhood.  Michael is the real standout here, who infuses in Miguel a bright minded and energetic inquisitiveness that later gives way to anxiety plagued terror with his stunning revelations he uncovers.  The assembled adult cast playing off of the child actors are superb as well, especially Martinez as the shop owner that's obsessively protective of his business' prized and framed Sammy Sosa home run record bat, and Cliff "Method Man" Smith as the local priest that amusingly enters every scene with a perfectly placed Church bell boning in the background.  That's a nice touch.   

All of this, of course, builds towards an inevitable showdown between the increasingly terrified, but determined Miguel and his squad and the ravenous death dealers that are getting more annoyed at these kids' meddling by the minute.  So much of this is handled so cleverly and hilariously, but sometimes Rodriquez struggles with would-be shocking twists of the plot (one that involves a character introduced early on in the story can be seen from a bloody mile away, especially if one is well versed in the ageless movie troupe of the Law of Economy of Characters, which states that "all characters in a movie are necessary to the story...even seemingly superfluous ones that don't seem all that important).  That, and I think that the relative smallness of the scope of the climax of the film is kind of reflective of the low budget here (you sense that Rodriguez wanted a grander finale than what he's afforded to offer up).  Yet, as a kid-centric horror-comedy adventure film, VAMPIRES VS. THE BRONX is equal parts charming, droll, and frightening, not to mention that it displays an atypical level of thematic timeliness as a social parable, which you don't see in many other films about ruthless "suckheads."

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