By Pablo Lacalle
It’s become something of a hackneyed expression to claim that nothing good can come of 2020, and with cinema at least, this seemed to be true in many respects. With theatres closed down, the few choice scraps of new releases that the public has been able to consume have relied on streaming services with Netflix at the helm. One of said new releases caught my eye: it was the run-up to Halloween at the time, and the title Vampires vs the Bronx (directed by Osmany Rodriguez) certainly caught my attention. The premise alone seemed to guarantee an interesting viewing experience: a group of Latino pre-teens facing against the pale denizens of the underworld sounded like a much needed boost of novelty in a genre that has become, unfortunately, bogged down and stale in recent years.
Vampires are a difficult beast to tackle (holy water in hand or not). In the modern era, its hard not to snicker at the creatures in fiction, or think of them in the same context as the Count from Sesame Street ("I vant to suck your bluuuuud") or worse still, the perpetually angsty and much lampooned “sparkly” vampires from the Twilight phenomenon. Vampires vs The Bronx does make an admirable effort to try and re-contextualise the bloodsucker mythology into the modern age, with the villainous vamps masquerading as a multi-million dollar real-estate agency buying up property in the Bronx, prime territory for feeding as, in the own logic of the antagonists, disappearances in urban areas are barely ever considered noteworthy. Its far from subtle, but nuance isn’t the point, and its gratifying to see a film-maker hark back to a central theme that Bram Stoker created thats been often overlooked: the vampire, portrayed as a ludicrously wealthy aristocrat that feeds on the peasantry, is an allegory too obvious to miss.
Pity that the film oddly seems to both rely too heavily on its themes of gentrification and economic disparity, whilst also not tackling it enough as it could. A lot of the time in the movie is spent as a sort of coming-of-age comedy between teenagers Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael) Bobby (Gerald Jones III) and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) and their father figure Tony (Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez) who, credit where credit is due, do provide the film’s biggest laughs and have great natural chemistry. The integration of elements of Hispanic culture, music and language are also much appreciated, with some playing well into the supernatural elements of the action (it stands to reason the highly Christian culture of many of the Bronx’s residents would be handy when dealing with the forces of Satan).
But it is sadly with its vampires where the film grinds to a halt - a pretty big issue when they are the dominating threat facing the main characters. As mentioned briefly above, the film seems to struggle continually with what kind of tone or message it wants to set. The vampires look the part, but their mannerisms, movements, dialogue and even how their killings are shot is almost cartoonishly hockey and tame, more Bella Lugosi than ravenous monster preying on an impoverished community. This seems to indicate the film was perhaps trying a tongue-in-cheek homage to old 80s vampire movies (an impression I got with the opening flickering neon title card) but then the modern day setting clashes horribly with this aesthetic decision. Despite some good performances by Sarah Gordon as lead vampire Vivian (in a painfully obvious twist) and Shea Whigham as undead shill Frank Polidori, the threat of the monsters never lives up to their reputation, and the theme of gentrification is abandoned at the end of the movie for a confusing plan to use some sort of vampire ashes to transform people into the creatures with more ease.
Missed opportunities seems to be the key word to describe the movie, which never fully commits to the message that's supposed to be the backbone of the film. The cinematography and casting is good, but not good enough to make up for the rushed and often sloppy plot and the weaker performances. Though evidently trying to breach subjects of race (I don’t think it's a small coincidence all the vampires are white) the film settles for goofier, cloak-swirling, fang-baring children of the night, to the extent that the vampire’s human servant Frank is more menacing than his overlords. It's also a pity that the very idea of centuries old antagonists isn’t explored further: how much more interesting could it have been to see the backwards and bigoted worldview of a vampire turned in say, the 16th century, and how that would affect their character and views on the 21st century society they are trying to dominate?
Vampires vs The Bronx had a great chance to comment on vampire fiction and how the monsters could be viewed in a different light (no pun intended) in a 21st century context. Instead (as funny as they are) it settles for half-baked story threads and references to Blade and Instagram live-streaming. Its bold and novel themes are never fully realised, and counter-intuitively undermined by the weak writing and presentation of the central antagonists. It’s an enjoyable and fun watch, but never rises to the potential it's clearly aspiring for, and serves as a lesson of the dangers of allowing messages and allegory to flourish at the expense of writing, pacing and plot.