Vampires vs. the Bronx
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The idea of kids going on adventure to save their home is one that's been explored a few times in movies and media. The Netflix release of Vampires vs. the Bronx fits tidily into that genre -- a trio of kids realize vampires have moved into the Bronx and they have to fight them off -- gaining favorable reviews and comparisons the 1985 kids' classic, The Goonies. Fans of this site, though will feel a couple of other influences: The Monster Squad, of course, but also Blaxploitation horror classics like Blacula. Naturally, I loved it.
Being both a kids' adventure and a Blaxploitation film, it has more to say than The Goonies or The Monster Squad ever did. This isn't just mindless entertainment that posits, "what if kids found a hidden pirate ship," or, "what if monsters met their ultimate match: pre-teens." Instead Vampires vs. the Bronx puts a spin on it that will feel all too real to Black and Hispanic communities across the country: the encroaching threat of gentrification.
We're introduced to our three heroes -- artist and socially responsible volunteer Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), potential gang-banger Bobby Carter (Gerald W. Jones III), and nerdy kid Luis Acosta (Gregory Diaz IV) -- as they paper the town with fliers for a Block Party put together in support of Tony's Bodega, their local after-school hangout. Tony's is under threat of shutting down forever after the landlord raised his rent substantially. The landlord, meanwhile, has his property bought up by Murnau Properties, a new group picking up properties all throughout this section of the Bronx, looking to "update" and "improve" the neighborhood, which mostly just means putting in nine-dollar coffee shops and super-trendy brunch eateries.
Murnau, though, is actually a front for a cult of vampires (as the name of the group should have tipped you off). Instead of actually buying the properties they're getting the shop owners to sign over their buildings and then killing them, saving money while becoming the legal owners (so the vampires can then enter the buildings as they like). Their goal is to wipe out all the "vermin" (read: humans) and make this a safe haven for vampire kind as they slowly spread out across New York. But Miguel, by chance, witnesses a vampire kill a gang-banger and suddenly Miguel puts it all together. He just has to convince his friends, and then the rest of the neighborhood, that vampires are real so they can fight them off before the neighborhood is lost to the monsters.
There's a lot of politics going on in Vampires vs. the Bronx, as in the best traditions of Blaxploitation films. It's no mistake that all the vampires in the film are white while all the humans are Black and Hispanic; the movie has a clear message it wants to discuss about gentrification. The "nice, clean people" moving into the neighborhood want to change it, wiping away any of the good parts of these areas so they can have their "nice, clean, new" neighborhoods. It's a battle, in essence, for the hearts and souls of these neighborhoods.
That's why slipping vampires into a tale like this is brilliant: these are creatures that feed on life and souls, so then using gentrification to feed on the neighborhoods is perfect. Of course, the people behind gentrification are white, so pale bloodsuckers should obviously be white. It's a nice parallel that can be played as both a fan vampire tale and a social commentary on the changes these neighborhoods are facing. The movie doesn't shy away from the bad things going on in places like this little slice of the Bronx -- there are gangs, and unemployment, and crappy landlords -- but the argument it makes is that white people moving in and changing it isn't the solution, it just creates new problems. That's smart writing.
I was also impressed by just how multicultural this film was. Despite easily slotting into the Blaxploitation genre, the lead characters aren't all African-American. Miguel and Luis are Hispanic, but from two different cultures, while Bobby is black and their friend, Rita, is Haitian, These backgrounds inform each of the characters and how they react to situations (Rita, for example, has no problem believing in vampires because, as she says, "my grandma has been preparing me for this my whole life"). It creates a real melting pot feel to the film, making the neighborhood feel more real and lived in than if it had been painted with a single racial brush.
Of course, it helps that the film is also a lot of fun. It's an easy and fun hang-out kind of movie that slots nicely in alongside The Goonies and The Monster Squad. If anything this film is more likable that those films without the awkward 1980s racism and slurs the pre-teens in those films engage in without thinking (because that was the writing of the era). I have a feeling, in comparison to those movies, Vampires vs. the Bronx is going to age a whole hell of a lot better, becoming it's own kid-watching classic in time.
The film, really, is super entertaining. It builds its story slowly but manages to land plenty of jokes and fun moments early enough that you aren't bored. You get sucked in hanging out with the characters and then the vampires show up and the stakes are set. You want the heroic kids to win, to beat back these white devils (however you want to define that), because you've spent enough time with them to really care about them as people. The movie develops all its characters well, taking just enough to make them more than stock characters so that, whatever happens, you've invested.
The one mistake the movie makes is setting the vampires up to be a huge threat early on, showing all their powers and how they can easily best humans, but in the climax of the film the movie conveniently forgets about all these powers. A number of vampire movies do this, letting the vampires become more easily killed so that the kids can actually come out on top, but it still feels like a little bit of a cheat. There are ways to have the heroes win without requiring the villains to get suddenly stupid about what they can do.
Overall, though, the film is a real winner. It has heart, laughs, and a lot of fun, all while nicely tucking in a message that resonates today. It's the best successor I've seen to the kid adventure films of old, and right good entrant in the Blaxploitation genre as well. Fun for everyone, especially if you're a fan of horror-comedy.