You can do a lot with a kids’ movie. Vampires vs. the Bronx isn’t really a children’s tale, but by centering three Bronx residents in their early teens, the film strips the genre of its self-serious baggage and busts open the doors to a fleet-footed, coming-of-age romp through the horror, the laughter, and the social metaphors of a vampire invasion of The Bronx.
The film cold-opens with a cheeky wink to film lovers: vampires are buying up property in a Bronx neighborhood through a real estate company, Murnau Properties, named after F.W. Murnau, the legendary German director whose 1922 Nosferatu was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a clever touch, but Vampires wisely veers away from that sort of in-vogue, self-aware meta-commentary, instead plowing head-first into an earnest story of growing up amidst gentrification. Miguel, Bobby, and Luis - the three musketeers of their neighborhood - stumble onto the vampires’ lair and their plans to destroy the neighborhood. But will anyone listen before it’s too late?
Writer-director Oz Rodriguez still wears his influences on his sleeve. The unease of steady disappearances taps into It; while the vampires-in-the-neighborhood formula replicates another Stephen King classic, Salem’s Lot, which one of the boys is seen reading early in the film. The voice of a radio host floats over the Bronx residents in an opening sequence reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, with Tony’s bodega taking the place of Sal’s pizza parlor. Vampires eventually finds its own identity, one rooted in Rodriguez’s knack for comedic timing but nonetheless tinted with the Netflix original sheen.
The central metaphor manages to be poignant without weighing the film down, an accomplishment for Rodriguez given how on-the-nose it can be at times. But that’s the benefit of refracting your film through the viewpoint of three kids: nuance can fall by the wayside. All three - Jaden Michael as Miguel, Gerald Jones III as Bobby, and Gregory Diaz IV as Luis - inhabit their roles naturally, bouncing off each other as only new teenagers can, and reeling from unfiltered Nancy-Drew-esque curiosity to genuine fear and shame when the real world butts its way into their fantasies. Sarah Gadon and Method Man do well with smaller roles, but it’s Chris Redd who steals the show, reprising Spike Lee’s always-on-the-block layabouts from Do the Right Thing, but adding his own flair. After his similarly arresting cameo in this year’s Scare Me, every comedic director should be dialing his number.
Vampires is unabashed fun. It’s elevated by Rodriguez’s willingness to embrace that fun and run with it, and his success in finding a cast that’s completely game.
As Luis says: let’s go kill some suckheads.