Night Teeth is very entertaining, not particularly scary, and more of an action film than a straight horror movie. But at its center is a romance, and some wicked antiheroes who are sadly put in their place all too soon. Isn’t that the problem with intra-vampire spats, though? All the worst bloodsuckers bleed out, even when they’re really the most fun to watch. Yet we shouldn’t linger on the sad parts. Adam Randall’s Netflix horror film happily slashes the throats of humans of all ages, even dishing out a savory cut of niece to her veteran vampire-killing uncle.
Don’t worry, Night Teeth is a younger-skewing horror film, so the more salacious distinctions are shrouded in wordplay, but this works to the film’s benefit. Because it is aimed at a teenage demographic, the cleverest of the dark insinuations are handled with care, while the carnage drips out deliciously. The film also goes through a chorus line of interesting secondary characters, who you miss when their curtains call.
The premise is fairly simple. Rogue vampire Victor, played by Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, breaks a generational truce between vampires and humans in a power play to take over all of Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights section for himself. He does it by letting his two most enthusiastic enforcers, Zoe (Lucy Fry) and Blaire (Debby Ryan), take out the vampire leadership in a series of well-coordinated attacks. What makes this more interesting than usual vampire entertainment is its similarity to crime films. This isn’t lost on Benny (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), the main character, who is only there because he convinced his brother Jay (Raul Castillo) to let him earn quick cash by driving his limo when he’s not using it.
Before Benny figures out who he’s chauffeuring though, he asks his two passengers if they are part of an organized crime outfit. Zoe sneers at the idea of being lumped in with such amateurs, but the driver’s got a point. The two women are basically doing pickups, just like mobsters who collect their regular take on illegal side work around town. The vampire turf war is also very much like a gangster takedown, and you have to give Victor some credit for his planning. It is just a shame we don’t get to see this go a little further, like a nod to the baptism massacre in The Godfather. But the best battles are in the boardrooms, and the best boardrooms are poolside when it comes to the Hollywood Hills.
Like on The Sopranos, where the New York mob plans to decapitate the three heads of the crime family and do business with the rest, Victor strikes at upper management quickly and decisively. He personally calls on LA’s unholy trinity, first dispatching the only vampire overlord who deals honestly with humans, and then staking his claim in the heart of vampire sovereignty.
Megan Fox, who plays vampire sovereign Grace, has earned her place as horror royalty, and brings a deliciously insolent tone to her jaded immortal overseer. She and Sydney Sweeney’s Eve bring more life to their undead creations in one scene than most YA genre actors bring to entire miniseries, and the audience is right to wish they saw more of the pair. This is consistent throughout.
The vampire club owner Rocko is only given one scene, but it almost steals the movie. Alexander Ludwig manages to channel the off-kilter musk of the great cult actor Rockets Redglare while evoking the uncomfortable ease of intimidation that Gary Busey brought to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The word “edgy” is thrown around a lot in the press without much thought to how it’s supposed to make a viewer feel. But Ludwig feels dangerous and unpredictable. It’s fun to watch.
Most of the violence perpetrated on the upper echelon is done off-camera. We are shown bloody aftermaths, but Victor’s battles are left the imagination. Zoe and Blaire make up for it. Sometimes it appears a little unbelievable, because they are often faced with slightly overwhelming foes who they dispatch without much trouble. They also come across an ancient vigilante order, which still hunts with crossbows.
One of the biggest flaws in their plan is that Benny is behind the wheel in the limo. Zoe and Blair expected the regular driver Jay, who is secretly the head of the designated neighborhood vampire watch. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Even Benny didn’t know he would be driving until minutes before he pulled out his only suit. Jay turned down Victor’s offer to join him in the regime change prior to the evening’s events, and part of the revised plan is to torture Jay over that decision. He keeps part of this promise, even making a meal of it.
Fry and Ryan have great chemistry. Zoe and Blair feel connected, sharing their glee in the idea this could very well be their last night on earth. It is a subtle thrill for both, even when they are in the deepest peril and looking for a way out. The two characters maintain a stream of steady sarcasm in the direst of situations. Zoe particularly shines. As cold and distant as she forces herself to be, the character is extremely likeable, and Fry brings subtle charisma throughout. She is also a subliminal tie between vampire and gangster entertainment, having played the incendiary and hypnotic Vasilisa Dragomiri in The Vampire Academy, and mob boss Chin Gigante’s manipulative and murderous daughter Stella on Godfather of Harlem.
Benny, meanwhile, begins to feel the bonding effect of Stockholm Syndrome as he is a prisoner of the two vampires, and lives by their whim. The slow-building romance between Benny and Blaire is conditional. We believe it is contingent on the driver maintaining his cool, and knowing when to lose it. Even Benny is surprised to find himself bashing a vampire hunter over the head with a champagne bottle, becoming a guardian angel on angel dust in a turnaround which blurs his commitment.
When Benny brings the two women home to meet his Abuela, we expect the worst, but get the promised respite from the chase. This gives the film a chance to breathe and establish character backgrounds. Both Benny and Blaire are basically orphans who were readily absorbed into a loving family, with a lot of skeletons in the closet.
Night Teeth has one advantage over some of Netflix’s other young-aiming horror offerings, like the vampire street fight Vampires vs. The Bronx. The players are more mature here, and more can be teased. Why bother producing a vampire piece without erotic danger? The two leads are alluring, though they reserve this for only the most appropriate situations. Also, besides Rocco’s creepy psychic energy readings, the vampires don’t seem to have any gifts besides speed and strength. This is a disappointment, and is obvious in lost opportunities.
Night Teeth doesn’t shy away from gore, but also doesn’t bare its fangs. There are no standout special effects, most of the deaths are fairly downplayed compared with the majority of action horror films. When vampires burn, they implode rather than explode, which makes it less showy, but more effective. The settings, however, are nicely stylized. Director Randall’s Los Angeles is a world of neon nightlife, velvet ropes, and foreboding underground parking lots. It is a visually engaging landscape.
We don’t get enough of the secret ancient world which lies buried under the Boyle Heights neighborhood. As talky as the film is, it could have afforded more history to the setup. It is also a little incongruous that Benny might fall for a woman who wants to kill his step-brother, but this isn’t the kind of masterpiece vampire work that Mike Flanagan supplied Netflix with in Midnight Mass.
The main problem with Night Teeth is the problem of most modern vampire entertainment. There is a cookiecutter formula which must be maintained, and that means the vampires must die. There is a very slight variation on this, which I don’t want to give away, in that we are left with vampires to root for at the end. They aren’t forbidding enough to warrant a sequel, but at least they know enough to pocket the loot the vampire enforcers had been collecting all evening.
Night Teeth hits Netflix on Oct. 20.