The Frog Brothers’ street cred echoes way uptown as Netflix offers up its after-hours, after-school Halloween special treat: Vampires vs. The Bronx. Think of it as Get Out for tweens as the real bloodsuckers in this Bronx tale are the real estate developers looking to gentrify the Concourse. They even dress like landed gentry. “The Murnau guys are chewing up the neighborhood,” street proud Miguel (Jaden Michael) warns his crew. The Murnau real estate firm doesn’t even try to hide it, they have a Vlad the Impaler face on their logo.
Miguel is known as Lil Mayor in the reluctantly transitional neighborhood. He is on a mission to save Tony’s bodega, where he basically grew up. He is the de facto leader of a gang which consists of his two best friends. Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) just got kicked out of school for fighting, and the local priest is keeping a watchful eye on him. The son of a slain OG, a Concourse gang is also checking him out while cruising for recruits. Bobby turns down a job at the beginning of the episode. Luis (Gregory Diaz IV), or as Slim calls him “Puerto Rican Harry Potter,” is the horror geek with all the answers. Just in from Tampa, after three months of enforced Disneyfication apparently, he is the odd one out, and expresses it in an almost-Shakespearean/Neil Simon soliloquy. It’s enough to put hair on your legs.
Gloria (Imani Lewis) provides running commentary throughout via her video blog, GloTV. “Have you noticed those missing kids’ posters,” she asks over too many emojis. “Construction was supposed to be good for the neighborhood.” We get to know, and like, the kids on the block very fast. Lil Mayor, on a bike two sizes too big for him, is out saving the neighborhood and the people give him props for that. He also gets free snacks and sodas. Well, they’re on his tab, which he swears he’s going to pay back. It just feels like he will, but even if he doesn’t, he’s working it off ahead of time. The rest of the gang is super positive, on the sweet and down low.
Even the gangbangers are polite and shit. Expressing displeasure with the vintage fashions of their undead interlopers with a more muted “I didn’t say I liked them” retort than a loud slam of trash talk. Almost all the characters, even the minor ones, get in a wisecrack. But Bobby gets in the best understated punch line: “Not what I thought you’d say.” It doesn’t seem like much on the page, but after the suspense of the building, it is an absolutely killer line. Even the vampire commander’s personal familiar Frank Polidori (Shea Whigham) projects a cool understated wit. While locking the vampire hunters in the Murnau offices he notes how daylight can be murder. Frank might be a descendant of John William Polidori, who submitted the short story “The Vampyre” to an exclusive 1819 contest with poets Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley. He lost to the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
The first character we meet is Vivian (Sarah Gadon), a young white woman who moved after she was priced out of her old neighborhood. She’s getting her nails done for the first time in the Bronx by a manicurist who has pushed her last cuticle. She’s sold the salon and is moving to the suburbs. There is a twist to her character, and while this would normally make this particular reviewer cheer, she brings too much of what’s wrong with the changing neighborhood. She ultimately admits she’s been slumming the whole time.
The vampires are standard issued and off the rack, obviously pale and fairly innocuous, like something you’d find in the TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Luckily, the book makes an appearance and an impression. It’s pretty creepy how the vampires in Vampires vs. the Bronx levitate as they bite during a particularly impressive introductory scene in an underground parking garage. It is also telling how everyone knows the cops wouldn’t do anything about finding Slim. Not because he’s a gangbanger, but because he’s from the Bronx. Parts of the movie comes across like a travelogue which tells you how to get to Sesame Street. The vampires have a hierarchy, and a plan. The kids very easily lift a bag with some kind of skeleton key and a zip drive and learn the building the Murnau company is building will be 13 floors high. That’s not the unlucky part, though. Each floor will have a dozen coffins, which means 156 vampires will be crowding the 4 Train.
Luis lays out “the basics,” during a lag in Blade, which the kids watch as an instructional tool. Stakes disintegrate vampire if you get them in the heart. The eucharist turns them into toast. Add garlic and it can be sold at the bodega as vampire garlic toast. But he leaves out the first sign of the neighborhood invaders: the canvas bags. As scary as the vampires are, they suck the life out of the hood with deeds and writs and foreclosure papers. That is their weapon as much as the kids have plastic crucifixes.
The overt vampire incursion is a parable about a very real and silent threat: gentrification. In the film, it’s not just any old white people buying up property in the Boogie Down. It’s ancient old people who stay that way by sucking the blood out of locals while draining the hood of anything special. But either way, it’s “all about getting that macchiato and gelato money.” No one wants to see a Butter Store on 3rd Ave. Gentrification isn’t the only thing that sucks on the Concourse. Vampires, humans, and clergy are also at the mercy of an even more insidious and equally covert menace: Sprite product placement. It is apparently the new holy water below Tremont Ave.
The weaponing-up scene is fun. Watching the kids steal garlic and fill holy water balloons is a direct homage to Lost Boys. The movie flubs the science. If the balloon the kids use as a beacon to find vampires pops outside a major nest, wouldn’t all the holy water balloons pop once they enter? The kids prove themselves creatures as their batting average soars on a Sammy Sosa baseball bat. But their ultimate weapon is their trash talk. A particularly adherent follower of vampire commandments learns the error of his ways because one of the kids points out he’s going to be the vampires’ “bitch for all eternity.”
Besides a millisecond of a flirtatious scene at the first devilish deal signing, the film offers nothing in the way of sexual tension, an absolute must for vampire entertainment. Miguel’s crush on the older 16-year-old girl who was raised to fight vampires because she is Haitian turns out to be a disappointment which only emphasizes how much of a children’s story this is. Dominican Republic-raised director Oz Rodriguez (Saturday Night Live, A.P. Bio) wanted to showcase the multiculturalism and youth of the city’s most underdog borough.
If you’re looking for the 2011 UK film Attack the Block, you won’t find it here. Well, maybe under the sugar coating. Vampires vs. the Bronx is for all ages, though not all species, apparently. There is not a single bat in the movie, and it wasn’t shot that far from The Bronx Zoo. They have a whole World of Darkness there. Bats also assemble in the Bronx Botanical Garden, but the new citizens of the get down haven’t done their homework. In 1995, Eddie Murphy claimed everything south of Fulton Street for the vampires in the 1995 film Vampire in Brooklyn. Staten Island has its own vampire reality series with FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. Vampires vs. the Bronx is a light and fun take on an old and familiar story. It’s good for a chuckle but won’t keep you up at night unless there’s been a lot of new traffic lights and Starbucks popping up on your block.
Vampires vs. The Bronx will stream on Netflix starting Oct. 2, 2020.