Scary things in life have a way of creeping up on you, slowly stalking you from the shadows until you let your guard down, and then brings the pain. Vampires vs. the Bronx understands that dread underneath the trappings of a spooky kids adventure. The '80s and '90s have become full-blown nostalgia settings now, but this effort is refreshingly contemporary, despite those tropes moving in from these decades. But, in a fun twist for the film, that creep of signifiers has woven its way into the narrative. Everything is changing, and it's up to our children protagonists to get to the bottom of it.
Murnau Properties is buying up a ton of real estate in the borough (named for Nosferatu’s director, naturally). Locally owned shops and restaurants are being pushed out in favor of restaurants that serve goods that the community never really asked for. Enter our cast of young boys (and one infinitely more confident young lady) trying to get to the bottom of the terror afflicting their streets. If the real estate grabs weren’t enough, people are getting plucked off the street more and more in recent weeks. Before long, that gentrification front and the words on those missing-persons posters begin to bleed together.
Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), a.k.a. Lil' Mayor, is at the center of Vampires vs. the Bronx’s conflict. He could be the lead of any number of direct-to-VHS efforts from the '90s, and that is a great thing. He and his friends are much more diverse than the casts of films like Harriet the Spy or other precocious fare from that bygone decade. After all, this is the BX and you better believe the movie tries to convey that at every turn. If you’ve ever spent any time in the area, all the sounds and sights are there. Bodegas, people playing cards and dominoes in the community, a fire hydrant for the kids to cool off; you know the vibes, adding to the feel of the streets having their own forces at play.
Bobby, rendered on screen by a quick-witted Gerald W. Jones III, is constantly being beckoned by the less-savory parts of the neighborhood. However, when literal evil meets the gangs near him, Bobby exhibits an understandable trepidation. Luckily for the heroes, Gregory Diaz IV’s Luis is there to be our handy guide to the Vampire menace. The first time we meet the kid, he’s reading Salem’s Lot, so genre-savvy doesn’t begin to cover it. Once the problem has been diagnosed, Vampires vs. the Bronx makes sure that viewers don't forget about the other sinister forces at play.
The script’s love for the neighborhood also explains the gentrification that serves as the material villain of the film along with the blood-sucking monsters. Lil' Mayor is trying to save his friend, bodega owner Tony’s (Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez) building from the encroaching economic forces at play. However, when he makes one wrong turn on his bike, he gets his friends all tangled up with the vampire menace. When Miguel tries to alert his mother to the incoming danger, she says to him and the audience, “Things change; the neighborhood changes. It’s our turn. It’s just what happens.” So, from that moment, the viewer can see that the kids are going to have to be the ones to break this cycle.
In a moment of true clarity near the climax of the film, the fact that the residents of the Bronx have to band together to protect each other really sings. In the end, “All we got is us.” Saturday Night Live's Chris Redd has a pretty choice rallying cry as the borough rallies together. A strong message about community, place, and most importantly not messing with the Bronx is laid out for all to see. The young actors here give gamely performances. There are multiple Dracula and vampire Easter eggs for nimble viewers, with one particular moment with Tony letting the kids watch Blade being an absolute delight.
If you’re wondering how to work the younger set into Halloween without tossing them into the deep end, go ahead and let them tangle with these vampires, you won’t regret it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Vampires vs. the Bronx is currently streaming on Netflix.