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Gentrification sucks – ‘Vampires vs. the Bronx’

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As someone who came of age in the 1980s, I have a deep affinity for kid-driven adventure movies. From “The Goonies” on down, I’ve always loved stories where young people were the heroes. And thanks to recent offerings such as the remake of Stephen King’s “It” or the wildly popular and nigh-ubiquitous “Stranger Things,” those sorts of films are making a comeback.

And Netflix has just such a film in “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” currently streaming on the service. The movie – directed by Oz Rodriguez from a script written by Blaise Hemingway (though Rodriguez has a story credit) – is an unexpectedly engaging bit of horror-comedy, a kids-against-the-forces-of-evil romp that also manages to have some interesting things to say about urban life and the threat of gentrification. Just, you know, with vampires.

(Can you even imagine how quickly I was in upon hearing that this movie existed?)

Now, just because I love movies like this doesn’t mean I’m blind to their flaws. There are a LOT of ways that this could have gone sideways. That it doesn’t is a testament to the filmmakers and the strong work by the young cast. It’s silly and surprisingly smart and perhaps a little scarier than anticipated. All in all, it’s a ton of fun – particularly at this time of year.

Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael, TV’s “The Bug Diaries”) is a beloved figure in his Bronx neighborhood. He’s utterly devoted to his home – so much so that his nickname is “Little Mayor.” But Miguel has a problem. Specifically, a mysterious real estate company called Murnau Properties is buying up places all over the neighborhood, throwing gobs of money at residents and immediately putting up “Coming Soon” signs for the sorts of ambiguously named shops that spring up in newly-hip neighborhoods.

Miguel is trying to run a fundraiser to help bodega owner Tony (The Kid Mero, TV’s “Desus & Mero”) keep his business alive, even when everyone around him – including his best friend Bobby (Gerald Jones III, “Benji the Dove”) and Tony himself – thinks it a futile effort. Even when their buddy Luis (Gregory Diaz IV, “Carrie Pilby”) comes back to town, Miguel just wants to try to save the neighborhood.

But when the people behind Murnau Properties turn out to be something far more sinister – something far more than people – it begins to look like this gentrifying process could wind up being terminal. Miguel and his friends suspect the worst, but struggle to convince anyone to believe them. And there are forces at work that will happily dispose of a few meddling kids – the cost of doing business.

I really dug this movie. The plot-summarizing title sounds like the sort of movie Crow and Tom Servo should be mocking from the Satellite of Love, but behind that oddly generic name is a very good film, one that nimbly mines the tropes of both comedy and horror. It’s definitely looking to attract tween and teen viewers, but not at the expense of older audiences – the scares are solid, but not too intense, while the jokes are funny without getting overly coarse. Seriously – it’s a great time.

One of the more surprising aspects of the movie is just how much care Rodriguez takes in crafting the sense of place. When your characters are driven by love of their neighborhood, you need to show us why that love is so deeply felt. Every moment of this film is awash in that feeling of community, creating a place deserving of the affection its residents carry for it.

Sure, the subtextual message is mostly just textual – gentrification is driven by people with little understanding of the place into which they’re entering – but it’s no less valuable for being unsubtle. And some of the winks and nods never get past the point of set dressing; a few of the pop cultural vampire references seem to be there simply for the sake of being there. There are leaps and gaps in the narrative that raise some logical and logistical questions.

None of that matters, because this movie is legitimately fun. Think 21st century “Monster Squad,” only with higher production values – it’s the sort of film that is going to be remembered fondly by people who saw it at the right age. It’s imperfect, but that’s a big part of its charm. There’s a looseness throughout that endows the whole thing with a good times vibe; everyone involved was quite clearly having a blast.

Speaking of the people involved – let’s talk about the cast. The young men at the center of the film make for a delightful trio. Michael, Jones and Diaz bring just the right combination of wide-eyed idealism, recklessness and youthful indiscretion – they’re a bunch of out-of-their-depth goofballs. As a team, they’re wonderfully watchable while also having enough in the tank to carry large chunks of the film on their own. They’re great.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is pretty great in its own right. The Kid Mero brings big bodega energy to his portrayal of Tony, for instance. Shea Whigham crushes as the face of Murnau Properties. Sarah Gadon is very good as a suspiciously enthusiastic new resident of the neighborhood. Chris Redd and Vladimir Caamano are a delightful pairing, a street corner Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Oh, and Method Man is here – as a priest.

“Vampires vs. the Bronx” might not be a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one – and it is DEFINITELY a great time. For anyone with an affinity for comedy-horror or nostalgia for the kid-centric adventures of the 1980s, this will prove to be a rewarding and enjoyable viewing experience, as well as a reminder that gentrification does indeed suck.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 12:00

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