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Pirate Film Reviews

Vampires Vs. The Bronx

I was really looking forward to this film, the overall premise seemed so promising! A teen Vampire film with an interesting subtext regarding gentrification sucking the lifeblood out of urban areas. Hopes were high when I fired it up on the big screen TV, assuming it would be a woke mashup between Fright Night, Lost Boys and possibly Vampire in Brooklyn.

For the first half it seemed like the film might deliver. But unfortunately for the second half ‘Vampires Vs. The Bronx’ turns into a flapping rubber bat of a film. It toothlessly ditches the gentrification angle, trades characterisations for stereotypes and shamelessly rips-off better teen Vampire films of yesteryear.

Don’t worry it’s just the hidden hand of the market.

The Good

Credit where credit is due. The film does starts brightly enough. The post title screen montage shows neighborhood kid ‘Lil Mayor’ Miguel as he cycles through the Bronx putting up posters for a Block Party benefit to save the local Bodega, which is run by his friend Tony. It’s a pretty good way to introduce all the named characters and setup all the locations, showing the spread of blood-sucking real estate company ‘Murnau Properties’ as it aggressively takes over the local small businesses in the Bronx.

Obviously ‘Murnau’ is an outfit owned by and for vampires that chose to ignore the recent memo from the Vampire Grandmaster regarding ‘Coach Feratu’. Seeing as they named themselves after F.W. Murnau the director of Nosferatu, and use a well known portrait of Vlad the Impaler for a logo.

In addition to turning nail salons into hipster coffee shops and artisan cheese bars, Murnau has also bought up the local creepy looking courthouse. Which it plans to turn into luxury apartment vampire nests. It’s not exactly super subtle but it’s a campy kind of fun befitting the genre. Plus there are so many po-faced, clangingly scored horror films out there now that a fun bit of pop horror goes a long way. In VVtB you get precisely 37 minutes of fun and then it loses itself.

The Bad

For me, the film starts to fall apart when the main trio get arrested for trespassing on one of the Murnau properties. The boys are trying to get proof that vampires exist. But of course vampires don’t show up on video! So when they show their phone camera footage to the cops and the gathered chorus of community members and nothing shows up on screen, cue the drama.

So far, so formulaic. However this is the Bronx! Suddenly having all the generations of assorted adults become law abiding to the point of screeching authoritarianism felt especially jarring. It didn’t stop there either. The V-Blogging character, the neighborhood girls and the two aspiring rappers all get their licks of disapproval in on poor Miguel and friends. You’d think the whole neighborhood had never known anybody who’d sat in the back of a squad car. At first it just seemed unrealistic. But the longer it went on the whole sequence came across as condescendingly moralistic. In the age of Black Lives matter and the victimisation of so many young people of color by the police, it hit a bit of a bum note.

‘Lil Mayor and his little friends got caught up by 5-0 for trespassing, such fine boys aren’t they?” Lawful Smugness does not endear.

In fact, regarding the characterisation of ‘the community’, which is always a problematic construct. The portrayal is not exactly deep and meaningful. Being comprised mainly by the usual mish-mash of urban stereotypes that commonly stand in for cultural heterogeneity; Friendly street drinkers playing cards, a couple of aspiring street corner rappers, a handful of gangsters and then the god fearing parents who work 8 days a week as office cleaners or full-time grandmas.

It’s wiggety wiggety wiggety wack.

Another issue is that the ‘kids’ are supposed to 14 or 15 but they’re presented as though if they are dorky ten year olds instead of being urbane and street-wise teens. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Miguel’s mother goes ape-shit at Tony the Bodega guy for letting the main trio watch Blade. Fucking Blade. As though a 1997 comic book movie was too adult for teens.

This also includes Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith who plays the local priest. I was holding a fucking votive candle for Method Man’s big appearance for the entire film. Considering how many times the film mentions ‘Blade’, I really hoped he would turn up as a kickboxing ecclesiastical vampire slayer. Possibly sporting a bitchin’ Wes Snipes high top fade and wearing a pair of $300 Oakleys. Nope! Method Man’s big line is and I shit you not “They stole my Sprite.” That’s it. That’s fucking it. That’s all he gets. What a fucking waste.

N.Y.C Everything but not my Sprite? Criminally under-used in this film.

He’s not the only one. Rita played by Coco Jones, is one of the better characters of the film’s second half. She gets to go with the ‘boys’ on the climactic vampire hunt and has some funny lines. But it still feels like she was tacked on as an afterthought rather than given anything meaningful to do. Overall it’s like if some dry-drunk supply teacher who’d just speed read a pamphlet on inclusion, was asked to direct a school cast version of ‘Lost Boys’. It lacks the wit and nuance.

The dry sarcastic wit of those 80’s vampire films was what made them great. The two Corys in the Lost Boys and Roddy McDowell in Fright Night had bags of it. These were knowing films that didn’t take themselves too seriously, and reveled in playing up the comedy horror angle whenever they could. Even the more serious remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell was still a comedy horror, though in an darker toned noughties style. So VVtB should be part of a good comedy horror genre lineage.

The Ugly

Unfortunately it’s a lineage VVtB chooses to squander. If not actively ignore in favor of theft, hoping we won’t notice. The scene where the kids go searching for the vampires in their den. Only to find them hanging upside down above them is lifted outright from Lost Boys, almost shot for shot in fact. But is entirely lacking the humor and originality of that scene. In fact at this stage of the film the vampires aren’t even a credible threat anymore and this really is the big problem with this film. It coddles the main characters so much that you know nothing bad will happen to them.

“We are Nihilists Lebowski! Fear my creeping manicure! I as reach for your humous! Do you listen to Depeche Mode btw?
“Grasping hands, grab what they can, everything counts in small amounts..”

It also means that the character’s lack any real flaws which squashes any agency or growth. If they are good to begin with then what have they learned by the end of the film? There is no journey for them to take. No arc. Just plain old return to normality. All of this totally screws with the flow of any movie. This is doubly compounded when you have three little Mary Sue’s versus your stereotypically unoriginal pale Goth bloodsuckers*. Along with any sense of suspense and drama, the cartoonish thrill of the genre itself just evaporates.

*There’s the blond one with long hair and a long coat and the bald one in a black suit and then the lady one and they are all gothy goth goth.
Hisss.

As for the plot about gentrification? Well, that is forgotten about so rapidly it’s insulting. It leaves so many unanswered questions. What happens to the area now that Murnau Properties has been staked through the heart? Who takes over the stolen businesses? Does a law firm run by Werewolves buy up the vacant properties? Why even bother with a gentrification angle to begin with?

Moving to the suburbs is portrayed again and again in the film as good thing. As something nakedly aspirational, even though these character’s spend their lives in a tight-knit urban community. In my experience young people and small business owners living in the real world city are completely loathe to move. Especially to some fucking car-centric suburb well away from their friends and customers. The film just lets this whole subtext go in favour of a superficial and shallow idea of community. One that is defined by block parties rather than daily lives lived enmeshed via the pressures of circumstance.

What are they gonna do for a sequel? I’m hoping an NGO run by Egyptian Mummy’s buys up the leases for the rent controlled apartments in the neighborhood. Ooh scary.

In fact by the end the whole film is unsatisfying and anemic. Phwooshing off into the ether like one of it’s vampires in daylight. It really needs some fucking hot blooded passion coursing through it’s veins. Instead we get a hollow streaming service cash-in masquerading as young adult ‘wokeness’. It’s fake, insincere and symptomatic of the recent trend of teen movies spoon feeding their target demographic de-politicised milky pap.

Stay for the first half, fall asleep before the end and you’ll think it’s just dandy. Otherwise, do yourself a favour and watch something else this Halloween. For a good fix of nostalgia horror, and if you find people in big mascot costumes creepy I thoroughly recommend the Banana Splits Movie instead.

Categories
Pirate Film Reviews

Sputnik /Спутник (2020)

Last night I got around to watching Russian Sci-Fi / Horror film Sputnik which is a clever, compelling and beautifully shot post soviet rethink of the xenomorph body-horror genre.

Sputnik, is misleadingly not about the first satellite to orbit the Earth. Instead it’s a fairly well crafted sci-fi/thriller/horror set in 1983. Russian Cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) crash lands back to earth when something sinister causes his Soyuz capsule to malfunction. He has no memory of the catastrophic re-entry which may or may not have killed his Co-pilot. Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), suspects something funny regarding his claims of amnesia and recruits unorthodox and controversial neuro-physiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to treat him at distant military facility in Kazahkstan. Of course, as the promotional poster makes clear, Konstantin did not come back to earth alone..

Ok, but is it any good?

So this film is Egor Abramenko’s full feature directorial debut and certainly marks him out as one to watch in the future. The setting of the film at the just before Perestroika and subsequent fall of the USSR is particularly interesting as it makes it feel like Post-Soviet-Soviet film! No really. I’ve always thought that period of USSR history would make a brilliant setting for a whole series of films. (A vampire film set in Soviet Norilsk anyone? Mutant Siberian Tigers terrorising a gulag?)

Anyways the Eastern Bloc has a long and storied history of producing great science fiction films. If you haven’t seen any I strongly urge you to check out the films of Andrey Tarkovsky. One of the hallmarks of the classic Soviet sci-fi films is it they push well away from convention; ‘Stalker’ 1979 and ‘Kin-Dza-Dza’ 1986 respectively being both well-feted internationally as genre breaking films that don’t rely on the conventional sci-fi tropes.

However even within the well trodden science fiction conventions i.e. space ships, robots and aliens, etcetera, there are Soviet era films such as Ikarie X-B1 1963 and Solaris 1972 that have subtle cerebral and culturally salient takes on such thematic standards. That both those films are based on Stanislaw Lem stories is also rather telling.

Sputnik also knowingly references it’s sci-fi B Movie roots.

In any event Sputnik is more akin to the latter genre of Soviet sci-fi films. For it is essentially a reworking of Alien (1979) and this isn’t a bad thing, but the parallels are fairly obvious:

For instance the main protagonist is a strong female lead and the creature is a violent, body-horror xenomorph not too distantly related to the H.R Giger vision we all know and love. That the powers that be also wish to control it in order weaponise it, and in so doing allow it to munch men in body armour like popcorn, also relates it to the second and third Alien films.

What Abramenko does do differently is add a more intimate and complicit relationship between man and xeno than we might normally expect. Without overly fetishising the creature itself as an intrusively sexual or pointlessly savage. Though visually the beast is well actualised via CGI, it’s not really anything genre aficionados haven’t seen before. But it is suitably alien both in design and behaviour, straddling the line initially between gross and disarmingly menacing. When we are shown it in full in the third act it is not disappointing as it still manages to be inscrutably intelligent and a credible threat.

VISUALS & THEMES

As far as looks go, Abramenko perfectly captures a stylised and aesthetically pleasing version of early 1980’s USSR. The sets and locations are striking and completely of the era and Abramenko makes full use of Brutalist space. The period buildings and internal sets are all heavy concrete and stained birch veneer. Their frontages and auditoriums both massive and gloomy yet seemingly empty and underpopulated. This is clearly the USSR of committees and reports. Indeed we are introduced to Dr Klimova, who is being censured for her unorthodox clinical treatments by just such a committee.

Although much of the film is primarily set inside a military base, there are exterior shots of the Kazahk steppe. Frequently Abramenko has the wide-open slate skies and distant rolling hills bisected by an almost needless chainlink fence. Which is a nice touch regarding other subtle themes about illusions of constraint and control present in the film.

CHARACTERS

The characterisations in Sputnick are fairly robust and well construed. Dr Klimova is suitably hard willed and humanistic, Konstantin the Cosmonaut is funny, rueful ambitious and sly. Anton Vasiliev as Dr Rigel provides a decent cowardly turn. But the standout for me though is Colonel Semiradov who rather than being the hard nosed military man associated with the stereotype in such films is warm, considerate and forward thinking. This also muddies the waters somewhat between whether there is a definite ‘good or bad side’ in the film, which is when it is at it’s most interesting.

My main negative criticism of the film is that I found the score un-necessarily intrusive at key moments, being thumping and fast paced. Others may not mind it so much. There is also a more schmaltzy subplot that does not detract from the film but does feel that it is there mainly to provide closure at the end. All in all I highly it’s an interesting film that provides a decent twist on the genre and it is well worth a watch.