Sometimes, challenging cinema is overrated. Sometimes, a mildly trashy film is good enough for a couple hours of distraction, especially if it takes its premise from Blade, Underworld, and numerous other bloodsucking B-movies; its costumes from a burlesque revue of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; and its (too-brief) Megan Fox performance from Jennifer’s Body. Night Teeth isn’t genuinely original, substantive, or scary. But as a remix of the vampire thriller’s most lizard-brain-focused qualities, Netflix’s latest Halloween offering is appreciated for how few demands it puts on its audience.
Vampires have appeared in folklore all over the world for centuries, and pop-culture adaptations of bloodsucker stories come in all forms and flavors. There’s the Gothic stuff, like Anne Rice’s whole oeuvre, the religious stuff, like Midnight Mass, and the teen-fantasy stuff, like Twilight. There’s the feminist stuff, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and the melancholy stuff, like Cronos and Let the Right One In (and its 2010 English-language remake, Let Me In). There’s the campy stuff, like The Lost Boys, and the comedy stuff, like Vampires vs. the Bronx. And of course, there’s the sexy stuff, because the vampire figure has always been wrapped in a kind of sensual mystery. For that, we can thank Colin Farrell in the 2011 Fright Night redo, Salma Hayek in From Dusk to Dawn, the late Bill Paxton in Near Dark, and everyone in The Hunger for their service.
All of this is to say that Night Teeth director Adam Randall and screenwriter Brent Dillon had a wide array of inspirations available to them, and they take full advantage. Sometimes they feel more like aggregators than creators, which understandably might turn off cinephiles (or vampire fans) looking for a new experience. Night Teeth’s creators pick and choose elements from the canon: a generations-long feud between the living and the undead, unaware humans thrust into a world they don’t understand, vamps who are ambitious to climb up a corporate-like hierarchical ladder.
These elements are arranged in a familiar format, with mostly off-screen blood-spatter, a high-speed chase scene or two, and some cheeky lines from Dillon that are a little too Joss Whedon-y, like the musings over whether a person would “give good blood” or “the best suck,” or the joke about a human who “bites back.”
None of that is groundbreaking, but the Night Teeth team clearly wasn’t out to break any ground. There is no impenetrable darkness here, whether thematic or visual. (Night Teeth has the same shiny gloss as so many Netflix films, from Kate to He’s All That.) What you see is what you get. And if considered purely as a straightforward love letter to the genre, and an expression of affection for the clichés and tropes these movies use over and over, the film can be a good time.
Vampires wearing corsets and hanging out in nightclubs: check. Duplicitous femmes fatales doing as much flirting as they are feasting: check. Humans toting crossbows that practically go pew pew when fired at their foes, albeit with very little success: check. At least everyone looks like they’re having fun, in particular Fox, lead actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and the striving-for-kitsch Lucy Fry. If Alfie Allen spent the rest of his life playing delightfully skeezy villains, it would be a waste of the emotional depth we know he possesses from years of watching him playi the undeservedly hated Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones. But he is great at playing childishly smug and dangerously entitled, and while no one can be as hedonistically menacing and joyously chaotic as Stephen Dorff in Blade, Greyjoy puts an agreeable spin on that archetype.
Night Teeth is set in Boyle Heights, a Chicano and Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. (Both those descriptors play a part in the narrative, and in how the community’s citizens are presented.) For three generations, Boyle Heights has been the location of an uneasy truce between the wealthy, secretive, eternal vampires who run the rest of Los Angeles, and the citizens of Boyle Heights, who negotiated a peace from the vampires’ feeding and attacks. Then one night a woman named Maria (Ash Santos) is snatched from her car. Her boyfriend Jay (Raúl Castillo) is aware of the truce, and has a familial responsibility to help maintain it. He knows a specific vampire, Victor (Allen), took Maria, though, and he’s determined to get her back, even if that means breaking the pact.
But Jay, like so many of us suffering humans, also has a job. So while he plots his all-out attack on the vamps, he gets his younger half-brother, college student and aspiring music producer Benny (Lendeborg), to cover his shift as a driver for hire. Benny is excited for the extra cash, then intrigued when an assignment takes him to a mansion in Beverly Hills, from which the smirking and slightly off-kilter Zoe (Fry) and friendly-but-still-evasive Blaire (Debby Ryan) emerge. They have a list of locations for Benny to take them, and they need to get it all done by dawn. After they set off, Night Teeth balances the increasing flirtation between Blaire and Benny, the increasing tension between Victor and Jay, and the increasing friction between Zoe and Blaire, as the story bounces between a number of indistinguishable mansions and nightclubs.
Some introductory visual details, like the opening-credits graffiti designs that track vampiric history in California, or the bloody pair of sneakers hanging from a power line after Maria’s disappearance, might lean a little too much on the “Look how urban this story is!” mode of production design. Thankfully, Night Teeth reels in that approach and avoids going full The Tax Collector in mistaking cultural appreciation for appropriation. Dillon’s script is ultimately thoughtful in its depiction of this community, and in considering why it would close itself off from greater Los Angeles.
Benny takes far too long to understand that the eternally youthful women drinking blood from a man’s neck as they bemoan the upcoming sunrise might not be human, but Lendeborg’s performance well conveys a young man who is be a little immature, a little smitten, and a little over his head. And his wide-eyed gaze at the new reality revealed to him contrasts effectively with the deliberately bemused performances from Fox and her scene partner Sydney Sweeney, who through sheer charisma sell the film’s most satisfying girlboss moment in their scathing dismissal of men. Watching Night Teeth and expecting the definitive vampire film would be a mistake. But the team behind it knows exactly what they’re making, and the lighter touch they bring to their mimicries and homages works to their advantage.
Night Teeth debuts on Netflix on October 20, 2021.