Occasionally, challenging cinema is exaggerated. A mildly trashy film can be entertaining for a couple of hours, especially if it borrows its premise from Blade, Underworld, and a slew of other bloodsucking B-movies; its costumes from Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; and its (too-brief) Megan Fox performance from Jennifer’s Body. Night Teeth isn’t particularly inventive, substantial, or frightening. Netflix’s latest Halloween offering, however, is appreciated for how few demands it places on its audience as a remix of the vampire thriller’s most lizard-brain-focused qualities.
Vampires have long been a part of folklore around the world, and pop-culture adaptations of bloodsucker tales come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There’s Gothic fiction, such as Anne Rice’s entire oeuvre, religious fiction, such as Midnight Mass, and teen fantasy, such as Twilight. There’s feminist fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as well as dark fare like Cronos and Let the Right One In (and its 2010 English-language remake, Let Me In).
There’s campy fare like The Lost Boys and comedic fare like Vampires vs. the Bronx. There’s also the sexiness because the vampire figure has always been shrouded in a sense of sensual mystery. Colin Farrell in the 2011 remake of Fright Night, Salma Hayek in From Dusk to Dawn, the late Bill Paxton in Near Dark, and everyone in The Hunger can all be thanked for their contributions.
All of this is to say that director Adam Randall and screenwriter Brent Dillon had a plethora of inspirations at their disposal for Night Teeth, and they took full advantage of them. They can sometimes come across as aggregators rather than creators, which may turn off cinephiles (or vampire fans) looking for something new. The creators of Night Teeth cherry-pick elements from the canon: a generations-long feud between the living and the undead, oblivious humans thrust into a world they don’t understand, and vamps aspiring to climb a corporate-style hierarchical ladder.
These elements are arranged in a familiar format, with mostly off-screen blood splatter, a high-speed chase scene or two, and a few cheeky lines from Dillon that are a little too Joss Whedon-y, such as musings on whether a person would “give good blood” or “the best suck,” or the joke about a human who “bites back.”
None of this is ground-breaking, but the Night Teeth team was clearly not looking to do so. Neither thematically nor visually, there is no impenetrable darkness here. (Night Teeth has the same gleaming sheen as a lot of Netflix movies, like Kate and He’s All That.) You get exactly what you see. And, if viewed solely as a straightforward love letter to the genre, and an expression of affection for the clichés and tropes that these films repeatedly employ, the film can be entertaining.
Check for vampires wearing corsets and frequenting nightclubs. Check for duplicitous femme Fatales who are just as interested in flirting as they are in feasting. Check. Humans wielding crossbows that sound like pew pews when fired at their foes, albeit with limited success: check. At the very least, everyone appears to be having a good time, especially Fox, lead actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Lucy Fry, who is attempting to be kitschy.
It would be a waste of Alfie Allen’s emotional depth if he spent the rest of his life playing delightfully skeezy villains, as we know from years of watching him play the undeservedly hated Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones. However, he excels at playing childishly conceited and dangerously entitled characters, and while no one can match Stephen Dorff’s hedonistically menacing and joyously chaotic performance in Blade, Greyjoy puts a pleasant spin on the archetype.
Boyle Heights, a Chicano and Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, is the setting for Night Teeth. (Both of those descriptors play a role in the narrative and the portrayal of the community’s residents.) Boyle Heights has been the site of an uneasy truce for three generations between the wealthy, secretive, eternal vampires who rule the rest of Los Angeles and the residents of Boyle Heights, who negotiated peace in exchange for protection from the vampires’ feeding and attacks. Then a woman named Maria (Ash Santos) is kidnapped from her car one night. Jay (Ral Castillo), her boyfriend, is aware of the truce and feels obligated to help keep it going. 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, like so many of us who are suffering, Jay has a job. So, while he plots his all-out assault on the vamps, he hires his younger half-brother, Benny (Lendeborg), a college student and aspiring music producer, to cover his shift as a driver for hire. Benny is ecstatic for the extra cash, but he’s even more intrigued when an assignment takes him to a Beverly Hills mansion, where he meets the smirking and slightly off-kilter Zoe (Fry) and the friendly-but-still-evasive Blaire (Debby Ryan).
They have a list of places for Benny to take them, and they have to finish everything before dawn. As the story bounces between a number of indistinguishable mansions and nightclubs after they leave, 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.
Some introductory visual details, such as the opening-credits graffiti designs that trace California’s vampiric history or the bloody pair of sneakers hanging from a power line after Maria’s disappearance, may rely a little too heavily on the “Look how urban this story is!” mode of production design. Thankfully, Night Teeth stops short of going full-on The Tax Collector and mistaking cultural appreciation for appropriation. In the end, Dillon’s script is thoughtful in its portrayal of this community and its consideration of why it would isolate itself from the rest of Los Angeles.
Benny takes far too long to realize that the eternally youthful women drinking blood from a man’s neck while lamenting the approaching sunrise aren’t human, but Lendeborg’s portrayal of a young man who is a little immature, a little smitten, and a little over his head is excellent. And his wide-eyed reaction to the new reality revealed to him contrasts effectively with Fox and her scene partner Sydney Sweeney’s deliberately bemused performances, which sell the film’s most satisfying girl boss moment in their scathing dismissal of men through sheer charisma.
It would be a mistake to watch Night Teeth and expect it to be the definitive vampire film. The team behind it, on the other hand, knows exactly what they’re doing, and the lighter touch they use in their parodies and homages works in their favor.
Night Teeth debuts on Netflix on October 20, 2021.