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Film Review: What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows (2014; Directed by Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement)

The vampire genre might be reaching the end of its recent popular renaissance, but if so then its generic boundaries may be expanding and admitting different twists on the formula to stay relevant and active, much like its subjects sapping blood from victims in order to sustain their undead forms. Therefore, we see morality-play romance (Twilight) and its teen drama offshoots (The Vampire Diaries), sex-soaked Southern gothic social commentary (True Blood), leather-clad B-movie action (Underworld), and foreign and/or indie-friendly artistic meditations (Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive, Let the Right One In and Let Me In) jostling for space in the realms of vampiric film and television.

What We Do in the Shadows brings deadpan New Zealand social comedy to that list of intrageneric variations, and it’s a welcome addition. Co-directed and co-written by and co-starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the ineffably droll duo behind the hilarious low-key Kiwi gem Eagle vs. Shark, it drops four centuries-old undead bloodsuckers into a rambling, tumbledown gothic house in the suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand and explores their difficulties in cohabiting with each other and with adjusting to the modern world.

The vampire flatmates are Viago (Waititi, who affects a naif-ish wide-eyed grinning expression that is deeply funny from his first moment onscreen), an 18th Century dandy who is fastidious to a fault with his dress, the household rules, and even feeding on his victims (he thoughtfully lays down towels and newspapers to soak up the blood); Vladislav (Clement), a pompous, perverted, violent former medieval lord (Vlad the Impaler is the clear prototype) with waning powers and cruelty (he still has a torture chamber, but recognizes he only needed it when he was in “a dark place”); Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the “rebellious teenager” vampire (he’s only 183 years old) who hasn’t done the dishes for years; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who dwells in a dark basement surrounded by the bones of his victims, resembles the monstrous Count Orlok from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and is as old as human civilization.

Sleeping during the day to avoid deadly sunlight, the younger trio of vampires prowl downtown Wellington bars at night (though since they cannot enter an establishment unless they are invited in and bouncers are reluctant to do so, they mostly end up at the same undead-friendly dive) in search of victims. Alternately, Deacon’s servile familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) delivers human bloodbags to their residence, scouring her phone contacts for people whom she doesn’t much like and inviting them to the vampires’ house for “dinner” (she’s also a dab hand at cleaning up bloodstains, which comes in handy, as you might imagine).

Deacon toys with Jackie, promising to vampirize her and grant her eternal life (or undeadness) but never following through. His buddies have problematic relations with women, too: Viago still pines after the love of his life, whom he followed to New Zealand (she married a mortal man and is now elderly, but he’s still some 250 years older so the May-December thing is still oddly in play), while Vlad nurses his wounded pride after what he claims to have been a crushing defeat in battle to his powerful female nemesis, known only as The Beast. Waititi and Clement envision these immortal beings as fundamentally socially inept and out-of-touch, their lifestyles a sort of absurdly elongated (and brutally bloody) funhouse-mirror version of selfish manchild excess. They’re immortal bloodsucking aging frat boys, or whatever the New Zealand equivalent of that characterization might be.

These vampires argue over household responsibilities, ensnare victims, perform erotic dances for each other’s amusement, and carry on beefs with a local pack of werewolves; led by Clement’s Flight of the Conchords colleague Rhys Darby, these lycomorphs cope with their uncontrollable full-moon transformation with a rigorous but inconsistent regime of self-abnegation which extends even to eliminating curse-words: “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves” is a common mantra. Like the vampires, they’re members of a socially-divergent subculture who have to manage their peculiar and dangerous nature in a polite, well-ordered society that they cannot help but be excluded from.

But the tenuous undead equilibrium of the flatmates’ lives is thrown off-kilter when the unpredictable Petyr converts an intended devouring victim named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to vampirism. Knowing no other vampires, Nick gloms onto the existing trio who once tried to feast on his blood (the scene in which they pursue him with this goal features many of the film’s clever and stealthily deployed visual effects, including Clement’s face transposed onto that of a black cat and Waititi emerging from inside of Nick’s backpack). Unable to cut ties with his human life entirely, his unassuming software engineer friend Stu (Stu Rutherford) is inculcated into the social circle though not into undead status, although this becomes more and more difficult to sustain as the highlight event on the annual social calendar of Wellington’s undead denizens, The Unholy Masquerade, approaches.

A giddily inventive spoof of vampire genre conventions, What We Do in the Shadows is so successful at least partly because it also respects certain internally consistent guidelines and boundaries for its vampires. It is, at times, a high comedy of manners, contrasting the mélange of liberties and limitations of the vampire existence with roughly equivalent liberties and limitations of normal mortal society. Like other fine recent genre satires, the film engages in an intertextual conversation with the genre’s iconic classics as well as its more streamlined and commercially successful products. The mockumentary conceit is supplemented by the visual application of archival photos, woodcuts, drawings, and paintings, both historical and specially created, to serve as signs of a deeper folkloric history not only for these specific vampires but for the genre as well. The mockumentary framing is also destabilized by shaky-cam bursts of spurting gore, a sharp reminder of the grisly gothic roots of the vampire genre buried deep in the crypts of its past which complicate the ascendant mode of moody teens and the conformist moral dictation of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonized vampires.

The consistent comedic trajectory of What We Do in the Shadows is traced by the contrast of the grand supernatural sweep of vampire myth and the humility of mundane everyday struggles. The Unholy Masquerade turns out to be little more than a square species of organization holiday party, while Vlad’s traumatic past run-in with the Beast was certainly no epic combat. The gaping gulf between the vampires’ dramatic and grandiose self-image and their deflated quotidian reality sparks guffaws but also sympathy for these murderous undead misfit freaks. We perhaps feel more sympathy for Stu, whose survival as a decent but kind of dull human becomes the film’s main rooting interest as it goes on (it becomes clear fairly quickly that such hopes are doomed, though Stu’s fate is not quite what might be expected). But the vampires are so variantly hapless in their specific, anxious ways that one can’t help but migrate to their side.

It’s a strange compulsion, this willingness to sympathize with demonic, immortal aberrations who can’t abide the sun and whose lusts are only sated by the blood of the innocent living. Waititi and Clement appreciate this strangeness and gesture deliberately to all of the things about vampires that are disturbing and frightening rather than worth identifying with. But they also very keenly appreciate that the particular alienations of vampire existence are perfectly applicable and relatable to the malaise of modern human life as well. Most especially for this trio of suburban vampire slobs, the universal experience of hanging onto what once defined you well beyond the point that it even resembled anything “cool” is a highly recognizable form of angst, and is only amplified by living hundred of years beyond most people’s corporeal expiry date.

Locating poignancy in the vampire legend, Waititi and Clement seem to be saying, is both profoundly misguided and completely understandable. Vampires are unspeakable horrors, monstrous aberrations of nature, and terrifying existential threats to humanity. But deep down and also right on the surface, vampires are us, too, consumed by desires and needs that are all too human, if fantastically hyperbolized. The vampire genre’s zeitgeist moment may have already dwindled by the time What We Do in the Shadows arrived on the scene, but this delightful movie is a surprisingly rich reminder of all that vampire stories can evoke and accomplish at their best.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. October 23, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Brilliant little flick, only saw it last week but I’ve seen it watched it twice again.

  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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