What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Admittedly, it lacks the subtle depth and melancholic introspection of Only Lovers Left Alive...
Admittedly, it lacks the subtle depth and melancholic introspection of Only Lovers Left Alive…

“Some interviews with some vampires.”

Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement (you may notice a pattern here; they also wrote it), Rhys Darby, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford, Jonathan Brugh, and Ben Fransham

In a dingy house in Wellington, four vampires have a flat share: Viago (Waititi) is a 16th century dandy, Vladislav (Clement) is a former Transylvanian warlord, Deacon (Brugh) is the 180-year old rebel bad boy of the group, and Petyr (Fransham) is Deacon’s 8,000-year old progenitor, a taciturn monster who lives in the cellar and looks like Count Orlock in Nosferatu. Their quiet lives of slightly sad dissipation among New Zealand’s vampire community are thrown into disarray, first when they become the subjects of a documentary film crew, and then when Petyr turns one of their victims, Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer).

Nick revitalises the vampires’ nightlife, getting them into real clubs instead of Wellington’s rather sad vampire-run pub, and introduces them to his best mate Stu (Rutherford), a web designer who teaches them to use modern technology. Unfortunately, Nick has a lax approach to the vampire code of secrecy and Petyr is killed when a hunter breaks into the house.

Things only get worse when the guest of honour at the Unholy Masquerade – New Zealand’s premier undead event – is announced as Vladisalv’s archnemesis (and ex-girlfriend) ‘the Beast’.

What’s wrong with it?

Like many mockumentaries, What We Do in the Shadows has a rambling quality to it. It’s not for anyone seeking a pacy, driving plot.

In places, it’s very bloody, but you probably ought to expect that in a vampire film.

I am almost positive that New Zealand doesn’t have enough people to support the murder rate implied by the number of vampires depicted in the film.

What’s right with it?

What We Do in the Shadows is very funny, especially in the writing. Lines like ‘Oh! Bat fight!’ and the self-control mantras of the Wellington werewolves ‘We’re werewolves, not swear wolves’ pop out of the tragically mundane ramblings of a group of dull, sad men who think they’re really interesting.

The characters are adorkable, even while being mass-murdering monsters. Watching the prissy Viago trying to catch an arterial spray in his mouth after his incredibly awkward seduction of a victim in front of the documentary cameras shouldn’t be as funny as it is, and you really shouldn’t feel sorry for him, but Waititi has such a puppy dog face. Clements rocks a similar vein (see what I did there) to his role as Prison King in Muppets Most Wanted, complete with bad but wonderfully basso generic Eastern European accent, as Dracula – and specifically Bram Stoker’s Dracula Dracula – wannabe ‘Vladislav the Poker’. His constant sense of limping, sorely wounded dignity again makes a horrible character somehow sympathetic, while angry bad boy Deacon is humanised by his outraged jealousy of Nick even as his abuse of his ‘familiar’ Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) shows him up as a vain, selfish prick.

The film uses special effects sparingly, but effectively. The levitating vampires are fairly obvious wirework, but the bat transformations are surprisingly slick and combined with the documentary-style presentation it all looks more immediate and ‘real’.

Overall, it’s the sense of mundanity that makes the film work. The great Unholy Masquerade has the production values of a village disco, and for all their flash dressing and self-importance, the vampires are basically just dull, suburban white guys.

Underneath the comedy, there is also a commentary on fly-on-the-wall documentary making, as the filmmakers record the taunting of victims and keep pace with the fleeing Nick as he is terrorised by the vampires and finally caught by Petyr. While the vampires are monsters, they are in many ways less appalling than the filmmakers.

How bad is it really?

What We Do in the Shadows is a triumph of modern indie filmmaking that has secured well-deserve praise from reviewers.

Best bit (if such there is)?

It’s hard to pick out a best bit in a film which just bubbles constantly with little moments, from Vladislav’s explanation for why vampire’s eat virgins (‘If you were going to have a sandwich, you would enjoy it more if you knew no-one had fucked it first’) to Viago’s awkward Skype conversation with his former servant, or hurriedly hypnotising a pair of police officers so that they walk around a murder scene pointing out fire code violations.

What’s up with…?

  • Okay, so if a vampire only needs to feed once a week, that’s still 52 deaths a year; 12 if it’s once a month. If there are supposed to be several hundred vampires in Wellington… Let’s say 200 at 12 a year, that’s 2,400 vampire deaths alone each year; call it 3,000 including werewolf attacks and other undead activity among an urban population of less than 400,000, and more than doubles the natural death rate in New Zealand. How is that tenable? Am I missing something?

Ratings

Production values – The use of special effects coupled with documentary or found footage style shooting is actually a really effective technique. The slightly grainy verite effect is not coupled with bad sound quality, so that’s a huge plus. 1
Dialogue and performances – The performances are a study in a sad, suburban aspiration to Gothic romance, and the dialogue blends mundane exposition on vampiric existence with hilarious one-liners. 2
Plot and execution – The plot is slight and rambling, and mostly grounded in character, but well-constructed. Even seeming throwaways like the first run-in with the werewolves are called back and become important later on. 3
Randomness – The ecology is going to keep bothering me. I did serious research because of this. Okay, I looked on Wikipedia, but still… 2
Waste of potential – Well, on the one hand it does squander the potential of vampires for moody, Gothic storytelling or sexy teen angst, but on the other that shit has been done. 1

Overall 9%

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