“What We Do in the Shadows” (2015) Review

Dirs. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi; Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
[3.5 out of 4 stars]

At the end of March, FX released the pilot episode for What We Do in the Shadows (2019-), a television adaptation/remake of the homonymous 2015 film. The new show, featuring the writing and directing talents of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, a New Zealand comedy group famous for Flight of the Conchords (2007-08), and introducing an all-new cast, transports the cult classic, horror-mockumentary from New Zealand to Staten Island. The new show is definitely worth seeing, but I thought I would take a look at what made the film so successful.

What We Do in the Shadows (2015) follows the lives (or rather, deaths) of four fairly goofy vampires. Don’t get me wrong–they’re still deadly murderers who kill humans to drink their blood, but they do it with a certain likeable flair. In an early scene, three of the vampires gather in the kitchen for a flat meeting. Viago (Taika Waititi), a 300-year old dandy who worries about getting his lace bibs dirty while drinking his victims’ blood, has called the meeting with two of his housemates, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), a medieval tyrant with a propensity for “poking,” like his namesake Vlad the Impaler, and Deacon (Jonny Brugh), at 183 the rebellious youngster, to discuss the condition of the house. Petyr (Ben Fransham), Viago explains, “is eight thousand years old. He will not be coming.” Viago’s reason for calling the meeting is that Deacon hasn’t done the dishes for over five years. Deacon’s response: “Vampires don’t do dishes.”

As with most documentaries, there’s only a loose overarching structure to the film. The vampires do have an upcoming event, an undead masquerade ball, but most of the film is episodic and deals with the realities of modern life. The vampires meet Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) an intended victim who ends up being turned into a vampire by Petyr, and Nick’s best friend, Stu (Stu Rutherford), a human who works in IT, who play an important role in introducing the vampires to the joys of modern life: new technology including cameras (Vladislav ends up taking dozens of selfies) and Google (where Viago tries to search for a silk scarf he lost “in about 1910”). The personal relations change a little throughout the film––especially after Petyr’s unfortunate death by sunlight––but otherwise, not much really happens. And that’s exactly the point: what makes the film so funny is how casual and quotidien the vampires are.

Much of the humor of the film is created by the fiction of its creation. The documentary crew, we’re told, has been given special clearance to “a highly secretive society” and wears crucifixes to avoid being eaten. The irony is that the vampires are anything but secretive–and not only because they’re literally on camera. The house they live in is a boarded-up Tudor mansion in suburban Wellington, where neighbors have made noise complaints about the screaming. It’s basically a frat house with slightly fewer gross dudes. In public, the vampires stand out from a mile away, as their central-European accents and two-hundred-year-old clothing make them just a bit conspicuous among the locals. At one point, the gang gets mad at Nick for flying in public and attracting the neighbors’ attention: “You want to draw attention to his house, hm?,” to which the younger vampire responds: “You got a whole documentary crew following you around.”

What We Do in the Shadows would be much less funny if it weren’t for the effectiveness with which it uses the whole cinematic iconography of vampires. Clement and Waititi play up the vampire tropes: clever montage sequences show Viago brushing Petyr’s fangs, Vladislav vacuuming mid-air, or the vampires pretending to be ghosts by holding up goblets in a mirror. Nick, excited at first at his new powers, likes to tell girls he meets, “I’m the main guy in Twilight,” which annoys the other vampires to no end. (In the new show, the main vampire puts on glitter to make himself like Edward [Robert Pattinson] in Twilight [2008] as well.) Petyr’s wide eyes, grotesque bald head, and haphazard teeth recall, on the other hand, the protagonist of F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire film, Nosferatu (1922). In one of the most brilliant scenes, Nick approaches Petyr in his coffin and asks the ancient creature not to turn Stu into a vampire–“I know that you turned me into a vampire. Maybe don’t do that to him. He’s a vegetarian. Last thing he’d want to is eat a life-being or eat blood or eat meat”–and Petyr, the vampire who leaves spinal columns on the ground outside his coffin, agrees, nodding knowingly.

Mockumentaries are all about substitution and ironic distance. The film opens, after images of the “unholy creatures” throughout the ages flash up on the screen, with the entirely banal: a coffin sits in a room and a hand reaches out from its depths to turn off an blaring alarm clock. Much of the film puts the vampires in embarrassing situations: one of the principle scenes features them trying to get bouncers to invite them into a nightclub. As the film progresses, we see short clips of interviews with each of the vampires, as they talk about the banalities of their lives: taking the bus in blood-stained clothing, avoiding crucifixes (there’s a great scene when Vladislav pranks Deacon with their new phones by texting him: “ther iz a crucifix behind u”), or the difficulties of trying to find “night dentists.” Again, what makes this so hilarious is that the subjects of the mockumentary are so entirely un-self-aware. Irony works best in these moments when the interviews and the footage don’t quite line up. Early on, for example, the vampires try defining life as a vampire for the camera. “When you are a vampire, you become very sexy,” says Deacon without a hint of sarcasm, gesturing to his unfit body and toothy smile.

There are a few moments when the film falters. Watching it again, some of the interactions with the documentary crew seem a little overdone. At a run-in with a group of werewolves, the two groups trade insults (prompting the alpha male to remind the others, “we’re werewolves, not swearwolves”), and the two factions grow violent. The documentary crew ends up having to run for their lives, and we watch as one of the cameramen is eaten. It’s one of the film’s few ventures into the horror-documentary genre, and it just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the film, dragging on and adding little to the plot. However, What We Do in the Shadows is overall a masterpiece of horror-comedy and mockumentaries in general. The un-self-awareness of the vampires is probably rivalled only by This is Spinal Tap (1984)–see the amp-goes-up-to-11 scene for reference–and the black humor is something out of Monty Python or Shaun of the Dead (2004). It’s the kind of film that makes you want to rewatch it as soon as you’ve reached the credits, and thankfully, we now have the new show for that. 

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