REVIEW: What We Do in the Shadows [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 86 minutes | Release Date: June 19th, 2014 (New Zealand)
Studio: Unison Films / Paladin / The Orchard
Director(s): Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
Writer(s): Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi

“Get up and stand on the ceiling like a man”

In great mockumentary fashion, What We Do in the Shadows bears to mind the work of Christopher Guest. It has eccentric characters, constant mugging for the camera, and a perfectly dry delivery ensuring those watching will laugh even harder at each joke—if that’s their cup of tea. This is a New Zealand produced work and therefore filled to the brim with a British comic sensibility. That means you won’t get the over-the-top nonsense from a John Michael Higgins or a Fred Willard because the humor is more situational than verbal sparring match. And when the premise itself concerns four vampire flatmates (not) living life in Wellington, one doesn’t need help from rapid-fire actors riffing until something sticks. We’re already laughing at the sheer audacity of undead Regular Joe citizens doing chores and chilling with friends.

Born from the minds of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the film is actually an expansion of a short they created in 2006. Both write, direct, and star as Viago (aged 317) and Vlad (aged 862) respectively, two of a quartet caught in the doldrums of quarantined life. What are they to do? They’re stuck inside sleeping during the day and most waking hours are spent finding victims to eat. There simply isn’t time to meet new people or go anywhere besides the local watering hole specifically catering to their kind. Any other club or bar on the strip would need to invite them in, but bouncers only request a cover charge instead. It’s therefore generally up to Jonathan Brugh‘s Deacon (aged 183) to have his servant Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) hunt for easy, virgin prey.

A documentary crew follows them during the months before the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball. Think “Real World Transylvania” with monologues, heart-to-hearts, and general antics stemming from humorous angles taken on vampire mythology. Waititi and Clement merge societal faux pas with horror cliché and mix together a slew of memorable gags. The broadest example comes from a culture clash between an unwitting newcomer Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer)—fourth roommate Petyr’s (Ben Fransham) 8,000 years and Nosferatu charm turned him on a whim—and the old fashioned boys not quite sure what to make of his inclusion. Nick is a dimwitted, self-absorbed kid who embraces the cool factor of what’s happened and runs his mouth around town. The others attempt reining him in, but ultimately get distracted by his human buddy Stu (Stuart Rutherland) introducing the wonders of internet.

While bits such as Clement’s Vlad saying he was turned as a sixteen year old—life was really hard back then—or Waititi’s Viago getting into a flying, hissing match with Brugh’s Deacon over the latter shirking his dish-washing responsibilities for half a decade are great, experiencing their interactions with the outside world via technology is priceless. We’re talking YouTube videos of a sunrise, Skype messaging with former servants now aged and wrinkled, and the power of digital cameras (the whole movie pretty much hinges on mirror-less photography to capture them). References to Twilight enter the equation, beefs with a pack of werewolves led by Alpha Dog Anton (Rhys Darby) crop up, and the threat of vampire hunters proves only too real. There are even some adventures of the heart as Viago stalks former love Katherine from afar.

The actors are all brilliant in their performances whether Viago’s Dandy, Vlad’s psychologically handcuffed prowess, Deacon’s sense of entitlement, or Nick’s constant state of immaturity, but my favorite part of the film is its impressive visuals. One scene captures a fight between Deacon and Nick where they’re turning into and out of bat form seamlessly as though shot in one take. A couple chase sequences pop up too with the victim continuously running while his trio of pursuers exits the shadows at an impossibly quick pace. One second Deacon is in a doorway and the next he’s coming out of a backpack on his prey’s shoulders. This thing is a low-budget piece coming in at around 1.6 million, but it looks so much better than that. Credit to Waititi and Clement for making it possible.

It’s tough to really talk about anything else specific since the whole works as a result of its joke progression and surprises. Just know that if something was spoken about in passing, you’ll probably hear about it again. Nothing is revealed without some purpose for a larger gag—not the fact Viago was lost in the mail and not the mention of Vlad’s nemesis “The Beast”. At only 86-minutes, every line proves a carefully measured and timed utterance inside What We Do in the Shadows‘ well-oiled machine. Beware the sun, the moon, and errant crucifixes while reveling in the perfectly constructed farce that is the “supernatural”. Not all vampires are sexy and they definitely aren’t all sophisticated. They’re just like you and me: vain, greedy, and completely out-of-touch with the world rapidly passing them by.

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