Vampires stalk the streets of Wellington in search of fun, friendship and virgins in the second feature film collaboration from Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, which finds a documentary film crew capturing the less glamorous side of life after death.
Written & Directed by Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi / Starring Jermaine Clement, Taiki Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macauer / Cinematography by Richard Bluck, D.J. Stipsen / Music by Plan 9 / Film Editing by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, Jonathan Woodford-Robinson / Production by Funny or Die, New Zealand Film Commission
There could be no better line to set the tone of What we do in the Shadows than 183-year-old vampire Deacon’s frustrated cry, “Vampires don’t do dishes!” Cajoled by his flatmates into finally doing a chore he has ignored for five years, Deacon dons the Marigolds, muttering in a thick, lo-fi Polish accent, “This is bullshit.” And so begins the delightful, gory tale of four squabbling flatmates just trying to get along and drink some virgins’ blood in Wellington, New Zealand. Ostensibly a documentary shot for the New Zealand Documentary Board, What we do in the Shadows is a welcome throwback to the mock-docs that sprung up following the success of the BBC series The Office and Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (2000) and a must-have title for any fans of Jermaine Clement in HBO’s hit show, Flight of the Conchords. Granted protection from being eaten and wearing crucifixes during filming, the documentary crew remains silent and off-camera (save the occasional appearance of an errant boom pole) and allows the vampires to tell their own story and unspool more than enough rope to hang themselves with each interview.
Overly polite Germanic dandy Viago (Taika Waititi); arrogant ex-Nazi Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and medieval torture enthusiast Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) happily cohabit their suburban home with 8000-year-old Nosferatu look-a-like Petyr (Ben Fransham). Tales of their exploits in the past read like the stuff of Gothic epics but the reality of small-town life in Wellington makes for a story more concerned with the humiliating minutiae of daily life and the things one must do to maintain a half-decent shared living arrangement, such as putting down newspapers and towels before devouring your victim on the couch. When Petyr turns hapless local bloke Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macauer) into a vampire Viago, Deacon and Vladislav find their world opened up to the possibilities of being invited into clubs and human friendship with Nick’s best mate, Stu (Stuart Rutherford).
Shooting mostly improvised dialog with a faithful TV-doc style, the cast and crew here craft a charming send-up of Gothic horror staples and a poke at the lameness of reality-TV. The scene of Nick revealing his vampirism to his best mate is pitched, timed and shot exactly like the insincere moments of emotional confession that characterise vapid daytime reality shows. As such What we do in the Shadows does seem to have come to the genre party fashionably late. Premiering at Sundance last year and trickling into cinemas here and there over the last twelve months, the film is mostly lampooning pop culture fads which have had their day or faded into the background. But the premise of legendary figures made to endure the banality of daily life seems as timeless and enduring as the vampire legend itself. As with the best of the mock-doc genre, What we do in the Shadows plays up the inherent slightness of its premise, but in this case taking the opportunity to use subtle, mostly practical special effects to add new levels of absurdity to the pettiness of the characters’ lives. The casualness of everything on-camera effectively masks the craftsmanship off-camera in a way that should be familiar to any fans of Flight of the Conchords, which Waititi periodically had a hand in directing. Conchords fans will also relish Rhys Darby’s performance as the alpha male leader of a pack of werewolves, who act as an anti-turn support group for each other, using mantras like “Count to ten: Human again” to stop their inner beast from wreaking havoc.
What we do in the Shadows scores a high count for laughs per minute, whether the characters are cringing through awkward exchanges, trying to look cool on camera or splashing gore across the screen. Its weaknesses don’t impede this but the film does seem somewhat thwarted by its own modesty. While the special effects on-screen are excellent and a testament to what can be done by low budget filmmakers, there is a grand guignol finale missing here and it seems entirely possible that this is down to budgetary constraints as much as it is the filmmakers’ desire for a happy ending. But this final toothlessness doesn’t mean that the film lacks fangs. The satirical format, the subtly mixed one-liners, the charming absurdity of the gore and the moments of genuine creepiness go a long way to make What we do in the Shadows infinitely preferable to dreary celebrity circle-jerks like This is the End (2013) and almost any other broad horror-comedy you can name. So pop in some plastic fangs and enjoy the infectious silliness of What we do in the Shadows, preferably with a red drink in one hand and a colony of ghoulish friends all around.