Film Review – What We Do in the Shadows
What We Do in the Shadows
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh god, another vampire movie? No thank you!” Well, hold your horses right there, friend. Despite the vampire genre getting played to death in the last few years, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014) offers a refreshing enough reason to dip back in just one more time. In the same vein as the work of Christopher Guest, Clement and Waititi – the minds behind Boy (2010), Eagle vs. Shark (2007), and the television show Flight of the Conchords – offer a faux documentary that presents blood suckers in a light not often seen: having to deal with the banalities of everyday life.
It’s an ingenious premise, to be sure. While not feeding off of victims, what do vampires do to pass the time? When you’re an immortal, things can get boring pretty quickly. And so we’re introduced to our three protagonists: Vladislav (Clement), Viago (Waititi), and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), centuries old vampires who are also flat mates living in Wellington, New Zealand. Each has a defining characteristic about them. Viago is still trying to get over the romance he missed out on years ago, Vladislav is tortured by his arch rival known only as The Beast, and Deacon has to deal with a human (Jackie van Beek) who continually begs him to turn her into a vampire.
But taking precedence over all that: the dishes need to be cleaned. Clement and Waititi (who share writing and directing credits) hit the mark in the way they depict how the roommates negotiate living in a modern age society. They’ve been roommates for what seems like forever, yet Deacon still has to be reminded that it’s his turn to do the dishes. In one of the many funny scenes, Viago shows the camera crew the “chore wheel” and how each person is assigned to a certain duty, but because of laziness the wheel hasn’t moved in five years.
There’s a kind of brilliance in the absurdity. By mashing old folklore in a real world environment, we discover the silliness that comes with vampires in general. For example, vampires (at least today) are known as these beautiful, hypnotic creatures that prey on humans through a certain sexual attraction. But if vampires have no reflection, how do they know what they look like when they dress or fix their hair? Clement and Waititi amplify this paradox by having the characters literally draw each other on paper so they can see what their appearances are like.
Inspired ideas like these go on and on. When the three go out for a night on the town, they can’t walk into a bar or nightclub without the bouncer inviting them in first. If they have to sleep during the day, how can they afford to pay rent every month? When they turn a victim into one of their kind, they realize that a supposed new friend is actually kind of annoying to be around. Oh, and let’s not forget about the werewolves that prowl around town as well, operating as the sworn enemy of all vampires. A standoff between the vampires and local werewolves was so funny they could have broken out into a dance, ala The Jets and The Sharks.
The special effects have a low budget but convincing feel. Whenever the roommates fly off, they are clearly being held by rope. But indoors (where the ceiling is visible) the effect works. A fight scene happens in one of those “revolving rooms” that make it look like characters are defying gravity, but the execution is so good we can ignore that it’s been done way too often in other films. The use of CGI is minimal but contributes overall, particularly when characters transform into bats. Nothing is held back during attack scenes, where scares and gore are provided in ample amounts. During one scene, Viago describes the messiness of hitting a victim’s major artery, causing a blood spray. In a perfectly comedic touch, Viago sidesteps this by laying down newspaper and towels before he attacks.
Although this is a send up of the genre, Clement and Waititi have an admiration for the material they’re lampooning. Callbacks to previous properties are littered about. In look and mannerisms, Vladislav is an homage to Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992). A fourth roommate, Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a near replica to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922). These elements are blended into a documentary form that never loses focus. I appreciated the little inserts of photographs and drawings to give the illusion of a history at play, and I couldn’t help but smirk at the title cards detailing that this all really happened.
What We Do in the Shadows is one funny movie. There are minor issues: the plot meanders around more interested in episodic moments rather than a continuous narrative. This doesn’t hit the peaks of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) or Shaun of the Dead (2004), but it’s a very good entry into this type of story. I know vampires may have overstayed their welcome in pop culture at the moment, but trust me when I say this one deserves your attention.