'What We Do in the Shadows' is a clever genre experiment from the 'Flight of the Conchords' team
What We Do in the Shadows Unison Films
Director: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Screenplay: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Jackie van Beek and Rhys Darby
Not rated / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Being ageless means you never really have to grow up. And it means life passes you by again and again, over and over, and that you're stuck in a constant cycle of trying to keep up with the times even when time itself has little meaning to you. Your near-interminable youth is mitigated only by the perpetual threat of obsolescence. You've got your whole life ahead of you but ... eh, what's the rush?
This is the fate of the subjects in What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about a group of vampires living in relative boredom in Wellington, New Zealand. What's clever about the film's approach (and refreshing, considering this is a tired format and a played-out subject) is the way it presents its characters in contradictory roles simultaneously - young, old and middle-aged, the conflation of the three a natural byproduct of their agelessness.
The four (soon to be five) vampire bros share a rundown house and come across like mismatched college roommates. Their lifestyles conflict and their personalities clash in petty squabbles, like one complaining that another hasn't done the dishes - his assigned chore - in five years. There's the nice, friendly one; there's the lothario; there's the grouchy rebellious one; and of course the older one (around 8,000 years old, to be specific) who doesn't really fit in with the others and mostly keeps to himself. It is, for all intents and purposes, a mini vampire fraternity, complete with pranks and drinking games.
Once they leave their dwelling, however, they're a different breed altogether. When we see them out on the town, they come across like those desperate thirty- and fortysomethings whose best days are behind them, whose styles are hopelessly out of date, who always have outdated ideas about what bars and clubs are trendy, and who have absolutely aged out of the cool scene but still envision themselves as hip.
And finally, there's another side to them. Yes, they seem like college students, and yes they behave like just-over-the-hill adults, but they're also very much like your grandparents. They don't seem to understand any pop culture reference, they don't have cable television, and they have no idea how to work the Internet. At one point, someone introduces them to Facebook and they react like small children who've just discovered a magic trick.
Credit Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement - who together wrote and directed the film, in addition to taking two of the main starring roles - for finding consistently amusing and unexpected comedic avenues in which to explore both its vampiric characters and the faux-doc storytelling device itself. In fact, even the format plays into the characters' collective psyche. These guys have been awkwardly adjusting to new eras and technologies and political contexts for centuries; now that they're in the 21st, they've decided to hire a camera crew to make a documentary about themselves. You can only imagine how they act when they finally get around to buying cell phones.
The soft-spoken and polite Viago (Waititi) is our main guide through the process, as he proudly introduces us to himself, his roommates and their lifestyle, doing so with the endearing amateurism of someone who's never been on camera before. He is as close to a gentleman as can be expected of someone who is still required to kill humans in order to survive. Whenever he brings a nice young lady back to his place, he attempts to be chivalrous and tidy (he makes a comment about wanting to make sure her last night alive feels special), and is always dismayed at the messiness of how it plays out. The punctured artery will start spurting everywhere as he fumbles to get his lips around it. The blood gets all over the carpet and furniture and clothing and, well, Viago just looks crestfallen.
His roomies don't have near the same hesitation about what they do. There's Vladislav (Clement), who became a vampire at 16 years old and, now more than 800 years later, insists he still looks 16. (These guys do age, but just very, very slowly.) Then there's Deacon, the youngster. He's still finding his way at a mere 183 years of age - he had that little dalliance as a member of the Nazi party during his most rebellious years - and has even gotten himself a flunkey named Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who runs all his errands and procures many of his meals on the promise that he will one day turn her into a vampire as well.
And finally, there is the oldest, most ruthless of the group, Petyr (Ben Fransham), who never speaks and is used mostly as a brilliant sight gag, given that he's a dead ringer for Nosferatu's Count Orlock. It is he who converts one of the gang's houseguests, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), which is a problem because Nick can't seem to stop himself from telling every stranger he meets that he's a vampire. This, needless to say, is against the rest of the group's strict instructions.
Unsurprisingly for a Clement/Waititi film, there's a precise deadpan style to What We Do in the Shadows, as they handle the characters' existence as matter-of-factly as possible. Even when the occasional mortal finds out about the vampires, they're generally nonchalant about it. The cast and filmmakers do a terrific job mining vampire tropes for their absurd value, whether it's what happens when one is accidentally exposed to sunlight, or the drawbacks of never being able to see your own reflections, or the group's tenuous coexistence with various other supernatural beings (werewolves, zombies, etc), of which there are apparently plenty in the greater Wellington area.
I wouldn't say everything in the movie ranks among the best work from Clement and Co., but even the B material from this group is more than worthwhile. These particular vampires are almost always the butt of the joke, but the joke isn't just that they're vampires - it's that they're terribly awkward and out of touch. They might have the image of the sophisticated, mysterious, effortlessly cool vampire in their minds, but they prove to be anything but. More than that, more often than not they're rather bored. Their lives aren't exciting, and aside from Vladislav's conquests, they're not especially sexy, either. These guys are eternal outsiders, desperately and hilariously trying to fit in. That they'll keep on trying - and largely failing - to fit in for centuries to come is a bittersweet rejoinder to the film's good-natured comedy.