Directors: Taika Waititi & Jermaine Clement
Starring: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Kiwi duo Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement do something quite surprising with their film What We Do in the Shadows. They take a subject, vampires, with which popular culture is teetering on the edge of overload, and combine it with a form, the mockumentary, which seems just as tired, and through the combination create a vibrant, original and downright funny movie.
A documentary crew observes a group of vampires flatting together in Wellington, New Zealand, in the months leading up to the undead community’s annual night of nights, the Unholy Masquerade. Viago is 379 years old. He’s an 18th century Dandy and the unofficial organiser of the house. The 862-year-old Vladislav the Poker is a legendary lothario and hypnotist, though his powers have dulled in recent years. Deacon is the young bad boy of the house, being that he is only 183. Down in the basement lives Petyr, an ancient vampire, 8000 years old, clearly modelled on Max Schreck from F.W. Murau’s legendary 1922 silent Nosferatu. In between catching and devouring virgin victims, the group deals with the usual politics of share house living. Their dynamic is challenged though when Petyr turns young kiwi Nick into a vampire. While they have much to teach Nick about being a vampire, he teaches them a thing or two about living in the modern world.
What We Do in the Shadows transcends the seeming limitations of its subject matter and form because of the slightly different sensibility the New Zealand sense of humour brings to the fold. An American version of this movie would in all likelihood have been horrible. The strength of Waititi and Clement’s screenplay (or perhaps their scenarios is a better term given the mockumentary form is so dependent on improvisation) is in the way that the film combines the extraordinary with the mundane. It is hilariously absurd watching vampires having flat meetings to discuss household chores – if someone is going to kill a victim in the living room, they should be considerate and lay down some towels first. The film also plays on the incongruity of a group of people who are so determined to keep their existence a secret allowing themselves to be the subject of a documentary.
All the best genre comedies take convention and turn it on its head. In the case of What We Do in the Shadows, there are centuries’ worth of vampire lore and mythologies to be played with. Waititi and Clement then plant these well-known conventions in a very ordinary context to explore the difficulties of being a vampire in the present day. How do you look after your appearance if you can’t check your reflection in the mirror? How do you enjoy a night out on the town when you can’t enter a venue without being explicitly invited in?
While Clement and Waititi are the headliners of this cast – Clement known as half of Flight of the Conchords and Waititi as the writer-director-actor behind the wonderful film Boy, the highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box office – Jonathan Brugh more than holds his own and even steals a few scenes as Deacon. There is also a great cameo from Rhys Darby as the alpha male of a group of werewolves who our vampires occasionally cross paths with.
Horror comedy isn’t the easiest genre balance to get right but What We Do in the Shadows is start-to-finish funny while still having enough schlock, gore and surprisingly impressive effects to keep genre fans happy. At just 85 minutes, the movie is short and sweet. It doesn’t stretch the premise beyond what it can support, and what you end up with is one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year.
Review by Duncan McLean
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