Review: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

what-we-do-in-the-shadows1

Mockumentary with the Vampire : Defender Films/New Zealand Film Commission

If you enjoyed FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, chances are you’ll love this film too. It’s a spoof vampire sitcom much in the vein of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s previous comic stylings, but the performances, the gags and the treatment of the mythology make it really stand out from the crowd, perhaps even rivaling Conchords’ lavish musical numbers for memorability.

When a quartet of vampire housemates lets a small film crew into their lair to show that despite being undead they’re just like everybody else, hijinks ensue. You have the usual domestic squabbles and the very human sins of vanity, jealousy, passion and lust, but you also have the decidedly more vampiric concerns of living forever, nocturnal habits and how you lure your living victims in the busy modern world. Presented as a playful documentary exposé into an alternative group in society, the film progresses as a series of entertaining sketches exploring the personalities, foibles and the mindset of contemporary vampires living in New Zealand.

The film gifts us with a vampire archetype to stand in for pretty much every good vampire movie you’ve seen. You have a vampiric romantic a-la Francis Ford Copola’s DRACULA (Clement’s Vladislav), a fussy dandy in the vain of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (Waititi’s Viago), the young rebel LOST BOYS vamp (Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon) and finally the feral and silent NOSFERATU bloodsucker who lives in their basement (Ben Fransham’s ancient Petyr). They make for a fun mix of characters, and a believably diverse group of friends living together for reasons of both affection and convenience.

The film’s comic highlights include, but arean’t limited to – the challenge of looking your best for a night on the town if you don’t have a reflection; werewolves hurriedly shedding their best and tightest clothes so they don’t ruin them during transformation (“Jeans? You just lost those”); a pair of hypnotised (or just idiotic) police officers not seeing anything suspicious about stains, smells, corpses or bickering housemates floating on the ceiling; and the central outlandish trio traveling into Wellington on a night bus. You also get the added bonus of the actors’ gift for just looking funny, be it Waititi’s nervy, “please like me” glances at the camera, Clement’s pervert’s snarl or Rhys Derby’s macho mediator act as the alpha werewolf, you just have to smile.

It’s odd how few mockumentary features actually use documentary conventions to a large extent – usually it’s just an excuse to have your characters speak to camera. What We Do in the Shadows mostly commits to its premise. Talking heads, retrospective photo montages, introductory captions (displaying the characters’ advanced ages) and the kind of groovy vaguely-Eastern European soundtrack you tend to get with alternative documentaries all help to complete the package.

On the supernatural side of things, What We Do in the Shadows has some impressive, mostly in-camera special effects that transcend the film’s relatively modest budget. The makeup and gore is convincing and plentiful, and the bat and werewolf transformations are striking but used sparingly to instigate action or set up gags.

The film even finds time for a little meditation on mortality, and wittily explores how much it might suck (pun intended) to be a vampire in New Zealand today. The former theme is explored primarily through the vampire characters’ human familiars, who dedicate their lives to serving their masters in the hope of being gifted with eternal life as a reward. It worries Deacon’s familiar Jackie (the effortlessly sympathetic Jackie van Beek), who reckons she only has a couple more years as “the best version” of herself, and it downright infuriates Viago’s thrall, who is devastated to realise he has turned 90 and now faces being an eternally old immortal (though as his master points out, he did put on the wrong postage when sending his coffin to New Zealand).

Aside from the odd joke that doesn’t quite land (the punchline to the drawn out issue of Vladislav’s great rivalry with “The Beast” is a little obvious), the only thing I was left wondering when the credits came around was: why wasn’t this a TV series? Each scene/sketch could easily be expanded to an episode in its own right, especially considering the frequency and variety of the gags and this memorable group of characters who could all stand up to more screentime. I’m really nitpicking to find complaints though, and overall What We Do in the Shadows has turned out to be just as sharp and scary-funny as you could hope for. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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3 Responses to Review: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

  1. Dan O. says:

    Very funny, but also seems to have something of a heart that works well for it. Nice review.

  2. Pingback: Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) | SSP Thinks Film

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