“Vampires have had a really bad rep. We’re not these mopey old creatures who live in castles — well, most of us are, a lot of us are — but there are also those of us who like to flat together in really small countries like New Zealand.” With these words, the 18th century dandy vampire Viago (Taika Waititi), sitting at his pottery wheel, sums up the premise of the uproariously funny vampire mockumentary from comedians Waititi and Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows. The vampires that haunt Wellington have more in common with the awkward fellows of Silicon Valley than the brooding, smoldering vampires of Twilight — for starters, their clothing is too old-fashioned for them to even consider the possibility of sparkles. The film has the same attention to detail as Silicon Valley that spawns so many laughs, but sadly, also faces the same problems with cobbling together a decent female character and excising the most tasteless jokes.
What We Do in the Shadows opens with a brief introduction to the flatmates, told through interviews conducted by the brave crew of humans following them around for a documentary. At the centre of the group is Viago, who starts the film by waking up his flatmates at sunset for a flat meeting. The 179-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), whose hobbies include knitting and erotic dance, hasn’t been pulling his weight with the household chores: we pan over to the giant stack of bloodied dishes that haven’t been washed in five years. We also meet Vadislav (Jemaine Clement) who was born in the Middle Ages so still has some old-fashioned ideas about the world but pulls his weight by doing the vacuuming. And finally there’s Petyr, the oldest of the group by a few millenia, who feeds on chickens from his coffin in the basement, where Viago sometimes visits to help him brush his teeth. All of them still dress as though they’re living in the period in which they were born: the costume design is impeccable. They live in a run-down house that’s rich enough in reds and greens to give the film a pleasing colour palette given its low-budget aesthetic.
Things get shaken up when these vampires have a dinner party to feast on a few humans, one of whom, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up as a vampire instead of a meal, thanks to Petyr’s interference. He has trouble fitting in with the group, between his insistence on wearing the same kind of Sergeant Pepper jacket as Deacon and his allegiance to his human best friend, the computer analyst Stu (Stuart Rutherford). But since Nick can get them into the coolest club in Wellington — as vampires, they have to be invited in, and they all dress like such idiots that it’s an impossible feat on their own — so they at least warm to him somewhat. They actually end up preferring the quiet Stu, who can show them YouTube videos of a sunrise and teach them karate. Juvenile tensions rise and heaps of humour ensue.
When making a very good comedy, the devil is in the details. I’ve seen the film three times now, and with each viewing, I pick up on a great new punch line or a quick scene that I missed before, like when Vladislav, who used to be known as “the Poker” for his torturing tendencies, discovers the “Poke” function on Facebook with excitement. Every scene is meticulously curated and thought through: a heated argument between two of the flatmates in the kitchen might feature Stu cleaning some dishes in the background for comic relief. It never drags and it’s pieced together so expertly that you hardly notice you’re watching so many short scenes; it’s also not afraid of longer ones. The editing is a marvel.
The film isn’t crammed full of one-liners, but it’s masterful at turning situations on their head for comedic effect. Take the visit the flatmates receive from the cops, after the neighbors complain about loud screams overheard the night before — a vampire hunter entered their house and was killed. The cops are more concerned about giving them safety tips about the necessity for smoke alarms than they are with the very clearly dead body in the basement or the fact that Nick is floating half-way up the wall (vampires can fly in the film’s lore). When Deacon rashly suggests they kill the cops to avoid unwanted trouble, Vlad insists they wait to get more safety tips first.
Above all, the film has a beating heart. The friends may fight but they couldn’t live without each other. Even when the flatmates kick Nick out of their flat for some crimes — and subject him to a procession of shame that’s maybe a little less funny and absurd in the context of Jon Ronson’s recent article — they’re sad to see him go, taking Stu with him. There’s romance, too. An ex-lover of Vlad’s is the reason he’s lost all the power he once had: she took much of his self-confidence with her when she left. And much of Viago’s sweetness stems not just from his insistence on serenading the ladies he’s about to devour with a lute — it’s their last night so it might as well be lovely, he muses — but that he initially came to New Zealand to follow the woman he loved. Unfortunately, not enough postage was put on his coffin, so by the time he arrived, she was already married; he wanted to see her happy so he stepped back. Now that she’s ninety, he stalks outside her retirement home, hoping to rekindle an old flame.
What We Do in the Shadows moves at such a clipped pace, with joke layered upon joke layered upon joke, that it’s easy to miss – and forgive – it’s less palatable elements. Not only is there a tasteless joke about Nazi vampires, but there are far too many semi-serious jokes about the vampires’ outdated obsession with virgins. This is not unrelated to the fact that the film features almost no female characters. The two who do prominently appear come in the form of Deacon’s familiar who is basically a human slave. She does his bidding — including taking in their clothes for dry cleaning, where she has to come up with reasonable explanations for the excessive blood stains — in the hopes that he might one day turn her into a vampire. The other is Vlad’s ex-lover who’s portrayed as a two-dimensional harpy, though he’s certainly exaggerated the degree of her awfulness. Aside from the Nazi joke, these mostly didn’t bother me the first time through. I was having such a good time. But the problems leave an increasingly bitter aftertaste with each re-watch. It’s a shame, because the film is built to be a cult classic.
The best kept secret about vampire movies is that they’re not really about bloodsucking, sexually-charged demons at all. Instead, the undead create a heightened reality for exploring other, more recognizable issues, whether that’s the romantic love between the sophisticated aesthetes witnessing cultural change in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive or the importance of fraternal bonds in the CW’s The Vampire Diaries. What We Do in the Shadows is less heady or emotional, but it more than compensates with its wit and insistence that vampires are far from superior beings: they may be able to fly or turn themselves into bats, but they still can’t feed without splattering blood everywhere or pick out an appropriate outfit, even if they’ve learned how to take selfies.
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