What We Do in the Shadows: gentle satire and commentary on horror films and social problems

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

Just when you think that everything that can be done in the horror film genre about vampires, zombies and werewolves has been done, along comes a cheerful little comedy flick from the Shaky Isles. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a an eccentric mock documentary following the lives of four to five flatmates who happen to be vampires resident in Wellington. It starts off with Viago (Taika Waititi) waking up at the crack of sunset to call a meeting with fellow fangsters Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) about the household chores – apparently Deacon hasn’t been pulling his weight in washing the dishes and as a result they’ve been stinking up the kitchen and each individual piece of crockery and cutlery is stuck hard to its fellows and the kitchen sink thanks to the adhesive properties of dried blood. The film crew, kitted out in protective crucifixes, follow the trio about as they explain how they came to be undead, how they ended up in New Zealand – Viago says he followed a human girl in his coffin but his human servant bungled the postage so the coffin was 18 months late in arriving in Wellington and by the time the vampire arrived, the love of his life was already married and out of his reach – and how they survive on the outer edges of human society in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Although Deacon has a female human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) who, in the style of shabbos goyim who help ultra-Orthodox Jews get through the Sabbath with chores that Jews are forbidden to perform, cleans up after the threesome’s messes and procures victims for them, viewers quickly see that the centuries-old vampires have problems in adjusting to modern society: they need to be invited into night-clubs by humans (that film “Let the Right One In” has a lot to answer for) and they are a little too fastidious in requiring the blood of virgins even though the blood of non-virgins tastes the same and has no ill effects on them. Jackie brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to them but he tries to escape and ends up becoming undead when he barges into Petyr’s room. From then on, he has to hang out with the trio who try in their own way to teach him how to be a proper vampire. However there are no manuals or etiquette guides to rely on and Nick, giddy with the knowledge that he can fly and is immortal, goes around telling the humans he meets at night that he’s a vampire. This becomes the undoing of Petyr who meets a gruesome end. On the other hand, Nick brings his human fried Stu (Stuart Rutherford) to the trio and he teaches the vampires how to use mobile phones and laptops and look up things on Google and Ancestry.com. Viago is finally reunited with his old familiar Philip through Skype and is able to find out what happened to the love of his life, Katherine, now resident in a nursing home with dementia.

There is no conventional plot as such: the first half of the film is mainly a character study of the three vampires and serves to familiarise them with the audience. Waititi, Brugh and Clement do a sterling job treading the tightrope between credibility and stereotype and filling their characters with life: Viago as the fussy 18th-century aristocrat dandy, Deacon the 19th-century Serbian peasant vampyr and Clement as a Vlad-Dracul-meets-Gene-Simmons bloodsucker. The mock doco traces the vampires from their lonely outsider niche through their encounters with Nick and Stu to a point where they have become comfortable with using 21st-century technology to get what they need and can now understand modern human relationships; along the way, the film pokes gentle fun at flatmate relationships and addresses (even if in a flimsy way) the plight of newcomers trying to fit into an alien society without attracting the wrong sort of attention, relations among men, existential angst, gang warfare and the generation gap. Gags and jokes a-plenty fill the screen as viewers discover that the vampires are nursing secret hopes, fears and enmities which culminate in the annual Unholy Masquerade where Vlad confronts his age-old nemesis The Beast who turns out to be … his ex-girlfriend Pauline. The trio also has run-ins with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby) which itself as a group and as individuals are also dealing with the difficulties of That Time of the Month when the full moon shines at night.

The comedy inherent in a bunch of eccentric undead weirdoes living as unobtrusively as they can in banal suburban Wellington does wear thin and some potential strands of hilarity present in some scenes and scenarios especially in the encounters with the werewolves and their particular existential and masculinity issues are under-developed due to the constraints imposed by the demands of the mockumentary concept. The vampire dilemma of being immortal and seeing particular beloved human friends die from old age or human society jettisoning valuable cultural memorabilia and memes while enthralled with temporary superficial fads is dealt with brilliantly in low-key and matter-of-fact ways. Several famous vampire movies and TV shows and a stack of Hollywood vampire stereotypes are skewered. The film pokes gentle fun at the police as thick-heads. Much of the understated fun of the film lies in the vampires’ house which is kitted out as a seedy gothic mansion that has seen far better days.

As the film was deliberately made as a cheap B-grade doco, technical glitches are to be expected and the shaky handheld camera is used to good effect to ratchet up tension especially in scenes where the human Nick tries to flee the vampires’ house.

The film has potential to become a cult comedy horror classic courtesy of the energy of its cast, many of whom are amateur actors, of its satirical treatment of the horror and documentary film genres, and of its treatment of social issues and pop culture fads in modern Western and New Zealand society.

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