What We Do in the ShadowsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/27/15 07:18:07
Even though I had been hearing nothing but good things about it for a while, I still found myself filled with trepidation as I sat down to watch "What We Do in the Shadows." For one thing, it is a vampire comedy, a concept that pretty much hit its high-water mark a half-century ago with Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and which, with one or two exceptions (such as the hallucinatory Nicolas Cage vehicle "Vampire's Kiss"), has been on the downslide ever since thanks to the increasingly tired likes of "Love at First Bite," "Dracula--Dead and Loving It" and the indescribably awful "Vampires Suck," a movie so bad that the title is the funniest thing about it. For another, it is a mockumentary, another sub-genre that has also grown somewhat tiresome thanks to its overuse by people who don't understand how to make it work both comedically and cinematically. Finally, it is the product of co-writers/directors/stars Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, a duo who previous collaborations include "Eagle vs. Shark" and the TV series "Flight of the Concords," projects that are venerated by some people that I know but which have thus failed to inspire anything remotely resembling a laugh. The only thing that kept me from abandoning it altogether was the knowledge that no matter how bad it might be, it could hardly be worse than "Mortdecai," "Fifty Shades of Grey" or any of the other bits of nonsense I have endured in the last few weeks.Boy, am I glad that I decided to stick it out because "What We Do in the Shadows" is funny. Check that--it is really funny. It may not exactly reinvent cinema as we know it but that is because it is too busy making people laugh to waste time on such fripperies. Goofy and gory in equal measures, this is a film that will satisfy the most jaded genre fanatics with the amount of blood spilled and the in-joke allusions to some of the most (in)famous examples of vampire-related fiction. At the same time, however, it is funny and clever enough on its own to be able to attract and interest viewers who have never come near a copy of "Fangoria" magazine and who can only identify Christopher Lee as the other old guy from the "Lord of the Rings" movies. It is doubtlessly way too soon to make any sweeping predictions about how 2015 is going to turn out cinema-wise but unless we are in store for a bumper crop of screen comedy, there is an excellent chance that this film will be a contender will be in the running for the title of funniest film of 2015 (deliberate division).
Supposedly produced under the aegis of the New Zealand Documentary Board, presumably the same body responsible for the classic documentary "Forgotten Silver," "What We Do in the Shadows" follows the day-to-day existence of a quartet of European-born vampires who are now sharing a grimy flat in suburban Wellington. (The crew filming their activities, we learn right off the bat, are all wearing crucifixes to ensure their safety.) The leader of the group is Viago (Waititi), who tries to keep the household running smoothly by calling house meetings and organizing chore charts that are only rarely adhered to. The youngest of the group--a mere 183 years old--is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who is a bit of a twerp (after finally being inveigled to do his share around the house, we see him at the sink taking care of what could be decades worth of plates mumbling "Vampires don't do dishes.") On the other end of the age spectrum, Petyr (Ben Fransham) is about 8,000 years old, makes Max Schreck look dewy and spends most of his time in his personal lair, though he is still perfectly capable of getting things done, vampire-style, when need be. Finally, there is Vladislav (Clement), the self-styled stud of the group who seems to have based his entire approach to life on Gary Oldman's performance in the first part of "Bram Stoker's Dracula"--he is catnip with the ladies, he can shape-shift (though his skills are a tad rusty in this regard) and his only known nemesis is an entity from his past who is known only as "The Beast."
As the filmmakers following their subjects around, it soon becomes apparent that being a virtually immortal creature of the night is not entirely what it is cracked up to be. For example, the guys would love to troll the hippest nightclubs in order to procure exceptionally sexy and stylish victims but since vampires can only enter places where they have been invited, they can never get past the doormen anywhere other than the least chic of establishment. Instead, they rely on Jackie (Jackie van Beek), Deacon's human familiar, to procure potential victims (usually ex-boyfriends and others that she doesn't like) in exchange for eventually being transformed herself. One of these snacks is Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), an amiable dope who is transformed instead of being sucked dry and who becomes the new guy in the group. At first, the others like him--and they love Stu (Stuart Rutherford), the meek computer analyst who is his best pal and now his familiar--but his tendency to tell everyone that he meets that he is a vampire drives a wedge between them and threatens the entire group. Sure, they could get rid of him but on the other hand, they really like Stu.
On the surface, "What We Do in the Shadows" may sound like a sketch idea at best but it is amazing to see the inspired variations that Waititi and Clement are able to derive from what is essentially a one-joke premise. There are the inevitable but still funny allusions to the classics of the genre--at one point, the guys mess with one of their victims with a bit that will seem familiar to anyone who has seen "The Lost Boys" and then sheepishly admit that is exactly where they got the idea for it. There are moments where the gore and comedy merge together in amusing ways--we see Viago laying newspapers on the floor while talking to a student whose neck he is about to bite, making a total mess out of things anyway by biting in the wrong place and later telling the filmmakers "On the upside, I think she had a really good time" even as her blood is still dripping from everywhere. There are moments of pure surreal silliness, such as when the guys encounter a rival gang of werewolves and try to antagonize their comparatively goody-goody rivals (after one curses the gang out, the leader of the wolf pack reminds him "We are werewolves, not swear-wolves.") It all culminates in a hilarious sequence at an annual ball for the local undead only to which the guys have unwisely brought both their camera crew and Stu (who gets asked by one interested zombie "Are you. . .pre-deceased?") and which is later graced with the presence of The Beast, whose identity supplies one of the film's biggest laughs.
Because of the faux-documentary conceit of the film (which for once actually works), "What We Do in the Shadows" will no doubt be compared in many quarters to such classics of the genre as "This is Spinal Tap" and "The Office." I agree with that assessment but not just because of the formal similarities. One of the reasons that those projects worked so well was because even as we were laughing at the characters and their essential obliviousness, they were portrayed in such an engaging and likable manner that you still wanted them to succeed in their dopey goals. The same goes here and this time around, that is a little more tricky because it is harder to sympathize with someone who wants to drink your blood than with someone who wants to sell you paper. For example, Waititi is hilarious and oddly touching as a vampire who has lived for hundreds of years, has untold powers and yet, his biggest concerns are getting the unseen film crew to like him and pining for the love that got away. Like him, the others score big laughs as well while still registering recognizably human concerns. (Meanwhile, the fully human Jackie is the closest thing that the film gets to a true monster--even the desiccated Petyr has his good points by comparison.) The other hilarious performance comes from Stuart Rutherford as Stu, the computer analyst, who gets some of the biggest laughs in the film by just standing there and doing nothing. (As it turns out, Rutherford is a non-actor who was a former roommate of Waititi's and who currently works in real life as a computer analyst.)Even though it is only beginning its theatrical release, "What We Do in the Shadows" is almost certainly guaranteed a place in the cult film firmament as one of the more effective horror-comedies of recent years. (Admittedly, it leans far closer to the comedy end of the scale--even when the blood is flowing--but it does contain a couple of big scares, both involving Petyr, that are so effective that they will keep viewers slightly on edge for the rest of the film instead of treating the whole thing as a lark.) However, this is not the kind of movie that will appeal only to a specific target audience and leave everyone else standing out in the cold. Alternately smart and silly and always very funny, this is a film that gleefully skewers the hoariest cliches of the vampire genre while at the same time understanding why those traditions have managed to resonate with audiences for so long. Besides, I submit that it is impossible to resist any film in which a vampire goes about rousing his companions for an evening of blood-soaked revelry with a genial "Awakey-wakey!"
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