What We Do in the Shadows (2014, New Zealand, Australia; 2015 U.S. Release)
Written, Directed and Produced by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.
Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brughe, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford
What We Do in the Shadows is a Mockumentary comedy that is fresh, endearing, and very, very funny. Jemaine Clement (who is known and instantly loved ever since Flight of the Conchords) here partnered with the very entertaining Taika Waititi, has made magic again by taking a fresh look at one of the most covered genres in popular film and fiction: the private world of vampires, creatures who’ve remained alluring since they emerged from folklore to mass entertainment as a way for culture to explore the taboos of sexual boundaries, hedonism, violence and social mores 150 years ago.
Vampires Viago, Vlad, Deacon and 8,000 year-old Petyr are housemates in current-day suburban Wellington, New Zealand. They allow a film crew inside their home with promises not to harm them and arm them with crucifixes. They are a little bored and so this plot point makes sense as a diversion from their nightly amusements, hunting, nightclubbing and pining for lost loves. It is also ripe for humour. As it does unfailingly in (so-called) Reality TV and Documentary, the boundaries crossed by the appearance of a film crew tends to bleed into other areas of the vampire’s lives, and soon the boys are dealing with some new complications in the form of human beings, which changes their established dynamic and creates tension that leads to arguments, sulks and even bat fights. There are some great jokes about other popular vampire films that these vampires have seen, and there is potential for turf battles with the lower caste werewolves hanging out down by the woods.
The faux-documentary is a filmic gamble that can either work very well if the “talking head” or “confessional diary” style footage of subjects are funny/interesting, and can fail bitterly if they are not. In this case, from the opening frame, the set up and execution is written and acted so well that it’s immediately immersive. The relief of finding an actually very funny comedy, especially one that manages to reinvent established tropes of comedy film and the vampire canon, with laughs ensuing before the opening credits, would have made a lot of missteps later in the film be tolerable. But there are no missteps. What We Do in the Shadows is to shine from every angle as the small and seamless ensemble cast make no errors, rather build on a solid start to a very entertaining film under 90 minutes (which demands a sequel.) The leads are all formidable actors, with Clement showing new aspects and comedic depths with a character more reserved than “Jemaine” of the Conchords, but is instantly iconic. World, meed the new Vlad.
There are familiars, servants, humans as live meat, and rare humans as friends. There’s the one that got away, and the Arch Nemesis; interpersonal/intervampire domestic squabbles (someone has been a bad roommate, not doing his chore of the dishes for five years. Some of you can relate.) and there are friends and rivals in the undead scene which is surprisingly robust for Wellington. “We are the bait” and also the predators, says a vampire as they go through the laddish ritual of choosing their clubbing looks. Getting into night clubs is a challenge, they have to be invited. As these vampires grapple with modern technology and mundane things, in their beautiful, decaying clothes, we see how ridiculous our modern world has become, with our Facebook pokes and risk of uncomfortable Skype sessions.
The film has been made by folks with a deep film appreciation, an impeccable sense of pacing, some of the most delightful mise-en-scene in some time, great costumes, and in-camera effects that are really wonderful. All this comes together with an expertise and flair that seems effortless (and you need not care about film mechanics to love it) but is much more likely a labour of love, many hands, and true commitment to the craft of film. It’s a low-budget indie made with such artistry and talent that it looks better than many big budget bloated offerings. It’s completely refreshing, like Trainspotting or Rushmore were in their delightful, focused singularity. It’s a game changer.
See this film and be inspired to write, dress up, act, do improv, record scratch, or find your way to your own creative work. Or see it and just laugh and know that there’s hope for the world, and the world of popular film, yet.
By Jacqueline Howell