Among our favorite film genres is the mockumentary, and one of the best is This is Spinal Tap. There is something so pure and funny about an actor earnestly adopting a seemingly real character to deconstruct their persona and re-imagine its possibilities. In What We Do in the Shadows, a camera crew presenting themselves as objective observers follow four vampires ranging in age from 183 to 8,000 years old in a style very similar to the portrayal of a rock band in This is Spinal Tap (Not long into the film we learn the crew is safe from vampiric impulses because they are wearing crucifixes). The foursome share a house in suburban New Zealand and have to cope with all the mundane problems of flatting together, such as sharing chores and dealing with different personalities. The squabbles between the vampires are reminiscent of the early days of “the Real World,” with humor drawn from vampire movie classics, from Nosferatu to Twilight. For instance, when a house meeting is called by one of the roommates, the topic of conversation is dish washing. “You have not done the dishes in five years,” complains one about the other. This acute awareness of the minutiae in daily life juxtaposed with the idea of eternal existence is one of the brilliant recurring themes of the film.
The script comes from two of the lead actors in the film, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, who also co-directed. With What We Do in the Shadows, they take on a familiar narrative and question its assumptions to make a smartly winking film to hilarious effect. The camera introduces us first to Viago (Waititi). His character is 379 years old and dresses in frilly shirts and waistcoats like Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. The 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) derisively refers to him as a 17th century dandy. Viago is a neat freak and a romantic. His heartbreaking story-line involves following a love interest to New Zealand by cargo, many decades ago, but getting lost during shipment.
Vladislav, also known as “Vlad the Poker,” is labeled the “pervert” of the group. His characterization channels an oversexualized vampire that will remind many of Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula from the Vlad the Impaler myth in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon is the youngest of the group. At 183, he is the cool kid or “the bad boy,” as the others refer to him. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000. Petyr is the “classic” vampire with a look and feel that stems from that first vampire movie: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. He sleeps in a stone crypt in the basement riddled with human remains. He is exempt from household chores and meetings. You’ll also meet a newbie to the group, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who, while trying to pick up women at a bar, can’t keep from boasting, “You know the guy from Twilight? That’s me.”
The mash-up of vampire influences in each character is not only a tribute to the vampire movies across the decades but also allows for each personality to standout. It’s similar to recognizing a favorite member of a boy band, wherein the characters fulfill their stereotypes and play with familiar tropes that we have become accustomed to from popular movies and reality shows.
Though What We Do in the Shadows sometimes takes a turn into black humor (there is going to be death in a vampire movie), much of the gags deliver great laughs, like the ongoing rivalry between the group of vampires and a pack of werewolves. For those vampire genre connoisseurs that may not easily be amused, the film also includes montages of storytelling that use vintage images of the character’s story lines. Since there were no video cameras when these characters were turned into the undead, besides old photos, we also get paintings and archaic woodcarvings to illustrate their early years, which achieve a different level of humor. There’s one great running gag of Vlad’s arch nemesis “The Beast,” seen in a primitive woodcut as a rotund creature with the head of a bird, small arms and possibly a penis protruding from its chest. When Vlad finally has an opportunity to confront “the beast,” the reveal of the monster will surely get hearty laughter in a most unexpected way.
The characters take on modern life, with all the vicissitudes it poses to the undead. Another of the great jokes among the roommates is posing for each other before they go out at night. As one of the symptoms of being a vampire means they are prevented from using mirrors, the vampires look to each other for fashion advice. There is also a couple of humans in the mix, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) plays a subservient role to Deacon, a modern type of Renfield who craves the promise of eternal life. Jackie helps lure other humans for the gang to feast on, and that’s how they meet Stu (Stuart Rutherford). In another running gag, the vampires are so taken by Stu, a computer analyst who teaches them about Googling and Facebook, they make a pact to spare his life.
What We Do in the Shadows was awarded the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and the Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival; an indication of the crowd-pleasing qualities of this film. This is one of those movies that can easily become a repeater, as soon as we finished watching it we were ready for an encore. What We Do in the Shadows is one of those independent films that will have crossover appeal from art-house theater-goers to avid TV watchers. For us, this was a gem, and we were happy to have been invited to preview it.
What We Do in the shadows runs 86 minutes and is not rated (expect violence, language, sexuality, gore and some scares but most of it for humor’s sake). It opens in many U.S. theaters on March 6. In South Florida, it’s playing at the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale. For listings around the world click here. The film’s PR company provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. Clement, by the way, self-funded the movie’s U.S. distribution via Kickstarter.
Update: O Cinema Wynwood in Miami will now host the film. Sreening details here.