We need to show New Zealand more respect.
After all, the Kiwis gave us Lord of the Rings. The ruggedly handsome Cliff Curtis (of Fear the Walking Dead and recent Under the Radar film Push). The hilarious comedy duo/show Flight of the Conchords.
And now they've delivered What We Do In the Shadows,one of the funniest horror comedies in decades.
Framed as a documentary, the story follows a very unusual quartet of roomies in the months leading up to a wild party known as The Unholy Masquerade.
Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr share a flat in Wellington. As in most flatting situations, there's the occasional conflict between clashing personalities. Even the friendliest of roommates bicker at times.
The fact that these roomies are all vampires just means things often get literally bloody.
Viago (Taika Waititi) is the quintessential dandy: fussy and sentimental, the perfect stand-in for the 'angsty romantic vampire' that has become such a feature in teen romances. Seventy years have passed since he first arrived in New Zealand and he's still moping over a human love, Katherine, who is now an aged granny in a rest home.
Vladislav the Poker (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame) is a bit more ruthless —“I only torture when I'm in a dark place,” he tells the cameraman, after suggesting they “get some slaves” to handle the chores. He was once renowned for his vampiric wiles such as hypnotizing huge crowds and transforming into a variety of animals, but since clashing with his archnemesis THE BEAST (the capital letters are very audible), “he never gets the faces right”.
Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the most visibly monstrous, the Nosferatu of the group, tall and skeletal with crooked fangs and bat ears. For a guy who doesn't say anything beyond hissing, he still makes quite an impression.
Deacon (Jonny Brugh) sees himself as something of a rule-breaking rock star even though he spends a lot of his time knitting. He was a Nazi vampire, though, so he's definitely not a fluffy bunny with fangs. And when his position as the baby of the group (he's a mere 173 compared to Viago's three hundred, Vlad's eight hundred, and Petyr's eight thousand) is usurped by newly converted vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), he gets wildly jealous.
The real friction in the story starts when Petyr turns would-be-dinner Nick into another creature of the night and the group has to adjust to having such a modern addition to the family. While Nick and his human BFF Stu (Stuart Rutherford) introduce them to wonders like the Internet and popular nightclubs, they also attract a lot of unwanted attention when secrecy is paramount to their survival.
Every trope and cliché of the vampire canon is spoofed to laugh-out-loud effect. Dramatic pronouncements like “Just let me do my dark bidding!” are spoiled when the characters add, “…On the Internet, I'm bidding on a table and some chairs.”
Fussy Viago complains when the others neglect to put down towels over his antique couch before eating their dinners: “You mean the red couch?” Vlad asks. “Well, it's red now,” laments Viago. The first skirmish we see is over Deacon refusing to do the dishes (which have piled up for five years) when his flatmates are keeping up on their portions of the chores.
Since vampires lack reflections, they have to help each other get dressed for nights on the town. They can fly, but often resort to taking public transit, and since vampires can't go anywhere they aren't invited they have a hard time getting into clubs.
They may have immortality and powerful wiles, but they also have a hard time wrapping their head around the magic of modern technology. (Although Vlad quickly gets the hang of selfies.) “Google's a search engine,” human friend Stu explains. “You tell it what you want and it finds it.”
“I lost a really nice silk scarf somewhere in 1912,” Viago says, before an embarrassing Skype session with his former servant, Phillip. Vampires mastering cellphones and using Skype — that's some situational comedy we've been missing.
Deacon's familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), has plenty to say about the homosexual undertones in the vampire mythos. “I'm just saying that if I had a penis, I'd've been bitten a long time ago,” she complains while ironing the frills on Deacon's shirts and cleaning up the horrific bloody mess in the bathroom.
There are some serious moments to leaven the silliness; slight pauses for reflections on mortality and death. But even the saddest, darkest scenes are quickly followed by slapstick comedy or goofy dialogue. “Death is brutal,” Deacon says as he tries to comfort a grieving Nick. “Like falling asleep in a pile of autumn leaves… Or fashioning a mask out of crackers and being attacked by ducks, and geese, and swans.”
A highlight of the film is the group's clashes with the local pack of werewolves, lead by Anton (Rhys Darby, another veteran of Flight of the Conchords). Clearly vamps and weres get along like cats and dogs, with insults hurled back and forth until the alpha male intervenes: “We're werewolves, not swearwolves!”
Co-directors/writers Waititi and Clement have created something special with What We Do In the Shadows: a comedy that spoofs things that have been spoofed a million times over and yet still feels fresh and original. It hits all the beats we expect while managing to be surprising and witty.
The likes of Twilight inundated the pop culture landscape with romantic, brooding vampires to the point where we all got heartily sick of them. Then Guillermo del Toro came along with The Strain and returned the best known creature of the night to its gory, disgusting, monstrous roots. What We Do In the Shadows manages to straddle both lines and deliver something for everyone.
With the clever framework of a film crew following the characters, we get plenty of Office-style interviews and re-enactments. I'm always a sucker for ridiculous premises presented in a realistic manner; Trollhunter is another brilliant offering in this docu-horror/comedy vein.
Everything from the opening credits — more movies need to use their credits in a meaningful way to add to the overall story — to the epilogue are pitch perfect. There really isn't a single bad or boring moment in the entire film.
I recently showed this to a good friend of mine who's something of a connoisseur of film; that is to say she knows a good thing when she sees it. From the opening scene she was charmed, and it takes a lot to make her laugh out loud during a movie. By the end credits she had deemed it the best film she'd seen all year —high praise indeed.
With Halloween right around the corner, the timing couldn't be better to pick this up, especially if you're doing a movie night with people who are somewhat squeamish or unwilling to sit through serious horror. A double billing of What We Do In the Shadows and The Lost Boys is just the ticket — and might I recommend serving a “pasgetti” dinner beforehand?
If you like: Mel Brooks but are looking for something sharper and less reliant on bathroom humor.
Why you should watch it: Laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly quotable.
Favorite moment(s): The scene where Viago hypnotizes an investigating pair of police is pure gold from start to finish and Nick's panicked run through the house includes some of the film's best special effects.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.