Movie review: What We Do in the Shadows

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

If ever you look around and the glamourously undead denizens of Twilight, Nosferatu, Interview with the Vampire, and yes even the relatively “young” whippersnappers of The Vampire Diaries are nowhere to be seen, then book yourself a ticket to Wellington, New Zealand and you will likely find them, dancing alongside the shuffling masses of The Walking Dead‘s zombies and plaid-wearing “Werewolves, not Swearwolves” at the Unholy Masquerade Ball.

Only there is an extremely good chance that they won’t be engaged in gothically-tinged romance, or epic undead skullduggery, concerned instead with whose turn it is to wash up five years of blood-covered glasses and plates that have accumulated in the sink, levitate with élan as only a vampire can and vacuum the upper reaches of the hallway or how to convince a mute 8000 year old vampire with significant manicure issues and dentals problems than it is high time he finally attended a housemate meeting and pay rent (he won’t and he doesn’t).

Yes, you will soon realise that the vampires of Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark, Boy) and Jemaine Clement’s (Flight of the Conchords, Men in Black 3) hilarious Sundance-premiering mockumentary on the secret lives of those beings that normally live anonymously in the dark and the shadows bears no resemblance to the blood-sucking Draculas of old, and much more with harried everyday (or rather everynight) concerns of the domestically-challenged sanguine.

It’s not, of course that they don’t try to maintain the look and aura of vampires past – which after all is them in many ways – with orgy-favouring, hirsute 862 year old Vladislav (Gemaine Clement), sweetly earnest 379 year old dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), youngster and self-professed sexual god 183 year old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and extremely taciturn 8000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham) all favouring the look, feel and mindset of every vampire cliche you can think of and then some.

Yes bringing unsuspecting victims back for the all-too-necessary feeding frenzy is important but sweet-natured Viago despairs about his housemates unwillingness to clean up after their bloody selves (image via official What We Do in the Shadows website)
Yes bringing unsuspecting victims back for the all-too-necessary feeding frenzy is important but sweet-natured Viago despairs about his housemates unwillingness to clean up after their bloody selves (image via official What We Do in the Shadows website)

 

It’s simply that the business of “living”, itself a very loose construct in their post-deceased world – humans are, naturally enough, pre-deceased – is infinitely more complicated than simply working out which unsuspecting human being in a nightclub will be your meal for the night (which you will consume only after laying down newspaper to minimise mess, so begs Viago in one of the movie’s more amusing scenes).

There are the usual internal housemate conflicts to deal with, servants to contend with – Deacon’s all-too-willing acolyte is Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) a suburban housewife who serves him on the basis of eventual vampiric immortality – feuds with past lovers to brood menacingly and/or petulantly about, and lost loves to mourn (Viago’s touching affection for Katherine, played by 96 year old Ethel Robinson is touching).

Things are made infinitely more problematic when Petry sires a new offspring, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a hipster who takes to the nighttime lifestyle with vigour, getting the group, who are still uncertain about his disruptive effect on their centuries-old lifestyle, into nightclubs like Boogie Wonderland (they must be invited in, as per vampiric lore, by the bouncers) telling everyone who will listen that he is a vampire (a definite no-no which upsets Deacon most of all), and flying everywhere, again to the chagrin of Viago and the others, who fear what the neighbours will think.

The neighbours of course do eventually work out that the bloodcurdling screams and BBQ-like smells emanating from the creepy Addams Family-meets-your great grandmother’s down at heel, undisturbed for 60 years share house aren’t the stuff of ordinary suburban life anyway, calling the police in one mirth-inducing scene which has them missing a whole host of incriminating goings-on thanks to Viago’s limited duration hypnosis spell.

The only compensation for Nick’s rather clumsily-enthusiastic embrace of his new persona is that he brings with him the extremely likeable IT programmer Stu (real life Stu Rutherford) who is so amiable and helpful – he helps Viago, Vlad and Deacon see a sunset for the first time in centuries thanks to the miracle that is YouTube – that no one actually wants to eat them, a very unusual development to hear the inhabitants of the world’s most blood-soaked share house tell it.

 

Nick loves everything about the vampire lifestyle at first, and isn't afraid to tell anyone who will listen, but soon realises there are downsides to the lifestyle such as the inability to eat his fabourite food, hot chips (image via official What We Do in the Shadows website)
Nick loves everything about the vampire lifestyle at first, and isn’t afraid to tell anyone who will listen, but soon realises there are downsides to the lifestyle such as the inability to eat his fabourite food, hot chips (image via official What We Do in the Shadows website)

 

The central narrative conceit of What We Do in the Shadows is that the usually off limits activities of the nocturnal vampires is being recorded for a documentary on the Unholy Masquerade, a yearly ball, and social high point, for the supernatural citizens of Wellington and surrounding environs, which is held in the Cathedral of Despair aka Victoria Bowling Club.

Palpably excluded are the plaid-loving Werewolves, led by Alpha Male Anton (Rhys Darby) who closely monitors the consensual nature of the pack down to whether everyone is laughing at the same joke at the same time, and advises on the wisdom of certain clothing styles being optimal on “transformation nights”, with whom the vampires spar rather energetically throughout the film.

The real joy of the movie, which for all its non-stop laugh-out loud observations on share house co-existence,  the difficulties of living lifestyles outside the norm, and the sometimes dubious benefits of immortality – you’re constantly saying goodbye to people admits Deacon to a later-chastened Nick – is that it wears its heart on its sleeve every bit as much as it glorifies endlessly funny jokes and hilarious set pieces.

It is deft balancing act to say something meaningful in a script peppered with one witty, wry observation after another but Waititi and Clement manage it masterfully, giving this enormously clever parody of every vampire cliche you have ever seen, and likely will see, unexpected emotional heft.

But most of all, you will laugh and laugh hard, and wish fervently that every other movie you ever saw on the undead was this funny, this insightful and this brilliantly executed, daggy special effects and all.

 

Published by

aussiemoose

I am an extrovertive gay man living in Sydney who loves Indian food, current affairs, music, film and reading, caramel anything, and a beautiful guy called Steve who makes every day a delight. I am trying to get two novels in a trilogy ready for e-publication, love my iPhone & iPod, and am secretly Canadian in my soul. Life is fun, exciting and joyful and I aim to make the absolute most of it!

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