Winner of the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s Vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, is finally making the rounds in the US. It answers some pressing questions we’ve had about the prospects for the undead since terrorizing peasants from haunted castles is no longer in fashion. Surprisingly, they are doing just fine in Wellington, New Zealand, repairing their love lives and arguing about household chores.
The mockumentary format is a familiar one to movie-goers by now, perhaps even a little stale. Comedy sketches are followed by comments from the major participants followed by more of the same. We need to judge that genre by how well the sketches and commentary inspire laughter, and by that standard, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows is a genuine success. It is easy to see why it was the winner of the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Gather a of New Zealand’s best comedians together, dress them up as goulies, and see what comes of it. Where have all the vampires gone? Apparently to Wellington, New Zealand, where they are getting by just fine.
The premise behind What We Do in the Shadows is that four vampires in have allowed a crucifix-wearing film crew access to their lives. The crucifixes should enable them to get close to the action without becoming a meal. The vampires range in age from a few hundred to 8,000 years and have been sharing a house for the past sixty or so odd years. Romantic Viago (Taika Waititi) is probably the house leader, at least he seems to care for the day to day lives of the other members. Vlad the Poker (Jermaine Clement) is the erotic party animal of the house, a down on his luck former nobleman. The B-horror flick premised Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a former member of Hitler’s Nazi Vampire Corps. We don’t see much of the Count Orlok-inspired Petyr (Ben Fransham), which for the camera crew is probably for the best. As the oldest of the hive, he probably hasn’t really agreed to leave the camera crew unmolested. After introductions, the film crew follows the three more sociable vampires around Wellington from episode to episode as they go clubbing, invite virgins over for dinner, meet werewolves, prepare for the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball and argue about chores.
Along the way, Petyr creates a new member, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who is thrilled to be a newly minted vampire for the powers, but not yet ready to deal with the consequences of undead life. As the youngest of the team, he probably has spent too much time watching the modern romantic vampires in the movies, unaware of the horrors vampires of the past faced when trying to lead public lives. Through Nick, the hive is introduced to Stu (Stu Rutherford), a tech-analyst and Nick’s best friend, who trains the vampires in social media and judo. Stu doesn’t really belong, since normal humans tend to fall into two categories for the more traditional vampires – food or familiars. But Stu is so affable and low key, they just like having him around.
There is a lot to like about Shadows. Clement and Waititi ably use the documentary format to move from one episode to the next. Like all observational documentaries, Shadows feel unscripted, allowing the cast to show us the mundane events that make them appear human as well as the spectacular problems faced only in the undead subculture. Viewers are never certain what will happen next, as the fictional documentarians wait for some kind of narrative to coalesce. They finally settle on Nick’s vampire transformation, Vlad’s romance with the woman whom he followed to Wellington only to lose her love, and Stu as the every-man dryly reacting to his new friends as the stories that anchor the film. I didn’t feel that it took too long to get to the point (as I often do in documentaries), as laughs kept coming consistently. Highlights include steps taken to keep blood off an antique couch, a macabre dinner with “virgins” and an unexpected insight into why vampires prefer virgin blood. And Stu.
Apparently, Rutherford didn’t know that he was hired to have a major role in the film and was actually on set to provide tech support. No one shared the script with him, and despite that, Clement and Waititi manage to make him an important character in the picture. While he doesn’t steal the movie, he somehow manages to get the biggest laugh in his scenes, often by not being able to say anything when he is put on the spot to comment on the strange situations. He gives the type of performance that he will only be able to give once.
What We Do in the Shadows mixes plenty of gore in with its laughs. Like all vampires, our unholy band can be terrifying when feasting, but the horror never goes too far. The movie stacks up well against other horror/comedies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and the Lost Boys and is probably the funniest one involving vampires since, I don’t know, Love at First Bite? It compares well with the Guffmans and Best in Shows as well. It does well having fun with its subject while poking fun at documentary conventions, like the best mockumentaries do. If you aren’t in the mood for the most sophisticated humor, Shadows is definitely one to consider in these cold post Oscar months when pickings are slim.