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What We Do in the Shadows

Okay, so I’m a bit late to the party on this one. I know this, and I’m sure I had several reasons for missing out when it first came to Portland earlier this year. I honestly don’t think I expected the film to develop the huge following that it did in so short a time. Hell, co-director/co-writer/co-star/co-producer Taika Waititi went from being a total nobody to a future Marvel blockbuster director in the few months since this film first hit theaters in the U.S.

Luckily, a local arthouse theater put What We Do in the Shadows back on its screens for this Halloween weekend, and I was glad to see what I had missed out on. And the movie did not disappoint.

The film is presented as a mockumentary, and that needs to be addressed right up front. With the plague of found-footage horror movies we’ve gone through in the past few years, we have to make a distinction between “found footage” and “mockumentary.” Though both are fictional, the acknowledged presence of a proper film crew with professional equipment and several different cameras at work, given permission to film with every intention of releasing a legitimate movie, does a lot to solve the various plot holes and presentation issues that come with “found footage” horror.

I’m sorry, I hate to sound elitist, but I’m sick and tired of plotlines getting tangled up in threadbare knots trying to explain how we’re seeing all this footage that shouldn’t exist, not to mention all the shaky-cam nonsense that keeps obscuring the scares instead of making them more terrifying. This movie does have a bit of that, to be entirely fair, but it’s only a very brief scene at the climax.

Anyway, these particular filmmakers (each one equipped with a crucifix, as an opening title card points out) are crafting a documentary about a group of vampires who all share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Ostensibly, this is part of a greater project regarding the Unholy Masquerade, an annual convention of undead Kiwi monsters.

Our four main bloodsuckers are Viago (Taika Waititi), an uptight dandy who’s 380-some-odd years old; Vladislav (the film’s other co-director/co-writer/co-star/co-producer, Jemaine Clement), over 800 years old, with more barbaric tastes; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the brooding and argumentative young man of the group at 180-something; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000-year-old demon who scarcely looks or acts human anymore.

The central premise of four completely different people all sharing a flat may sound like an overly simplistic and cliched sitcom premise. And it is. Which is precisely what makes it so funny when applied to vampires. When we see people arguing over who hasn’t washed the dishes, it’s boring. But when there’s a mountain of dishes that haven’t been done in five years and they’re all caked over with blood (Why do vampires even use dishes, anyway?), the argument and the sight gag both become hilarious.

Conversely, we’ve got multiple scenes of a vampire trying to bite someone’s neck, with so much blood spilling out ready to be imbibed. Basic horror fare that we’ve all seen a million times. But when the vampire lays down towels and newspapers, upset that the blood splatter will ruin his clothes and furniture, it’s suddenly a whole lot funnier. It’s all about contrasting the supernatural with the mundane for comedic effect. To the point where there’s a vampire masturbation joke.

I’m sorry that a lot of the humor won’t come across in my review, because so much of that has to do with the script and the cast. We’ve come to think of vampires as dignified and otherworldly beings, which makes it so much more hilarious when they’re played by doughy forty-somethings who aren’t the least bit afraid of looking like complete idiots. It’s also crucial that the actors all share fantastic comedic timing, and their interplay rings wonderfully true.

This brings me to another crucial part of the film: Though the characters bicker pretty much from start to finish, it’s only just enough that we can see that they care. They care about their house, they care about each other, and they care what their flatmates think of them. This does a lot to humanize this crew of undead abominations, because we see that they’re not perfect and they have feelings that can be hurt. It also helps us invest in the story, so that we care about these guys and their well-being. And it helps with the comedy, since they have flaws, vulnerabilities, and other personality tics that can be made fun of when a joke is needed. In fact, there are a few such jokes that would probably have been just as funny in a story without vampires (the “Procession of Shame” comes to mind).

Of course, we also have several jokes about vampiric powers and lore. Virgin’s blood comes up (“It’s like a sandwich…” and no way am I spoiling that punchline here), and there are some truly fantastic gags with mirrors. The film’s reported budget was only $1.6 million, and the effects look impossibly good for that money. They even got in an Inception-style rotating hallway fight sequence, for God’s sake. Huge props are also due to the makeup department, and the costuming that made it look like the vampires had a hodgepodge wardrobe made of clothes stolen from their previous victims through the ages. That was a great touch.

Now on to the nitpicks. First of all, I get what the filmmakers were going for in portraying 21st-century humans as incredibly jaded, and that does make for some good humor. That said, given what the film shows us about the undead population in Wellington and how they behave on a regular basis, it’s kinda tough to believe that this whole thing has been on the down-low for so long.

There’s also the matter of technology. We’re shown that even crappy secondhand cell phones and laptops from a decade ago are enough to keep the vampires spellbound. And that might pass muster with any other movie about immortal freaks of nature, but we already know that these vampires are not completely isolated from the outside world. We’ve seen them go out on the town, prowling for victims, and we know that they do this on a regular basis. And none of them have ever seen a cell phone before? Come on.

I could also point out the misuse of certain characters. Jackie (Jackie van Beek) was a potentially hilarious character whose arc deserved a way funnier ending. Petyr was barely even in the movie, though his character is admittedly quite limited by design. And then there’s Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a character who’s aggressively bland. It serves the comedy quite well, but still.

Overall, I would gladly recommend What We Do in the Shadows. It’s an elegant blend of funny and scary, and the mockumentary format is very well-used. The film looks like it cost at least ten times its actual budget (which is admittedly still kinda miniscule, but you get my point), and the attention to detail — in terms of vampire parody and production design — is thoroughly impressive.

I know that vampire movies and vampire parodies are done to death (so to speak), but this is still an effort well worth checking out.

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