Showing the more mundane side of the lives of supernatural creatures for comedy purposes is not exactly a fresh concept. Nor are the genres of the horror comedy and the “mockumentary”. So it is even more surprising and delightful that the NZ- comedy What We Do In the Shadows can still squeeze out so many laughs by perusing them.
At the centre of What We Do… is a group of four male vampires who are sharing a spooky house together in Wellington, New Zealand. The audience is following their lives for one month through the lens of the camera of a documentary crew who got the rare permission to portray those creatures of the night. All of the four bloodsuckers simultaneously represent both a typical vampire- as well as a flatmate-archetype. Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-director and co-writer) is a soft-spoken 379 years old dandy vampire with strongly romantic, but also some very pedantic character traits, who immigrated from Germany in the early 20th century to reunite with his old love, only to find out that she already married a local.
With his 862 years, Vladislav (Jermaine Clement, also co-director and co-writer) is the second oldest of the group. His background story is obviously a parody of the Dracula myth, depicting him as a former cruel ruler of a undefined Slavic country with a penchant for torturing and orgies (“… a bit of a pervert”, Viago tells the documentary crew). Now he is just a self-pitying shell of his former self from the glorious days and something inside him is irreparably broken since he once lost a battle against his mysterious arch enemy “The Beast”.
This is my torture chamber. I don’t come in here often anymore. I tempted to torture when I was in a bad place.
The youngest in the group is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years old, who was once a travelling salesman in Eastern Europe. Deacon is identified as the “rebel” of the group, but actually he is just a lazy opportunist asshole who has an uncanny talent for manipulating others into doing his chores. Especially his human servant Jackie (Jackie Van Beek as modern female Renfield), a stressed out mother that longs for her youth, whom he teases with empty promises of eternal life, has to suffer from his emotional abuse. Deacon himself was turned into a vampire by the oldest flatmate, the 8000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham), a feral, mute Count Orlok- lookalike who dwells in the basement which he only leaves occasionally.
As you maybe already suspected, the quartet is not particularly Anne Rice novel-compatible, but a rather backward, emotionally stunted and quite neurotic bunch of undead dudes. One could say they suck at (after)life.
Not any more glamorous is the rest of the “Secret Society”, the community of supernatural beings in Wellington. The local werewolf pack resembles a self-help group of men dealing with anger issues, the only vampire disco in town- the vampires cannot enter regular night clubs, because they have to be “invited” according to lore- is a rundown bar and the big ballroom for the “Unholy Masquerade”, the yearly ball for the undead, is a deserted bowling hall.
We’re Werewolves, not Swear-Wolves.
And with the decrease in splendour in combination with the inability of the Secret Society to adapt to modern times comes a decrease in potential victims, that’s why the four flatmates have to resort to cheap tricks to secure a steady supply with human blood. In most cases they urge poor Jackie to lure innocent people into their home, but she makes the best out of her situation and provides them with former classmates who bullied her during her high school years. This soon leads to some major changes in the house and the supernatural community as a whole, when she one day brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into the house, who accidentally gets turned into a vampire by Petyr instead of being consumed as planned.
Nick, now the youngest vampire in the group-very much to the chagrin of the jealous Deacon- is also the only one who grew up in a modern environment, which is the cause for several clashes between the mates in the once so quiet and harmonic household. Unfortunately, Nick is also some kind of airheaded dumbass, who uses his new status to impress the living, breaking the vow of secrecy and bringing danger upon everyone. On the other hand, the vampires can now finally enter all the nightclubs of the mortals, thanks to his friendships with the local bouncers. And he introduces his human friend to the group, Stu (Stu Rutherford), whom everybody seems to love after some initial doubts, even though Nick confesses that Stu’s red cheeks make it hard not to eat him.
One reason for Stu’s popularity among the flatmates is that he finally brings some modern technology into their world, showing them the wonders of the internet and photography (which makes it much more easier for the guys to try on new clothes as they cannot rely on mirrors for judgement), the other, maybe more important reason is that the unspectacular normalcy of the down-to-earth, perfectly regular dude Stu is a refreshing change of pace for the friends who are used to deal with each others overblown egos and eccentricities on a daily base.
But, the unorthodox new spirit is in danger as the day of the “Unholy Masquerade” is approaching which is organized Vladislav’s arch nemesis “The Beast” of all people this year.
When you are a vampire you become very… , sexy!
Once in a while, it seems to happen less often each successive year, a truly funny comedy comes along. If the premise appeals to you, What We Do In The Shadows is an absolute must, because this movie makes the most out of it. First and foremost, the quantity and quality of gags is consistently high throughout the whole movie. The genre of the “mockumentary” is not unproblematic, as the gimmick is often not sustainable over the course of a whole movie and the faux realistic style can get tiring soon. What We Do… avoids those mistakes and moves the plot forward with a good pace and uses stylistic devices like the shaky cam sparingly and in a very controlled way, to great effect.
Generally speaking the movie is despite its fake documentary approach an aesthetic delight, cleverly juxtaposing the Gothic flair of wonderfully designed costumes and sets like the spooky interior of the house, that would be fit for a serious horror film, with the mundane tristesse of the outside world. Surprisingly, even the FX are top notch, for example when Deacon and Nick have a fight while levitating through a hallway like in Inception or when Vladislav turns into a cat- that still has his human face, he never gets the face right.
Each cast member, really everybody in this film without exception, is brilliant. Admittedly I am a little biased when it comes to Jermaine Clement, because he actually does not have to do much to make me laugh. He is just one of the funniest people alive right now for me, period. For his sluggishly-tongued melancholic macho vampire he adapted a magnificent fake Eastern Europe accent, as did Brugh as the hilariously sleazy Deacon. Speaking of accents, Waititi masters a perfect German one as the anal retentive Viago. The secret star of the film though might be Gonzales-Macuer as newbie- vampire Nick, a stoner type whom he endows with some truly irritating behaviour.
Worth pointing out is that this comedy is, despite being permeated by black humour and general crudeness, not mean-spirited at all. Although Clement and Waititi relentlessly expose their characters’ vanities and weaknesses and let them do horribly stupid things with horrific consequences for laughs, there is always a certain affection for them palpable throughout the whole movie, without letting the tone tilt into sentimentality. This approach is what makes What We Do… refreshingly different from the unbearable passive-aggressiveness and subtle contempt of Adam Sandler- and Seth McFarlane- comedies.
What We Do In The Shadows is incredibly funny, insanely quotable and immensely rewatchable. It’s also a rare example for a comedy that looks good and sounds good. For people who want to know the real reason why vampires prefer to drink virgin blood (“…because it sounds cool”).