Written and Directed by: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Deacon, how was your night last night?"
"I transformed into a dog and had sex."
"I transformed into a dog and had sex."
Who could have guessed that the most poignant, re-invigorating, hilarious, and downright human horror movies in recent memory would involve vampires? As someone who often feels like he’d be perfectly fine with never seeing another vampire movie again, I am the last person who expected something like What We Do in the Shadows to come along and just completely grab me with its gentle humor, loveable characters, and resounding pathos. This is—believe it or not—a sweet, silly little movie, one that approaches vampires from a very human perspective: they’re not so much the mythical creatures of lore so much as they’re just trying to eke out an existence. Vampires: they’re just like us—except for when they have to account a wild spray of blood from a jugular vein.
That’s sort of indicative of the type of jokes often made in Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary, which documents the lives of a vampire quartet living together in a Wellington flat. Along the way, it certainly needles conventional bloodsucker mythos but does so in a gentle manner—it’s a film that understands these tropes have been so thoroughly exhausted that the only recourse is to ground them in something like The Real World, where they’re treated matter-of-factly. It turns out that the best way to upend our familiarity with vampires is to play them mostly straight, allowing for the occasional wryness to peek through.
As such, What We Do in the Shadows isn’t a spoof so much as it’s a fairly deadpan look at what it might be like if vampires walked among us, with the humor deriving from how goddamn weirdly relatable it is. We watch them bicker among themselves about flat responsibilities, particularly washing dishes. They roam the streets in search of nightlife, only to be thwarted by the fact that they have to be invited in. Procuring victims is quite the process, one that involves familiars to do the vampire’s bidding during daylight hours. Vampire hunters also exist, naturally, and prove to be quite a nuisance. And don’t get me started about the pack of rival werewolves, who do their best not to cause a ruckus but must succumb to their base instincts anyway.
Honestly, if What We Do in the Shadows were just a hangout movie documenting these random encounters, it’d still be one of my favorite movies in recent memory. Every little interaction—from the broadly played ones to the most understated—is so impeccably crafted. Clement and Waititi aren’t content to hang back and watch their subjects riff away, perpetually in search of a laugh that’ll reveal itself in the editing bay; rather, everything is employed to capture humor or pathos, be it the actors’ playful reactions or a deft camera movement. Take, for instance, the aforementioned argument about washing dishes, an exchange that sequences multiple killer laughs through dialogue, reaction shots, and a simple pan to an absurd stack of dishes that have piled up over the course of five years. It’s almost unfair how effortless it feels, let alone just how abundant brilliant sequences like this are.
Clement and Waititi go beyond capturing a series of gags, however. There’s a genuine investment in these characters and their various plights, whether they involve pining over lost loves, stewing over a centuries-old rivalry, and even dealing with a freshly-minted vampire fifth-wheel. The directors’ obvious love for the characters is infectious, so much so that you completely forget you’re watching a bunch of bloodthirsty maniacs. Helping matters is a terrific cast of uniquely charming actors, including the directors themselves. Waititi is flat leader Viago, a bit of an uptight 18th century dandy, while Clement is Vladislav, an obvious but impish riff on Vlad the Impaler. Arguably—and weirdly—the most charming of the bunch, Clement is also sort of riffing on the sort of persona Danny McBride has refined over the years: Vlad’s severity and self-seriousness is exactly what makes him funny. “Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet,” he warns a flat mate as he looks up tables on Ebay. (I also love the little grin he flashes to concede that his bringing women over only to kill them might be a bit more troublesome than a load of unwashed dishes.)
And I love the other characters, too, like Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon, the group’s “bad boy,” and Petyr, the 8,000-year-old Nosferatu lookalike who spends most of the film hanging out in a stone coffin. It’s remarkable that the film coaxes multiple laughs from even him, and it’s even more amazing when a tragic turn of events makes you feel awful for this supposedly monstrous creature. Even a goofball like Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maucer), a knucklehead tagalong who can’t quit bragging about his vampirism is endearing in his own way, if only because you can easily imagine that this is exactly what anyone would do when being granted supernatural powers. Plus, he’s responsible for bringing Stu (Stu Rutherford) into the fold. Even though he’s human, Stu becomes an indispensable part of the group, not only because he introduces them to modern technology (thus opening the door to all kinds of shenanigans, like vampire selfies), but also because he’s the perfect embodiment of a good guy that everyone loves to have around . Every group has a Stu—even, as it turns out, a group of vampires.
Therein lies the secret to the film’s success: rather than be the umpteenth movie to agonize over how much it sucks to be a vampire, What We Do in the Shadows takes a more nuanced approach. Sure, there are downsides, but there are also triumphs to be found. Without resorting to completely reveling in vampire culture a la the brilliantly name-dropped The Lost Boys, the film documents the highs and lows but ultimately focuses on the former. These vampires find happiness just like any of us do: through love and camaraderie. Granted, their struggle to find it involves impalements, disembowelments, and an absurd May-December relationship, but the sentiment is recognizable. Vampires are people, too, and What We Do in the Shadows is so unlike so many films in this genre because it recognizes that.
A joyful celebration of humanity and life (that just so happens to feature the undead), this film is a resounding triumph that disarms with humor before delivering a sucker-punch of a realization: deep down, these guys are just like us. Usually, blurring that line asks us to consider our darker impulses; here, it offers a glimmer of hope. If vampires can find peace, what’s your excuse?
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