Directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Written by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Cast: Taika Waititi, Johnathan Brugh, Jermaine Clement, Ben Fransham, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford, Jackie van Beek, and Rhys Darby
Length: 1 hour and 26 minutes
Genre: Comedy, horror, mocumentary
MPAA Rating: R
Description from IMDB:
“Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav are vampires who are finding that modern life has them struggling with the mundane – like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs, and overcoming flatmate conflicts.”
In Wellington, New Zealand, there exists a hidden society of macabre creatures. A group of this society invited a film crew to follow them around and document their lives leading up to a party of the undead called the Unholy Masquerade. The subjects of the documentary are five vampires who all share a flat: Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), Petyr (Ben Fransham), and Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). Each of the undead is from a different era, with Nick being a recently turned vampire whose best friend is a human, named Stu (Stu Rutherford). The vampires all take to Stu and put aside their natural urges to eat him while learning about the changes in technology that have occurred while they have been in hiding. From run-ins with werewolves to hunting and deciding chores, the lifestyles of the creatures of the night are explored in comedic honesty.
Being a mocumentary with vampires as its subject, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) primarily focuses on the different personalities of each vampire. Petyr is an elder vampire that only makes hissing noises when communicating, often staring in eerie silence with his vicious teeth protruding through his lips. The next oldest is Vlad, who is seductive and was turned during medieval times; he was once a very powerful vampire, but suffered a defeat to his nemesis, the Beast. Viago was turned in the 18th century, making him dainty and a romantic. Deacon is the youngest of the initial roommates, and is considered the bad boy of the group. He has a human familiar, named Jackie (Jackie van Beek), to whom he has promised eternal life, though he continues to string her along in order to continue using her for labor. The four roommates are joined by Nick, a New Zealand vampire turned by Petyr, who upsets the norm in his tendency to brag about his vampirism to humans, which ultimately leads to Petyr’s death at the hands of a vampire hunter. The blood suckers are joined by other non-vampiric characters that have their own quirks.
Nick’s best friend is Stu, to whom he reveals his vampirism. Stu is well-liked by the other vampires and helps to teach them about technology, which introduces them to a whole bevy of experiences. Vlad uses a digital camera to take selfies, Viago prints out a large picture of his beloved using the computer scanner, and all of them benefit from watching videos of the sun rising on YouTube. There are also werewolves in this world, with a local pack led by alpha male Declan (Rhys Darby). They exist as a sort of support group for each other and are able to calm each other down when their hackles are raised after Deacon insults them. They do zen breathing and use mantras (“Count to ten, human again”) in order to keep from transforming and ripping people apart. This rationalization for their being in a pack is one of the many funny elements in the film.
While paying homage to the vampire stories that it takes inspiration from, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) also makes jokes about many of the motifs and rules that govern the undead. Each of the vampires is based on a distinct archetype from fictional history: Petyr is reminiscent of Count Orlock from Nosferatu (1922), Vlad is modeled after Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Viago takes after the melancholy vampires in Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Deacon is inspired by the trendy vampires of shows like True Blood. The various powers of the vampire are lampooned, with the rule that they must be invited into a residence keeping them from getting into clubs because the bouncers won’t say the necessary words. They discuss their preference for virgin victims, their lack of a reflection, and not being able to eat solids. The last of these is demonstrated when Nick eats a fry (or chip, if you live anywhere besides the U.S.A.), and goes into horrible fits of bloody, projectile vomit. This is a good segue into the amount of blood that appears in the film, which is significant at points, but always used to comedic effect. Viago accidentally hits the main artery in a victim’s neck (as seen above), which causes a stream to shoot from her and cover much of the room in her vital fluid.
Much of the comedy also comes from the juxtaposition of these Gothic, mysterious creatures trying to live modern lives. The film opens with a flat meeting where Viago and Vlad confront Deacon about his being lax on chores. This relatively normal conversation is punctuated by Viago and Deacon hissing at one another, levitating and posturing before everyone leaves the room awkwardly. We see Vlad floating and using a hand vacuum, Viago brushing Petyr’s fangs, and Deacon scrubbing bloody dishes with large nylon gloves on. They also take public transit around, so they are decked out in their vampire style while riding on a cramped bus. Deacon knits, Viago does pottery, and Vlad practices archery to show that even vampires have hobbies outside of draining people’s blood.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014) follows the success of such mocumentaries as Spinal Tap (1984) in their parody not only of the genre, but also the subjects. The jokes and references are such that anyone who has encountered vampires in popular culture will get them, while there are even smaller Easter eggs for fanatics of the genre. The film isn’t scary, though it fits in the horror genre and there are a couple of jump scares that are easy to see coming. The delivery of dialogue and the comedic timing are absolutely on target in this film, which is a testament not only to the cast, but Clemente and Waititi’s ability to collaborate. For those intrigued by the creatures of the night, this film gives a glimpse into what it could be like for them to flat together in really small countries like New Zealand.
Verdict: 4 bloody dishes out of 5
Recommended for: Adults, fans of vampires, fans of Jermaine Clement, fans of Taika Waititi, fans of parody, people who don’t mind copious amounts of blood (it’s a vampire movie, folks), and fans of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Not recommended for: Children, hemophiliacs, people afraid of vampires, scaredy cats, the easily scared, people who take vampires too seriously, or the squeamish.