What We Do In The Shadows
New Zealand (2014) Dirs. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Ever since the likes of The Rutles and This Is Spinal Tap popularised the spoof documentary or “mockumentary”, given birth to many imitators covering sports, films and dog shows this formula eventually made its way to television where it arguably reached its zenith with The Office (UK version natch).
The latest entry into this satirical oeuvre sees the vampire genre get the spoof fly-on-the-wall treatment, flying deservedly in the face of the recent spate of Twilight-esque romantic bloodsuckers. It takes some elements of this modern slant on vampires but keep within the tradition of the classic gothic origins, anachronistically trying to get along in contemporary society.
With no plot to speak of we follow the daily happenings of a group of vampires living together in Te Aro, suburban Wellington – 379 year-old Viago (Taika Waititi), 862 year-old Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), 183 year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000 year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham). While the former three have retained their looks at the time of death, the latter is a feral and more ghoulish vampire whose lives mostly in the basement.
The group try to live as normal a life as possible under the restrictive circumstances of being immortal, nocturnal bloodsuckers, with a small measure of aid coming from Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), a human housewife who does odd domestic jobs for Deacon hoping he will give her immortality. One of Jackie’s tasks is to provide human sacrifices for the vampires, and in this instance she brings home Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who tries to escape but is bitten by Petyr.
Nick brings modernity to the group dynamic via his friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), a computer programmer who introduces them to the Internet and mobile phones. Meanwhile Nick struggles to adapt to vampiric life, telling anyone who will listen he is a vampire, which doesn’t sit well with the others, especially when he is befriended by someone who turns out to be a vampire hunter.
As you would expect the acting style is dead straight and natural with the cast playing directly to the camera, mostly Viago as the de facto host of the film. He is a fairly staid and conservative type, usually apologising for everyone’s misdemeanours, in contrast to Deacon who thinks himself as a cool maverick. Vladislav is the romantic one, at least in his mind with a huge hang up about his ex-girlfriend Pauline (Elena Stejko), whom he refers to as The Beast.
Presumably inspired by the Twilight set-up, the cast is extended with the presence of a group of werewolves, headed by Anton (Rhys Darby), who are not buff hunks but average looking Joes but the antagonism is still there but more akin to that of rival football fans. This is probably the best bit of satire in the film, the interplay between the two groups making for some great fun when played out completely deadpan and in the style of a thuggish gang conflict.
The humour ranges from the subtle to the overt, relying on the audience knowing the various mythology of vampires as capital for the jokes – for instance, the recurring mirror based gags in which no reflection of the vampires is seen is given plenty of mileage, a Pacman gag is a highlight.
Elsewhere the story of Viago’s lost love is nicely subverted as he continues to stalk the girl who moved to New Zealand for, Katherine who is now an elderly woman (played by Ethel Robinson). Unfortunately my failing hearing, coupled with my trouble with accents and egregious lack of subtitles on this Blu-ray disc meant much of the verbal humour passed over me, but the bits I did catch worked well due to the straight delivery.
While this may be a comedy there is no scrimping on the horror aspect either with geysers of blood gushing from a clumsily deep bite – usually from Viago – being a common sight and the source of much dark merriment. The climax sees the inevitable punch-up between the vamps and the wolves with some superbly scary make-up and costume designs for the lycanthropes, shot effectively against a moonlit mist.
The film is well paced and crams a lot into its 85 minutes. The camera work is largely hand held with some editing to keep up the documentary style at all times. The dialogue is snappy and delivered naturally, thankfully avoiding puns yet embracing various aspects of the supernatural in keeping with the themes. The clash of personality also ensure some fun exchanges and unique tensions, especially Vladislav’s implicit perversions.
How much of the humour appeals and delights is, I expect, dependant on how well one is familiar with the works of the men behind it. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi were an award winning comedy duo called The Humourbeasts, but Clement is probably best known for his musical comedy act Flight of the Conchords. While I am unfamiliar with both men, the inference is that their humour might be found to be slightly arcane for newcomers, although for the most part it is fairly universal.
While the main vampire characters are outlandish and have great scope for exaggerated comic turns the cast resist the temptation to overact, embracing the wackiness but staying within a safe parameter to avoiding ruining the overall effect. The group dynamic is a disparate one yet the chemistry between the performers feels authentic among the central trio of Viago, Vladislav and Deacon which the addition of Nick and Stu does little to disrupt.
There is a chance many will find What We Do In The Shadows a hit and miss affair, since subtle, satirical humour floats over people’s heads, but this spoof works on a much more intelligent level than the Vampires Suck type parodies. Had I heard all the jokes clearly I may have enjoyed it more but as it is, I found it to be a well-made, incisive and overdue giggle at what has recently become a po-faced genre.