by Matt Levine
There’s something comforting about a genre reaching its postmodern stage; with each convention and cliché anticipated minutes in advance, it’s easy to get beyond the surface of a genre and explore its nooks and crannies for emotional, thematic, or comedic depth. It’s why film noir made such a forceful reappearance in the 1970s as “neo-noir” (The Long Goodbye being the best example) and why the slasher template experienced so many reiterations in the 1990s and early 2000s (Scream, High Tension, etc.): nudged beyond the point of predictability, the real gears of a given genre start to become visible. In such an overt state of transparency, audiences might take pleasure in the jokes and revisions long before they appear onscreen, taking pleasure in their pervasive pop-culture knowledge.
Directors: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Producers: Emanuel Michael, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley
Writers: Taiki Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Cinematographers: Richard Bluck, D.J. Stipsen
Editors: Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, Jonathan Woodford-Robinson
Music: Plan 9
Cast: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie Van Beek, Elena Stejko
Countries: New Zealand/USA
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 13, 2015
US Distributors: Unison Films, Paladin
At the current moment on our cultural timeline, vampire stories may be the most ubiquitous of them all. (Unless you count superhero adaptations, whose aesthetic of destruction is a conversation for another time.) Anyone who’s seen True Blood or Twilight, or read Stephenie Meyer’s series of YA novels, or has any familiarity with the Transylvanian Count Dracula knows the conventions: the lack of a reflection in the mirror, the need to be invited into a new place (a victim’s lair, for example), the tendency to turn into a bat or wolf or some nocturnal creature, the ability to hover ghostlike near windows and over crypts, the aversion to crucifixes and silver. With a subgenre as culturally well-known as vampire stories, the punchlines are set up before anyone even starts writing a script.
Which is to say that few of the jokes in What We Do in the Shadows are terribly original; the winking references to vampire lore (at least as it exists in our modern pop-culture imagination) come fast and steadily, eager to please genre buffs. (The geysers of blood that occasionally shoot out of neck wounds and vampires’ mouths also seem like concessions to horror fans who crave at least a minimum of gore.) Even the mockumentary setup lacks originality: a documentary crew follows a horde of vampires “flatting” together in Wellington, New Zealand, in the leadup to an Unholy Masquerade that brings together all of the undead subcultures of New Zealand in one macabre festival. It’s a gimmick familiar from This is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest’s subsequent series of mock-docs, not to mention the faux-reality setup of recent sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation: go for absurdist laughs by bridging the gap between the cartoonish characters and the mundane realities of everyday life.
Like Christopher Guest’s best films, the comedy succeeds because it’s based largely in character—four mismatched vampires sharing a flat, making absurdly sincere attempts to blend in to modern urban life. Viago (Taika Waititi), a relatively fresh 317 years old, is dapper and gentlemanly, having traveled to New Zealand in pursuit of a woman he loved (and who had married someone else by the time he finally arrived). His friend Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is more than twice as old and has seemingly found the time to refine his Bohemian-vampire sex appeal; the performance is a dazzling parody of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), an indulgence in Gothic sex appeal that’s indelibly conveyed in the montages of still photographs documenting the vampires’ lurid nights on the town. Viago and Vladislav have accepted into their clan 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), whose punkish “youth” reminds them of their species’ vitality. Finally, grotesque Petyr (Ben Fransham), age estimated in the 8,000s, lurks in the basement as a hideous doppelganger of Nosferatu, all pale ratlike eyes and curved talons and hairless rodent head.
These characters are not simply messy reiterations of vampire cliches. Although each of them conjures specific imagery of cinematic vampires—Viago as a sort of genteel Anne Rice Lestat character, Vladislav as the hot-and-heavy Count Dracula himself, Deacon as a 1980s vampiric rebel (he even makes an explicit Lost Boys reference), and Petyr as an obvious double for Max Schreck’s Nosferatu—they also translate such character types into something resembling a cohesive personality. In What We Do in the Shadows, the human characters may not be treated with much sensitivity—most of them are turned into vampires or werewolves, their gruesome deaths sometimes deployed for comic effect—but the vampires are lovable misfits, precisely because they’re so recognizable. They seem to know they’re parodies of existing media, too—they reference Blade along with Twilight and Nosferatu.
Much of the film’s laughs derive from these self-indulgent characters dealing with everyday issues such as household chores, nightclubbing, and painful breakups. Early on, a flatmate meeting regarding Deacon’s refusal to clean the bloody dishes (that is, of course, dishes covered with blood) escalates into a standoff in which Deacon and Viago hover in midair, hissing at each other, until they simply settle down and slowly alight on the kitchen floor. (Any time a vampire unpredictability hovers in the air, the wire-based special effects brilliantly explicit, it’s good for a solid laugh.) The vampires’ attempts to exploit their self-perceived sex appeal and go out clubbing are hindered by their lack of reflections—they create crude sketches to suggest what each other looks like, unable to gawk at a mirror. Not that it matters, since they need to be invited inside anyway, forcing them to awkwardly ask bouncers and police officers to invite them into bars. I’d hate to ruin any more of the film’s comedy, but the underlying joke is that these undead, centuries-old monsters are just like us; as in Shaun of the Dead, What We Do in the Shadows mines comedy by placing sensational genre thrills in the most mundane of settings.
Even if these parodies are surface-deep and generally predictable, the craftsmanship and exuberance on display is irresistible—there’s just no resisting a movie as funny as this, presented with such obvious care and affection. The found-footage gimmick, half Spinal Tap and half COPS, doesn’t allow for much aesthetic innovation—the camera typically follows these characters around in handheld long shot, a dark color scheme necessitated by the vampires’ shadowy flat—but the jokes are conveyed with visual precision (for example, a running gag in which hypnotized police officers always barely miss gruesome evidence in favor of such quotidian warnings as smoke-alarm repairs). The special effects, too, are given greater attention than other indie horror-comedies might have indulged; a fight between vampire bats, conveyed in one take, is surprisingly convincing, and split-second jokes (like an optical-illusion nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula) are subtly yet immaculately achieved. It’s clear that Taika Waititi—making his third feature, after Eagle vs. Shark (2007) and Boy (2010)—and co-writer-director Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have affection for the vampire subgenre, and the painstaking care they put into the film’s outlandish moments (even when they’re propped up by musty clichés) helps conceal the movie’s central unoriginality.
There are, finally, elements of complexity and compassion in What We Do in the Shadows, almost as though Waititi and Clement wanted to make a shallow, self-reflexive comedy but couldn’t help caring about their characters in the process. One of the funniest comedic gags centers on rampant technology and the vampires’ unfamiliarity with it; several of them learn how to send text messages (“Therez a crucifix behind you,” one of them jokingly texts), and Vladislav is especially intrigued when he learns that Facebook allows you to “poke” people. (He was, after all, known as “Vlad the Poker” in the olden days, though poking in that case was simply a euphemism for impalement.) More somberly, perhaps, these vampires are astonished by a YouTube video of a sunrise—a phenomenon they’ve never been able to observe themselves. It makes sense that these archaic beings would be mystified by modern technology, but What We Do in the Shadows presents their confusion in a charming, almost sympathetic way. (As such, What We Do in the Shadows serves as a counterpoint to Only Lovers Left Alive, whose heroes remain stubbornly analogue, refusing to give in to modern society’s tyranny of the technological.)
Even more unexpectedly impressive is What We Do in the Shadows’ attention to the underlying sadness of the vampire mystique: the allure of everlasting life, the ability to vanquish time. This is a common subtext to vampire stories from Dracula to Interview with the Vampire (not to mention Twilight, with its cotillion of beautiful, perpetually teenage heartthrobs, marked for immortality at the peak of their youth). The master-slave dynamic (think Dracula and Renfield) is parodied here, as one poor woman named Jackie is tasked with performing Deacon’s chores (scrubbing down bathrooms coated with blood, for example), but this is a source of bitterness as well as comedy; Jackie has been promised eternal life, which the selfish Deacon has so far refused to grant her. Viago’s unrequited love for the woman he chased around the world, though, is the clearest example; he hovers outside her window as she, now 96 years old, lives by herself, oblivious to his ongoing affections. I hate to overstate the movie’s ambitions—this is foremost an amiably silly spoof of all things vampiric—but the obsession with immortality is one of those tropes, and What We Do in the Shadows has the tenderness to treat such mortal anxieties with respect. If the movie is, above all, a comedy about why we’ve fallen in love with vampires, then this subplot reveals the emotional undercurrent of that obsession: when promised eternal life, wouldn’t most of us accept bloodstained clothing and incredibly creepy housemates as a tradeoff?
I wouldn’t be surprised if What We Do in the Shadows remains the funniest movie of the year by the end of 2015, but I’m also guessing there will be several more creative comedies in the near future. It’s easy to imagine Waititi and Clement compiling a list of vampire clichés to subvert, then structuring the movie around such obvious targets. But if the audience is well aware of such comedic fodder to begin with, this allows us the pleasure of seeing an overused trope set up for the lampooning, each setup and punchline carefully calibrated. It doesn’t exactly try to answer why we’re so obsessed with vampires—an obsession that has lasted onscreen at least since 1922, long before The Lost Boys and Twilight, when Max Schreck’s Nosferatu immortalized a nightmarish vision of cinematic terror—but it doesn’t ultimately matter. If What We Do in the Shadows rarely ponders the nature of our fascination with such nocturnal creatures, it at least takes them down a few pegs and reveals them for what they are: ten percent symbols for undying romanticism and ninety percent glam-Goth narcissists.