What We Do in the Shadows
FilmScene — Screening through April 9, times vary
What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s new film, is a satisfying solution to a problem you may not have known cinema had: the need for a vampire mockumentary.
After running a successful Kickstarter campaign, Waititi and Clement, the co-writers and co-directors of the film, created their vampire mockumentary, which is borderline brilliant. Both men are successful actors and comedians from New Zealand — Jemaine co-created and starred in the show Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009), with which Waititi was also involved, and both have had bit parts in Hollywood films.
The film focuses on the foibles and banalities of four vampire roommates: Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) live together in a decrepit house in Wellington, New Zealand. Although they have their differences — their ages range from 183 to 8,000 years, and they’re each of different national origin — there is also the mutual affection of longtime roommates. Every morning Viago brings a chicken to the ancient Petyr, who looks like Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922); Deacon has his familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), do chores around the house; Vladislav hypnotizes the groups’ shared victims. At night the three human-looking vampires try to go out together to clubs in Wellington, but usually can’t get in, because vampires have to be invited.
The group has an established dynamic, and has allowed a camera crew to document their — with the exception of all the gore — rather banal lives in the lead-up to the “Unholy Masquerade,” an annual social event for the undead. The film opens with Viago and Vladislav calling an early-morning meeting to discuss the “young and rebellious” (183 year-old) Deacon’s refusal to clean the blood-soaked dishes. The scene is patterned after the stagey confrontations of reality TV, as if the only drama in these vampire’s lives is one that has to be hyperbolized by the conventions of contemporary documentary practice.
Most of the film’s jokes rely on this distance between the supernatural, occult world of monsters and the normality of their obsessions and quirks, or the (supposedly) detached sobriety of the documentary style. The immortality and magical abilities of vampirism come with increased social isolation and exaggerated versions of human eccentricities. Vampires and other quasi-human monsters would not be suave, mysterious masters of themselves and others, the movie suggests, but amusingly insecure beings who make mistakes and put their powers to petty uses. This is hardly the first time such humor has been effectively used — see, for example, the latter seasons of Buffy — but it’s executed with the deft comic timing of, well, season four of Buffy.
This basic contrast proves to be a fertile terrain for jokes, as the largely improvised film never feels like it’s repeating the same material. As a mockumentary, this has more in common with the films of Christopher Guest, like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Best in Show (2000). But while in Guest’s films the humor often comes from the characters’ pretensions — their exaggerated visions of themselves in contrast to the reality we perceive — in this film it’s more about how unassuming these colorful characters are about their extreme exceptionality.
And while What We Do in the Shadows offers some refreshing twists on the familiar formulas of both the vampire film and the mockumentary, one area in which it offers no twists on comedy convention is its near-total exclusion of women. Jackie is the most notable woman in the film, yet ancillary to the main plot. She has a scene where she complains about the boys’ club of vampires, but it feels at best tokenistic, and at worst, mocking of such claims of gender-based exclusion. It might be part of the joke that vampires hang on to human institutions like homosocial living and particular gendered behaviors, but this is just an excuse for the perpetual exclusion of women from comedy, and particularly “nerdy” concept comedy like this film.
Nonetheless, Clement is something of a comedic genius, and Waititi shines in the main role as the German “18th-century dandy” Viago. It’s only every few years that someone manages to make a consistently funny mockumentary, but the filmmakers of What We Do in Shadows have managed this and more, constructing a hilarious film out of the debris of the vampire and documentary genres.