Movie Review: What We Do In the Shadows

what we do in the shadows

If you’ve had your fill of vampire films like the TWILIGHT series, there’s one more such film that you need to sink your teeth into. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS sticks a perfectly honed wooden spike right into the heart of this film genre.

Done in a mockumentary style à la THIS IS SPINAL TAP, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS follows an unseen camera crew as they profile a quartet of bloodsucking preternatural beings who share a house in suburban Wellington, New Zealand. Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi – BOY) is our genial tour guide on this exploration of this “highly secretive society”. At age 379, he’s one of the younger members of the house but, as the group’s de facto leader, he tries to run an orderly ship. In a house meeting around the kitchen table, we see him chastise fellow house-vamp Deacon (age 183) for not doing his share of the chores. Deacon, we learn, hasn’t washed the dishes in five years. The camera quickly cuts over to a sink and countertop overflowing with blood-encrusted glasses and dishes. Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement – TV’s FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS) is older at 862, but he’s also taken to task for literally leaving a bloody mess on the sofa. Viago tells him that if he’s going to eat victims there, he should at least put down some towels. Who knew that vampires could have such mundane concerns? And then there is Petyr, the loner of the group. At age 8,000, the Nosferatu-looking character is pretty much left to his own devices, living in a concrete coffin in the house’s dark basement.

Each character is so different yet so familiar, which is what makes them endearing. Through the use of faux archival footage, artwork and home movies, we learn a lot about their colourful backstories. Vladislav is formally known as Vlad the Poker, in a wink to both his famous namesake, Vlad the Impaler, and to Facebook’s now rarely used poking function. A one-time master of hypnosis, his powers seem to have faded over time though he’s still very much the party animal. Deacon, we learn, fancies himself as the sexy bad boy of the group who loves doing erotic dancing. We also learn that he used to be a Nazi vampire but, as he tells us while we see photos of him taken back in the day, “after World War II, things were hard for vampires, and for Nazis, and especially for Nazi vampires.” You can’t help but laugh at his deadpan delivery. Meanwhile, Viago tells us that he moved to New Zealand for love. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived in Wellington, the love of his life found someone else. Viago can’t seem to get over her and, even though the woman is now 96 years old and living in an old folks’ home, he still worships her from afar.

When they’re not sucking the blood from or chomping down on their victims, the guys pretty much keep to themselves. At night, they roam the streets of downtown Wellington looking much like faded pop stars or male prostitutes – take your pick. We are also introduced to Jackie, a suburban wife and mother who is Deacon’s servant. She’s hoping he will give her eternal life in exchange for bringing him unwitting sacrifices but being the rogue that he is, he just strings her along, purely satisfying his own, and his friends’, lusts. The juxtaposition of the strange and the familiar is hilarious.

Problems for the vamps start arising when Petyr decides to turn one of Jackie’s marks, an ex-boyfriend no less, into one of their own. Nick, like Jackie, is a total loser but he takes to his new “life” with great relish, doing cartwheels as he’s learning how to fly and telling everyone that he’s a vampire. Of course, very few people believe him. His antics start to wear very thin on the guys and his future seems limited until he brings his best friend, Stu, back to the house to meet the guys. A computer nerd who doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything, Stu introduces the guys to such modern conveniences as Internet searches, Skype, eBay, texting and scanning. Stu becomes their “human” friend and the guys make a pact not to kill him.

This could have been a one-note movie but Waititi and Clement are able to find every parallel with everyday life and turn it upside down with wonderful, tongue-in-cheek humour. An encounter with a pack of werewolves plays out like a scene from any gang movie except that these canines behave as if they’re enrolled in a 12-step rehab programme. “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves” they chant in unison when one of them talks trash to the vampires.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS was created on a meagre budget US$1.6 million and most of that appears to have been spent on makeup and fake blood. In an interview given after the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival, Clement said that they shot 150 hours of film because they were giggling so much during the production. (Thankfully, the final cut was judiciously edited down to 86 minutes.) Although there was a script, it was just used as a guideline for the actors who ad libbed their scenes and riffed off each other. It seems to have worked because the dialogue has a definite reality TV style to it.

Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, the film has gone on to win nine audience awards at festivals around the world. It also won the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

In Hong Kong, the film will be screened in two languages. Interestingly, the Hong Kong distributor decided to dub the dialogue into Cantonese. My Cantonese isn’t good enough to know whether it was worth it and I’d be curious to find out what local audiences think. In any case, this is a great film that deserves to be seen.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:20.)

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