Friday, November 14, 2014

What We Do In The Shadows (2014) directed by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi

Hands up who's sick of vampires?  Over the last decade they've infested pop culture to the point of saturation; every conceivable niche packed with every possible variety of vampire. Sexy, predatory, forever young and usually pretty nattily dressed it's easy to see the attraction: they're the monsters we want to be.  After all, what gloomy, black-clad teenager hasn't imagined themselves gaunt, fanged and pale, wrapped snakelike around a church spire and mourning doomy bloodlust romance.  

What We Do In The Shadows punctures this aura of mystique, showing us a group of incredibly uncool vampires and demonstrating that despite their supernatural powers they lead hilariously pitiful lives.  

The loose conceit is that a documentary film crew wants to make a documentary about vampires living in Wellington, New Zealand.  After having taken an sworn oath not to eat the film crew, the four vampires invite them in to document their lives.  They are; Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) an 862 year old Vlad the Impaler type; Viago (Taika Watiti) a 379 year old foppish romantic; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the 183 year old 'bad boy' of the group and Petyr (Ben Fransham) an 8,000 year old mostly feral monster in the mold of Nosferatu.

Despite their combined age and experience these vampires are, to put it mildly, a bunch of dorks.  Their living situation echoes a grubby student house, bickering over who's going to do the dishes and drawing up rotas for who's going to do the hoovering.  Though firm friends they're constantly engaged in petty bickering, often throwing quite literal hissy fits at each other.  

Their willingness to murder their way through the gullible idiots of Wellington is a a bit worrying, but that aside they're an extremely likeable, funny bunch. Clement and Waititi's master stroke is to realise that someone who's a couple of hundred years old (and can't see themselves in the mirror) is the least likely person to be fashionably 'on trend'.  When they go out on the hunt they dress like a designer's nightmare, cluelessly mixing together camouflage gear, 18th century formal dress and ridiculously clashing patterns.  

This notion of vampires as the most uncool kids around is the bedrock of most of What We Do In The Shadows' princely selection of gags.  I don't want to spoil any of the punchlines, but the film is so damn funny that the audience often hasn't stopped laughing at the last joke before the next one hits.  The best of these are the straightforward observations of what everyday life must be like for a vampire. How on earth do you keep your carpets clean when you're puncturing jugular veins?  Isn't it difficult to go clubbing when you have to be invited in?  If you have a servant who's demanding you keep your promise to turn them into a vampire, who's then going to do your laundry?  Why is it hugely preferable that your victims be virgins?

Just as we've gotten settled with the central vampires, the film broadens its horizons to show us the wider supernatural subculture of Wellington.  There's a quiet baseline gag throughout the film that New Zealand is where supernatural beings tend to end up; after years of wandering the Earth they filter southwards towards their own kind.  So there's a society of slightly dowdy looking zombies, gothic-looking witches and the vampires main rival, the werewolf pack (led by Rhys Darby, Murray from Flight of the Conchords).

The horror/comedy subgenre is a deceptively tricky one to get nail down; for every Shaun of the Dead you'll get many more heaping servings of crap like Vampires Suck.  Most of this can be safely chalked up to simple standards of talent; the writers, directors and stars of these cheapo spoofs are bottom of the barrel talent while Jemaine Clement and  Taika Watiti have a glittering comedy track record - they're masters of the self-deprecating and the absurd.

Key to getting this mixture just right is choosing when to play something straight.  For example, a scene where Viago seduces a victim then attacks, spraying gallons blood all over the living room is straightforwardly funny in a slapstick way. But lurking just underneath the surface is a queasy sensation; though the victim is a throwaway character she's given just enough humanity to make us feel slightly sorry for her.  

This quiet humanism comes to a head in the downright hilarious character of Stu (Stuart Rutherford).  Stu, a slightly nerdy and withdrawn IT Guy accidentally befriends the vampires, all of whom resolve not to eat him as he's such pleasant company.  Stuart Rutherford, actually an IT guy rather than a professional actor, (and who didn't know he was going to play such a large role) is probably the funniest single element in the film, responding to the vampires around him with a confused befuddlement that builds to a head in the 'Dark Masquerade' finale.

What We Do In The Shadows is an unreserved success.  It's easily one of the funniest films of the year and in the higher echelons of vampire movies, whether serious or comedic.  With a relatively small budget, Clements and Waititi conjure up a fleshed out supernatural underworld that's layered like an onion, full of interesting personalities, endlessly fascinating trivialities, and a plethora of top gags.  Seriously, check it out.


What We Do In the Shadows is released November 21st

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