Movie review: “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

what-we-do-in-the-shadows

“I came to this country for love. Some people freak out a bit about the age difference. They think, ‘what is this 96-year-old lady doing with a man four times her age?’ They can call me Cradle-snatcher. Who cares?”

Vampires used to command a requisite level of respect and dread from those who read of their exploits, though ultra-popular pieces of mainstream Hollywood schlock (The Twilight “saga”) and campy pay cable bacchanalia (HBO’s True Blood), among other slings and silver-tipped arrows, have in recent years done an impressive lot to rob them of their mystique*. If the sly, silly, incredibly slight New Zealand mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows accomplishes anything, and that’s an open question, it may be in how it skillfully balances the absurdity of its premise – four ancient Kiwi vampires navigate the modern world as bickering flatmates – with its refusal to dismiss its protagonists themselves as inherently ridiculous. These are blasé narcissists and immature neurotics who also happen to be vampires, very much, it must be said, in the vein (sorry) of departed, beloved HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords, with which Shadows shares endorsement from the incredibly official and impressive-sounding New Zealand Documentary Board. Don’t get me wrong. Shadows further tweaks its bloodsuckers regularly, if never particularly without mercy, but in granting them at least a modicum of dignity to go along with their numerous foibles, misapprehensions, and night to night struggles, succeeds in drawing them in something approaching two dimensions and allowing them to exist plausibly on a plane outside the playground that Twilight built. If the vampire genre is ever to be killed off definitively**, as it sometimes appears we’re building toward, it seems someone else will have to wield the stake.

*Note that I didn’t say “defanged”. Credit where due, please.

**”True Blood” fans should also recognize that I could’ve said, “grant it the true death”, but refrained.

What We Do in the Shadows begins ominously enough by introducing the concept of “The Unholy Masquerade”, a combination annual professional convention/costume ball thrown by a secret society of vampires located in Wellington, New Zealand, and announces that a human film crew has been granted unprecedented access to document a quartet of revelers in the days leading up to the event. I knew the premise going in, and was intrigued, though for a moment in the very early going, as a clearly groggy arm emerges from a coffin to flail away at a blaring alarm clock, I thought we were being set up to follow the story of a group of vampire wannabes, oblivious yet incredibly self-serious, floundering its way through what would probably qualify as one of the shallowest social pools imaginable. That would have made for a far different movie, one perhaps equally rich with comedic (and even greater satirical) possibility, but one that would also be less cheerful and necessarily carry more bite (sorry). The notion didn’t last for long anyway. In the world of Shadows, vampires are both very real and incredibly confused. “Yeah some of our clothes are from victims,” one confesses to the camera. “You might bite someone and then you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!’” On one level, they do seem a deeply eccentric lot. On another level, that can easily be seen as a byproduct of being forced to live in the wrong century. On a third level, it’s difficult to identify, or even imagine, any century they’d ideally fit into.

The aforementioned arm belongs to 367-year-old dandy and de facto house mother Viago (Taika Waititi, who also directed), who takes it as a matter of course to play smiling host to the film crew, welcoming and shepherding them through the ramshackle, appropriately spooky two-story house, introducing his roommates in the process of summoning them for a “flat meeting”. One flatmate, the 800+ year-old Vladislav, is unveiled, mid-tryst and hissing, abed with so many women they defy proper count, then reappears at the door a moment’s breath later, the picture of rumpled, totally affected cool. Vladislav, played by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, seems to feel the passing of countless years more acutely than do his colleagues, having styled himself a legendary Vlad the Impaler-level scourge in his younger days, but now reduced to negotiating the mundanity of modern life after death with punishingly little to excite or divert him. He shows off his “torture chamber” with a sigh, admitting he doesn’t use it with near the frequency he used to, later playing up his bona fides as a nightspot-ruling ladies man (his personal style: “dead but delicious”). Viago instinctively plays the conciliator role between the hot-tempered Vladislav, an old guarder who rails against vampires – like the unfailingly polite Viago – who “put down towels” before draining victims, and self-styled bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who takes exception to being guilted into washing a kitchen full of bloody dishes just because it’s his responsibility and they’ve been sitting there for five years. A fourth flatmate, the 8000-year-old Nosferatu lookalike Petyr, is the quintessential strong, silent type, sleeping and brooding in a concrete basement enclosure, stirring periodically to partake in the spare live chicken or human spinal column.

Despite the continued (at times, depressing) prevalence of “found footage” horror, plus a few eye-catching titles in the 2000s that played with genre structure and convention in other ways – though much slicker, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon springs immediately to mind – the “horror mockumentary” is a concept that still carries with it some degree of freshness. Ideally, What We Do in the Shadows seeks to wed the shaky-cam aesthetic of standard found footage horror with the “cast as parade of endearing oddballs” to be found without fail in Christopher Guest’s best work, melding the two worldviews into a sort of Blair Guffman Project, if you will. As with prime Guest, the movie is most alive, and as a result most successful, in its rendering of fine, practically throwaway details, as when Vladislav’s human familiar, Jackie (played winningly by Jackie van Beek as a font of mannered repression), idly lays down newspaper to catch errant blood splatter or mows the yard while her master sleeps. Jackie has been promised immortality, see, only for Vladislav to stall her interminably, and the moment where she finally confronts him on his double standard – in the interim, the group has acquired a thickheaded fifth member, Nick (introduced via subtitle as a “two-month-old vampire”), along with his own human familiar, the universally loved guy’s guy Stu – is one of the film’s best. Elsewhere, Shadows muses on other highly specific concerns of the 21st century undead, such as getting ready for a night on the town without the ability to see your reflection in a mirror, or having to plead with a bouncer over entry to the hottest club on the strip because a vampire can only ever technically be invited in. Confronted with these obstacles, the roommates must draw semi-flattering pictures of one another to aid in their grooming routines, and the reveal of the one bar the group was finally able to get into was far and away my biggest laugh of the movie.

This is all clever stuff, fun and perfectly pleasant to watch, with a new surprise dependably present just around every third corner or so. The problem I have with What We Do in the Shadows lies in its overall formlessness and lack of direction. Despite reliable mass protests from aggrieved or philosophically opposed parties, all documentaries, even the faux ones, are kinda supposed to have (and to advance) points of view, and are generally supposed to build toward some big revelation or denouement at the end. Even This is Spinal Tap worked from a central thesis – Hey, isn’t this obnoxiously loud English rock band kind of legendary and incredible? – which, having been established, the movie went about methodically dismantling without ever having to shed its enthusiastic tour documentary cover. By contrast, Shadows is 90 minutes of overly mannered, merely amusing, mildly outlandish, occult-lite behavior, unmotivated, unstudied, and barely even commented upon. The flatmates do chores, argue amongst themselves (“Batfight!”), attempt to go barhopping, unwind from the previous night’s non-debauchery, completely misunderstand how to use the internet (“I lost a lovely scarf back in 1912. Google it!”), awkwardly attempt to seal the deal with glamored victims, and run afoul of all manner of creatures of the night – zombies, werewolves, club kids, et al. Through it all, the film accomplishes little, and goes basically nowhere. Even the “The Unholy Masquerade” is something of an anti-climax, as Vladislav tries to avoid a former lover (named “The Beast”, naturally) and later must reevaluate on the fly which of his “protected” cameramen are now officially expendable in order to escape a room full of outraged vamps.

Most potential Stateside viewers will doubtless be drawn to this material, as I was, by the hipster cache of star and co-writer Clement, who has of late been building himself an idiosyncratic career as a purveyor of arch buffoonery (Dinner with Schmucks, Gentlemen Broncos, MIB3, Muppets Most Wanted) outside the long, lingering shadow of Flight of the Conchords. Indeed, anyone who arrives already sufficiently versed in the mild exploits of New Zealand’s third most popular folk band will likely settle into Shadows like the tepid but comfortable bath it is. In truth, this material would probably work much better as a continuing series. It is rife with low scale invention and interesting observation, and hinges on the sorts of insignificant details, quirks and stupid misunderstandings that helped comprise the core plot points of any number of post-Seinfeld sitcoms. Clement and cohort Bret McKenzie tired of the grind of writing and acting necessary to sustain their underdog on HBO, so the change of venue here makes sense. It also enables Clement and Waititi to introduce the odd legitimate scare as a palette cleanser, and to sketch elaborate backstories for their characters without feeling much pressure to fill in their presents or probe whatsoever. It is an undeniable kick to witness the mini-reunion between Clement and former Conchords manager Rhys Darby, terminally miffed yet unflappable as ever, this time leading a pack of surprisingly reasonable lycanthropes (“Remember, we’re werewolves, not swear-wolves!”) who engage the vamps in the lowest stakes turf war in history. The fledgling vampires, (literally) forever struggling for purpose in a world that has long since bolted past them, go dutifully about their non-lives, proud but humbled, and elicit plenty of smiles in the process, making What We Do in the Shadows a solid, unspectacular success within the parameters it has set for itself. I couldn’t help wishing the filmmakers had tried to do more.

“What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) 2.5/4 stars

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