Movie Review: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – brilliant. does for vampires what Shaun of the Dead did for zombies

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I fully admit I put off watching this movie for quite some time.  Not that I wasn’t a fan of Flight of the Conchords, the HBO series starring Jemaine Clement, with some episodes written and directed by Taikia Waititi (the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok) – no, it was a wholly illogical and unreasonable devotion to certain kinds of vampire movies that put me off this movie.  If you want to pop over to my reviews for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Only Lovers Left Alive, that’ll give you the reasons why in better detail, but to sum it up: I’m a purist.

Not only do I prefer a particular kind of vampire, I can’t abide horror comedies, and those that take aim at the vampire legends and tropes rankle me to no end – all goes to justify why I was prepared to hate What We Do In The Shadows, even though some good friends really liked it.  Regarding horror comedies, the only one I’ve seen that I truly enjoyed was a 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, which to me isn’t a horror comedy at all, as I define this subgenre.  When I watched Shaun of the Dead, it struck me that it contained all of the elements of a classic horror movie, and that the funny parts felt wholly integrated, and mostly character-driven.  The horror comedy plays everything for laughs – the monster, the characters, the events, the tropes.  Shaun of Dead felt very much reverential to all three, and the comedy grew from the characters for the most part.  What Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Star Trek Beyond) got right is that even in our bleakest moments, we’re still somehow able to find within ourselves the humour that makes up a lot of who we are.  The worst horror movies attempts at humour are generally of the brainless, crass kind – Shaun of the Dead did it right by creating a world full of real people, not just comedic stereotypes.

So to does What We Do In The Shadows.  The premise here is that four vampires –  Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham )live together in Wellington, NZ – all are hundreds of years old, (in the case of Petyr, 8,000 years old) and they have agreed to allow themselves to be filmed by a documentary crew as they go about their daily routines in the run up to the annual Masquerade Ball.  With the movie being shot as if by a resident camera crew, it’s less a parody of vampire movies, and more of a parody of shows like The Real World.  If you’ve watched The Office, you’ll get the idea.

I was engaged very early on.  The opening scene is that of Viago rising from his coffin, a la Count Orlock in Nosferatu with a faint, self-conscious embarrassment due the presence of the camera crew.  It could have been the time when I either continued or turned the movie off in outrage, but I enjoyed Viago’s character a lot right away – not because of him specifically, but because in writing him to be so disarmingly human, I found that far from being an idiotic vampire comedy, this was actually a true vampire movie, much closer to my own sensibilities than I imagined it would be.

That thread of humanity continues throughout the movie, with the exception of Petyr, who is done up like Reggie Nalder’s Barlow from the TV version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot  – but even here, Petyr is not simply a rat-faced, soulless monster, there’s a strong sense of detachment, the remoteness that might come from someone whose lived too long and seen it all too many times before.   At the time of viewing I hadn’t seen any posters or stills, so when Petyr appeared, the visual really took me by surprise, and while this character exhibits no sense of warmth or humour, his presence in the movie was very strong, I felt.

Another aspect I didn’t know was the ages of the characters – I was honestly expecting a bunch of millennials goofing ironically on the tropes, but the concept of the vampires all being European actually imbued the movie was a strong resemblance to a Hammer production from the heydays of the 70s, with movies like Dracula 1972 AD, Vampire Circus, and Twins of Evil – all movies I loved as a kid.  In fact, like Only Lovers Left Alive, the title card of the movie is just like those old Hammer productions.

The fact that the characters have retained their humanity leads to scenes where they often reflect on what their condition has taken from them, even as it bestowed the typical powers associated with vampirism (flight, physical transformations, longevity, hypnotism, etc).  While there are no great moments of poignancy (it would have been out of place to be that deep in this movie), the scenes where the characters touch on this aspect of being a vampire add so much colour and depth to what could have just been a stupid comedy.

And some of the comedy is really funny – Deacon’s history includes a stint in Hitler’s Vampire Nazi army, recreated in a hilarious brief black and white newsreel.  The first scene when the vampires encounter a group of werewolves (still in human form at the time) is a riot, and pokes fun at the werewolf tropes in a totally organic, character-driven way.  The movie is peppered with so many fun, small moments that while not laugh out loud great all feel like necessary ingredients.  Deacon’s reaction to Jackie’s (his familiar) reminder that he promised to make her a vampire is one such priceless moment.  Nick’s reaction to eating a chip is fantastic – I won’t say what happens, but it played out exactly as I hoped it would.

Not all the humour works, of course – the actual Masquerade Ball turns out to be mostly flat.  Not bad, just smile-inducing and nothing else, and some scenes with the newest member, Nick, came off to me as annoying,  But the humour, whether successful or not, doesn’t ever seem forced or lame, and being so character-driven it’s easy for me to dismiss those moments as the kind you experience frequently – some jokes you tell just don’t work; we’ve all been there before and keeping that in mind while watching the movie adds yet more dimension to these characters, even if it wasn’t intentional on the part of the script.

Closing out the review, and circling back to the start, I’m still surprised that this movie has already shot to the near top of my most favourite vampire movies.  It’s smart, funny, and has a lot of heart, but the biggest thing for me is that at no time does it ever mock the vampire movie.  Like Shaun of the Dead it takes the conventions of the sub-genre and plays with them with a clear appreciation and respect, and the end result is a terrific piece of work.  Highly recommended!

4.0/5.0

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