Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Night Life: What We Do in the Shadows

Jonathan Brugh in What We Do in the Shadows.

New Zealand has been home to sheep, cricketers, and hobbits – but until now I had no idea it was also a preferred haunt for the living dead. I don’t mean the shambling, decayed, starved-for-gray-matter kind of undead. I mean the coffin-dwelling, garlic-fearing, blood-swilling kind – the mythical vampire, who as it turns out aren’t really that bad, apart from having to murder people every now and again. Hey, everyone gets peckish sometimes; I don’t blame them.

What We Do in the Shadows introduces us, Best in Show mockumentary-style, to a cabal of four vampiric flatmates living in a dilapidated Wellington mansion. All are centuries old and only venture outside at night, meaning their grasp on modern culture is ever so slightly stunted. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the eldest at around eight thousand, a dead (zing!) ringer for Count Orlok who spends most of his time entombed in the basement doing unspeakable things to chickens. The others, Vladislav (a medieval torture enthusiast, known as “Vlad the Poker” in his heyday, played by Jemaine Clement), Deacon (the self-professed “young bad boy” at the tender age of 183, played by Jonathan Brugh), and Viago (a genial 18th century dandy played by writer-director Taika Waititi) prowl the streets of moonlit Wellington in search of victims and a fun place to go dancing. After one victim, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) almost escapes, Petyr inadvertently bites him, and the group must reluctantly take him in and show him what vampirism is all about. Nick brings a human friend – a computer programmer called Stu – to show them all the technological advances they’ve missed out on while they’ve been hanging upside down in the closet, or making objects float in front of the mirror.

Shadows is incredibly funny, with a lighthearted tone that never descends into cynicism. Waititi, as a writer and director for the New Zealand musical comedy show Flight of the Conchords, cut his pointed teeth on this style of good-natured humour and has tremendous fun showing the ins and outs of vampire life, from their predilections toward virginal victims (“Let me put it this way: when you are eating a sandwich, you prefer if someone had not already fucked it”) to their struggles adapting to modern technology (Vladislav seems to have the most trouble: a hungry light leaps into his eyes when he’s told he can “poke” people over Facebook, and in another instance he demands to be left alone “to do [his] dark bidding on the internet,” and Viago asks, “Oh! What are you bidding on?”). Everything from their antiquated accents to their otherworldy powers are sent up for laughs, but it depicts nothing so much as the struggle to fit in, and how hard it can be to change oneself for others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film has real pathos mixed in with the hilarity – but it comes close enough for a feel-good experience.

Small subplots – the yearly Unholy Masquerade, which the flatmates eagerly anticipate; a troop of werewolves that clash with the group (led by Rhys Darby, who reminds them to keep their tempers in check by reciting “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves,”); Deacon’s human servant, Jackie, who yearns for life as a vampire; and Vladislav’s nemesis, whom he refers to only as ‘The Beast” (and whose nature may actually be less horrifying than he describes) – do little to dull the momentum or youthful energy of the film. The cast is excellent as well, representing the distinct cultures of vampirism and New Zealand with equal wit.

I’ve grown incredibly tired of both the mockumentary filmmaking style and of vampire stories in general, but What We Do in the Shadows finds a way to make both feel fresh. It’s a film I would recommend to nearly anyone (apart from perhaps those made nauseous at the sight of blood: there’s a lot of that) and contains some impressively convincing special effects, considering the small budget. Those declaring that it’s the funniest horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead may be over-selling the film, but their enthusiasm isn’t misguided: it’s sweet, hilarious, and a new personal favourite.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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