dirs: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
From the very start, as the logo for the New Zealand Documentary Board makes its scratched and dusty way onto the screen, we know we’re in for a real low rent experience.
Well, it would have to be. At this stage of the game, a film about vampires has to be doing something extraordinary in order to be worthy of our interest. Surely we had reached vampire saturation even before the Twilight movies drove a poorly acted stake through the genre?
Well, instead of an extraordinary take on the genre, what we have here is an extremely ordinary take on the genre.
Not typified solely by its low budget, which perhaps enhances rather than detracts from the experience, at least in theory, What We Do In the Shadows depicts these creatures of the night as the complete antithesis of the charismatic and highly fuckable vampires that we’re more used to.
These vampires live in a filthy sharehouse, they speak in heavy Transylvanian by way of Kiwi accents, and they live in that renowned haven of the undead, Wellington, New Zealand.
They are also fairly insecure about their place in the universe, and they’re not even particularly good at what they do. Viago (Taika Waititi) is kind of a prissy, fussy chap still in love with a (human) woman he met 70 years ago, and still dressing like Lord Byron. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is kind of like Vlad the Impaler, I guess, but really comes across as the lazy lead singer of some half-forgotten 80s metal band. Duncan (Jonathan Brugh) is, I dunno. A lazy, sloppy, angry vampire?
And there’s a Nosferatu-looking chap who lives in a makeshift crypt in the basement.
We are introduced to the characters when they are corralled together for a house meeting, mostly to do with the dishes. More precisely, about the non-washing of the dishes by Duncan, whose turn it’s been for 4 years or so.
It’s going to be that kind of movie. There’s even a charming chore wheel on the wall, helpfully administered by Viago. Well, he spins it, at least. Though he’s the fussy one, he doesn’t like cleaning up.
That would have been a laugh, eh? Watching Viago do the vacuuming? Nice.
As in our regular, earthly realm, the issue of chores in a sharehouse can be the source of most of the conflict and interpersonal carnage. These chaps aren’t interested in having sex with anyone, let alone each other, so there’s the other main source of conflict gone. Seeing vampires, virtually immortal beings having the same kind of fights as the rest of us who through choice or necessity ever end up in sharehouses must therefore be both inherently relatable and hilarious.
Surely it must be, because if it isn’t, well, then the whole premise/point of the movie falls apart.
Unless of course the whole point of the movie would be for you, like it was for me, seeing what funny business Jemaine and Taika could come up with, since I’ve loved so much of their work before.
When I make a statement like that, I have to qualify it even to myself. What have they done to inspire my adulation? Well, Jemaine’s very existence amuses me. Something about him just being him makes me laugh, whether he’s singing one of his Flight of the Conchords songs or just talking. Footage of him sleeping would probably make me laugh.
All of this sounds like I’m mocking him in some way, but that’s not my intention. He is not some amusing court jester or unhinged lunatic like Jim Carrey or the dearly departed and much missed Robin Williams. He’s just someone who, to me, is inherently a funny chap.
It makes it doubly sad for me that while I did get a few laughs out of it (one of the biggest laughs in the movie was when he was helpfully explaining the vampiric preference for virgin blood with an analogy abut a sandwich that isn’t much of an analogy, but had me laughing out loud for a couple of minutes after), What We Do In the Shadows really isn’t that funny or memorable.
There are some laughs in it, but it’s so deliberately shoddy and ramshackle that a lot of the time it even felt, dare I say it, amateurish. The people involved are talented people (Taika especially, since his film Boy shows he’s more than capable of putting together a sweet, touching and funny film). It just felt a lot of the time that there wasn’t much of a script, or much of a point to what I was watching.
I know enough about movies to know that even the most desolate-looking fiasco usually has a script, but that there are also times and filmmakers who like the idea of improvising large swathes of their flicks, because it’s cheaper, it’s faster, it gives a feeling of spontaneity to proceedings and can result in inspired moments.
Also, it can be lazy, unfunny and cack-handed. There are parts of the flick that, I’m ashamed to say it, felt like that.
Rhys Darby, another intensely funny chap, is also wasted a bit by a movie that isn’t always sure how best to exploit the talents of its cast. He plays the leader of a group of werewolves, and they interact with the sharehouse vamps a couple of times. None of those times is that funny, but it’s nice to see and hear Rhys, like always.
The cast often argue amongst themselves, but they also address the camera directly, as the setup is that for some inexplicable reason these chaps (and their hangers-on) are voluntarily taking part in a documentary. The producers never talk to the vampires, that I can recall, but they’re always there, and in fact they briefly become part of the story towards the end.
There are only two sources of tension that try to lazily push the story into some kind of direction: Duncan has a human familiar (Jackie Van Beek) who does a lot of the scutwork around the place, which also involves cleaning up after victims. She really wants to become a vampire, which is why she puts up with Duncan’s selfishness. What’s funny is that immortality for her isn’t a chance to stay young and beautiful etc forever: it’s an opportunity to give up on the domestic routines she feels trapped by as a wife and mother.
Through misadventure, their ranks swell when one of their potential victims instead joins them in the undead sharehouse lifestyle. A complete idiot called Tony (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) perforce becomes their new housemate after being turned. At first it seems like a boon, a windfall, because Nick can get them into the Wellington nightclubs that were previously barring their entry (and their access to fresh victims), mostly because they dress like an Iron Maiden cover band (without the charisma or panache to pull it off). It’s a new lease on life for the old bastards.
Except… except Nick is such a moron that he walks around telling everyone they bump into that he’s a vampire. He even says to a couple of girls “You know the Twilight movies? I’m that guy. I’m a vampire!”
The story reaches an anti-climactic, um, climax at the annual undead masquerade ball which was, at least to my eyes, the worst of the wasted opportunities in the flick. Although maybe it made me cringe by reminding me of some of the goth events I went to a very long time ago. It’s so deliberately downmarket that, maybe that was the point? Demystifying the undead by making them pathetic and mundane, and petty?
I’m not sure it works, because I’m not sure there’s any mystery left to demystify with any of these jerks anymore. We’ve seen them all, in almost all types and varieties. They’ve got nothing new to offer us, in any shape or form.
I guess it is a bit funny, in a roll-your-eyes kind of way. Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie, maybe my expectations were a bit high. There was, in the chase to catch the still-human Nick, an inspired moment or two. As he thrashes about their old nest, his pursuers seem to spring from increasingly more unlikely places, until Viago even seems to climb out of the backpack on Nick’s back. That really did my head in.
A sequence with hypnotised cops is also played for laughs, and is pretty funny. Also there’s this friend of Nick’s called Stu (Stu Rutherford) who’s human and very polite and helpful, who seems to bumble along like their human mascot. He’s also very handy around the house and with technology, but he’s only really funny because of the slightly stunned, slightly confused expression he seems to have on his face at all times as he tries to be of use to all and sundry.
Overall it’s not really a revelation or anything. It doesn’t really justify trotting out the world of tired vampire clichés that it does, to so little effect. It’s not trying to be anything revolutionary, but then they never promised they were going to be, nor did they promise me a rose garden: I just expected them to be on offer. Still, I think all these people are very funny, and I look forward to whatever they do next.
What They Do in the Shadows… is as mundane as what the rest of us do in the light.
6 times watching Viago try to ‘eat’ without causing a mess was also pretty funny out of 10
“Some of our clothes are from victims. You might bite someone and then, you think, 'Oooh, those are some nice pants!'.” – I guess it’s a form of recycling, then, which makes it okay? – What We Do In the Shadows