Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Finding Out "What We Do in the Shadows"

Thanks goodness for Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.  I was starting to think that I'd lost all ability to relate to modern film comedies.  Their latest collaboration, "What We Do in the Shadows," which they wrote, directed, and star in, is a mockumentary that follows four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand.  It's the vampire-themed comedy I feel like I've been waiting for since "Twilight" kicked off the latest bloodsucker craze.  Each of the four main subjects is a recognizable type from vampire media.  There's Viago (Taika Waititi) the foppish loverboy, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) the Dracula-esque Lothario, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the young troublemaker, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is essentially decrepit old Count Orlock from "Nosferatu" and occupies a tomb in the basement.  All of them are, of course, losers.
"This is Spinal Tap" comparisons are inevitable, because like the rock and roll musicians of that film, vampires should be cool, right?  They're immortal and dangerous and have all these special powers.  "What We Do in Shadows" even brings out the more obscure perks like flying, shapeshifting, having human thralls, and limited mind control. Viago and Deacon try very hard to convince us that the vampire lifestyle is an enviable one, but every neat trick just emphasizes how desperately insecure and inadequate this bunch is.  They squabble over chores, go clubbing in centuries-out-of-date clothing, and rely on Deacon's human servant Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) to find victims.  It's not until they accidentally turn intended victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire that the situation gets shaken up and the flatmates are forced out of their rut.
I don't think you could have made something like "What We Do in the Shadows" before now, when the cost of CGI has dropped to the point that they're affordable for smaller projects like this.  The effects here are nothing very impressive, but they look good enough that they sell this universe where vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures exist in significant numbers.  At the same time this is clearly a low budget, independent effort, which is vital to the film retaining its idiosyncratic, Wellington-specific point of view.  The documentary film style is also used to very good effect, both narratively and stylistically.  The camera crew is neither too intrusive or completely left in the background, and I love that the filmmakers go the extra mile and parody a few documentary tropes along with the vampire ones, particularly in the editing. 

It's the performances that I really love here, though.  I'm not familiar with "Flight of the Conchords," the comedy band and related HBO series that Clement and Waititi are best known for, but I have seen them both pop up in various other media in recent years.  Clearly, these two are at their best when they're in control of their material.  Waititi's Viago is a wonderfully fussy fop who attempts to keep the group in line, but doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body.  Clement's Vladislav initially appears to be the most virile and lethal member of the group, but various crippling neuroses are soon revealed.  They're a sympathetic bunch, embodying a very familiar portrait of socially inept single male-dom.  It's very easy to get attached, even though the film makes it clear that these are still bloodsucking creatures of the night at heart. 
The important question is whether all this is funny, and I'm happy to report that yes, it is, on just about every level.  It's a frequently clever satire that relentlessly lampoons the goth and vampire fan subcultures.  There are loads of good sight gags and occasional slapstick.  The character work is rock solid, and could easily sustain sequels or other future projects (fingers crossed).   I especialy love how this version of Wellington is constructed, full of fun little details that point to more complicated background mythology.  My favorite characters might be the werewolves that the vampires encounter on their trips to town, whose pack dynamic manifests in a way that had me in stitches.
Comedies like this are few and far between, and need to be savored when they do arrive.  I urge you, for the sake of preserving your own sense of humor in the age of Adam Sandler and "Jackass," to go forth and enjoy "What We Do in Shadows" for yourselves.

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