October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Johnny Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
Synopsis: Set up in mockumentary style, What We Do in the Shadows follows four vampires (Viago, Vlad, Deacon, and Petyr) who are flatmates in a New Zealand suburb. The first part of the film largely shows their daily lives and routines and explains their histories. The plot gets going when one of the vampires, Deacon, enlists his human servant, Jackie, to procure some victims for them. One of the victims, her ex-boyfriend, Nick, ends up being turned into a vampire instead of simply being drained of blood. He begins to hang around with them, and is kind of a drag. He often brings his still-human friend, Stu. At first the other vampires want to eat to Stu, but eventually they become friends with him and he helps them learn how to use modern technology. Unfortunately, Nick’s loose lips about his vampire secret attract the attention of a vampire hunter, who follows him to the house and kills Petyr, the oldest of them. Nick is shunned from the group and takes Stu with him. After several months, they all reunite at the undead masquerade ball. They also discover the ball is being hosted by Vlad’s ex, “The Beast” and that Jackie has gotten Nick to finally turn her into a vampire. A fight breaks out over the fact that Nick brought Stu, as pretty much everyone there wants to eat him. The group escape the ball but run into a pack of werewolves. It’s a full moon, so the werewolves attack and Stu is turned into a werewolf. In the end, Nick makes up with the other vampires and they decide they like Stu enough to still hang out with him. They even agree to be friends with the other werewolves. Viago, using the internet with Stu’s help, reunites with his lost love (who is 90 years old now) and turns her into a vampire, Vlad gets back together with The Beast, and everyone is generally happy with how things have turned out.
What We Do in the Shadows is a pitch perfect, Christopher Guest-style mockumentary. Made in New Zealand by Taika Waititi and one half of Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement) and using all local actors, it had a tiny budget and an even tinier initial release. Pretty much every scene was almost entirely improvised, with the actors told only the basic structure of the scene they were to be performing. Somehow, these conditions all combine to produce a hilarious, critically-acclaimed vampire satire that has finally managed to get the world-wide distribution it deserves. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you and makes you happy to be caught.
The casting is perfection, and it’s really the strength of the dynamic between the actors and their riffing off each other that makes it such a strong movie. The mockumentary concept is nothing new (although the twist of following mythological creatures is pretty fresh) and the movie is filmed almost entirely in the run-down rental house the vampires share and the streets and bars of Wellington, NZ. So too, the story is interesting enough but not revolutionary – group of friends have falling out and ultimately make up; older people make young hip friends who bring them into the future and expose them to new experiences, bettering their lives. The magic is entirely in the execution.
Even though it’s quite a funny movie, there aren’t that many big laughs. However, the ones that are there, you don’t see coming. It’s more of a movie you watch more with a quiet sense of amusement throughout. The conclusion is satisfying on many levels, as you’ve come to care about these characters and you want things to turn out right for them. The werewolf pack, although only in a couple scenes are a particular highlight. Werewolves are typically depicted as the working class in mythological lore, while vampires are the aristocracy, and that dynamic shows itself in their interactions in the movie. But the vampires’ snobbish attitude is odds with the fact that in the 21st century, they’re kind of losers. They may have had castles and servants and women at one point, but they haven’t fared so well in the modern era, reduced to a shabby house in a bad neighborhood and lacking the charisma to lure all but the least desirable victims home.
The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows are decidedly mundane and out of touch. Over the course of the movie they do learn to come out of their shells and function better in the world, but it’s not really about them restoring their former storied place in society so much as it is about accept the place society has for them now, on the margins. Ultimately, acceptance is what the movie is all about. It’s the vampires’ acceptance of life as it is now, not as they wish it would be, that finally allows them to be satisfied, and to accept another marginal group, the werewolves, as allies instead of enemies – or vermin. They accept Nick as flawed, but still their friend. Viago accepts that the life he’d hoped to have with Katherine is gone but that he can have something different with her now. Vlad accepts that he’ll probably never get The Beast out of his life and that he should just enjoy the ride even if he knows it’s going to end badly.
What We Do in Shadows is very well made, exploiting the limited sets to add to the sense of claustrophobia in the vampires’ existence. The lack of resources doesn’t allow for any sloppy filmmaking along the way, and Waititi and Clement’s concept and direction are anything but. Although the effects are minimal (floating cups in mirrors, a little wire work so the vampires can fly) they are used smartly to help set the tone and make the supernatural feel more solid. I also really like the use of historical woodcuts and other old-timey illustrations (some created just for this film) for filling in the back story, as it gives you sense of authenticity as well as being extremely cost-effective. As an American, I feel like I’m getting a window not just into vampire culture, but Kiwi culture as well. It’s a horror-comedy-mockumentary-indie pic well worth anyone’s time.
Rating: 7 sexy Deacons out of 10 – Instead of being limited by the small budget, Clement and Waitiki use it to their advantage, and their skills as film makers and actors really take center stage.
Enjoyability: 9 Petyrs out of 10 – Even when the plot flags a little in the middle, the window dressing keeps you entertained and attentive.