At The Movies: What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

whatwedointheshadows2015

What We Do In the Shadows

★★★★☆

2014 • 85 minutes • Madman Entertainment

I never watched The Office while it was on. Or Parks and Recreation (it’s on my list! After 30 Rock!). Or the films of Christopher Guest. I mean, I’ve seen the original British Office, which is actually a terrifying portrait of awful human beings, and I’ve seen The Thick of It and In The Loop during the dawn of my Peter Capaldi obsession last fall. Oh, and I’ve seen Spinal Tap, for… I imagine it was eighties-related reasons? That’s a pretty good assumption to make. But that’s not my point.

My point is that I am not as immured to mockumentaries as most people are. They just largely don’t interest me, as a genre, so I don’t seek them out. And If I don’t seek them out, then I can’t get bored with them. And I only seek them out when there’s something else to interest me. Like, say, the talents of Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Boy’s Taika Waititi. And vampires attempting to navigate modern life with all the success of, say, Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane. (Although I imagine he’s been doing better as of late, right? I stopped watching it because I’m a busy lady and Agent Carter exists.)

What We Do in the Shadows, presented as a New Zealand documentary via the hilarious use of a vintage New Zealand Film Board logo, follows a quartet of vampire flatmates—sweet, prissy Viago, lusty, violent Vladislav, brooding, mean-spirited Deacon, and basically Count Orlok Petyr—in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, the biggest social event of the undead calendar. Like most mockumentaries, it wanders, despite its fleet eighty-five minute running time. The closest thing to a plot the film produces is the story of Nick, a young man Petyr sires, whose fratty behavior and allegiance to his human friend Stu starts getting the flatmates in trouble. Instead, it’s much more interested in simply pitting vampires against the modern world.

Especially the modern world of Wellington, where the vampires, after spending ages getting ready to go out (after all, they can’t see what they’re wearing), can only get into one disappointing club since they have to be invited in. Viago, the closest thing to a protagonist we have, is focused on maintaining order and well-mannered fun in the flat, to the point of gently waking up his flatmates, brushing the near-comatose Petyr’s hideous teeth, and generally being a very adorable Team Mom. Waititi has said that he based his performance on his mother, and the inherent sweetness and romanticism of Viago reflects well on her. Clement’s Vladislav, an obvious and confirmed take on Gary Oldman’s Dracula, is also a delight, albeit for very different reasons—his complete and utter confidence, despite his waning powers, and his self-mythologizing. Perhaps the best characterization of both is when Viago delicately implies that Vladislav, due to his age, still harbors some backwards ideas, and the film immediately cuts to Vladislav suggesting that they should get slaves.

But Jonathan Burgh’s Deacon gets lost in the shuffle, despite a deliriously hilarious monologue at the end of the film about mortality. (“That’s a Noel Fielding joke!” I yelped at Captain Cinema, simply because I use “Noel Fielding” to mean “surreal.”) He has the most problems with Nick, the fratty vampire, but he’s otherwise a watered down version of Vladislav. While Burgh gives good comedy—witness Deacon explaining that he used to be a vampire Nazi, thus his current residence in New Zealand—the two characters are too similar.

Why not simply make Vladislav have a problem with Nick? All the jokes still play, especially the best joke about how the vampires immediately take to human Stu, a mild-mannered computer engineer, who teaches them how to use modern technology. (If Vladislav bellowing “Just let me do my dark bidding on the Internet!” isn’t on tumblr right now, it will be.) While What We Do In the Shadows made me laugh out loud more than any other movie in recent memory, it’s not as clean as it could be. Even sweet Viago has stumbles. There’s Viago sweetly taking his time to blow up the only photo of his beloved that he has and then masturbating to it in his coffin, and then his disturbing predilection to dressing up as black characters for fancy dress parties. The joke is that Viago doesn’t do blackface, but that vampires are offended by his dressing up as Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and as Blade, but it remains disappointing instead of “edgy.”

What We Do In the Shadows is definitely worth checking out—although that’s going to be difficult in the United States, due to its limited distribution. (But Waititi and Clement have successfully Kickstarted their American distribution, so it’s coming inland, guys!) There are some great jokes, and I haven’t even touched on Rhys Darby as the leader of a rival gang of werewolves. It hasn’t made me fall in love with the mockumentary, but I enjoyed it all the same.

I saw this film in theaters.

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