Saturday, September 12, 2015


It was a low bar to hurdle, but Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement deserve credit all the same for writing, directing and starring in the funniest vampire comedy ever made. There may not be much competition -- qualitatively speaking, that is -- but such competition as exists only proves how hard the task has been. How did these New Zealand comics pull it off? I compared notes with my longtime friend and longertime vampire-movie fan "Wendigo" and among the things we agreed on was that this film benefited from not focusing on one specific vampire film or personality to parody. Instead, it's a fairly comprehensive survey of vampire archetypes without stooping to impersonation. This is a film where no one does a "blah, blah" version of Bela Lugosi's voice, but there is an Euro-accented romantic-tragic vampire, Viago (Waititi) and a vampire inspired by the pop-mythological Vlad Tepes, Vladislav the Poker (Clement), who share a Wellington NZ house along with Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), whom Wendigo had to tag for me as an Ann Rice-type vampire gone to seed, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a mute Nosferatu type who spends most of his time in the basement. The creators resist any remaining temptation to parody the Twilight cycle, but instead get laughs out of 21st century vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) boasting implausibly that he inspired the books. The simple idea of What We Do in the Shadows is to throw these types together in one cramped setting, where none of them really fit, and let them bounce off one another. In short, it's reality TV or, more accurately, mockumentary, the gimme being that these vampires have allowed a documentary crew to film their activities, promising not to kill them and, indeed, keeping their word. The description doesn't sound very promising, really, and Wendigo in particular was skeptical about the rave reviews the film was getting, but the vampires' desire -- Viago's more than anyone else's -- to publicize themselves gets us quickly to the heart of the parody. Above all, the vampires (not counting the indifferent Petyr) are narcissists almost to the point of neurosis and don't really want to be in the shadows at all. In short, they're a lot like us.

It really was that simple. Give us vampires with the full panoply of powers -- mesmerism is especially important for them, particularly when police have to inspect the house shortly after one of the vampires has gone up in flames -- but make them almost mundane in their humanity, or almost human in their mundanity. That's the sort of comic gambit we might have expected in the 1950s, the golden age of parody, only now it comes out somewhat less Yiddish than it might have then. More to the point, whereas most vampire comedies aspire to an Addams Family mentality, What We Do in the Shadows is more like The Munsters, though the vampires in the picture are more like Herman than Grandpa, the actual vampire on the show. For all their irrepressible exoticism, there's something laughably bourgeois about their squabbling over household chores, their glee at getting admitted into trendy niteclubs with the help of Nick, their newest recruit, their still greater glee when Nick's still-human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford) wires their home for the Internet and really introduces them to the 21st century. While most vampire comedies take the glamour of vampirism for granted, What We Do in the Shadows constantly punctures the glamour while exploring the paranormal underworld of Wellington. Our vampires trade insults with an equally bourgeois band of werewolves; their "Dark Masquerade" that climaxes the film takes place in a bowling alley banquet hall. Just as important, the film doesn't try to get laughs out of dumb humans getting seduced or waylaid by the vampires. It does quite well without an "audience point-of-view" character, the most prominent human character, Stu, being noteworthy for his utterly passive fearlessness in the vampires' presence. If anything, his technical knowhow makes him as fascinating and exotic a character to the vampires as they should seem to him.

All of the above would only add up to good intentions if the cast didn't deliver fully committed character turns. Each of the vampires (apart from Petyr) has a storyline running through the picture: Viago's pining for a still-living human lover he was separated from 70 years ago; Vladislav's much-hinted at feud with "the Beast," and his squabbles with his current human servant Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a local housewife impatient for eternal life; Deacon's growing jealousy of Nick, now the most modern and fashionable of the group, even as he seems to ape Deacon's fashions; Nick's own imperilment of the group's safety by his public boasting of his new status. What We Do in the Shadows keeps a lot of balls in the air while most vampire comedies can barely hold on to one. I won't go into further detail because it's a good enough comedy not to have its gags spoiled. It's no masterpiece by any means, and if I find it one of the funnier movies of the past few years I have to add that I seek out relatively few comedies. But it is the best of its kind and that justifies some hyperbole, as well as renewed astonishment that it too cinema so long to do this right.

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