What We Do in the Shadows

Posted by Joel Copling on March 12, 2015

"What We Do in the Shadows" is a monumentally silly motion picture and also an immensely clever one. It is a mockumentary about a tribe of vampires that takes the mythology of the mythic creature both very seriously and not seriously whatsoever. The screenplay by directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (who also star in the film) is intelligent, both in the way it skewers vampire lore and in the way it examines the dull, everyday lives of immortal beings whose life as nighttime beings has stripped them of any sense of modernity. It is during the course of the film, which is framed as a research expedition by a documentary crew for whom the vampires have promised eternal protection, that they discover Facebook, for instance.

Vladislav (Clement) is the makeshift leader of this small family. He was once a terrifying presence, luring helpless victims into his torture chamber (which is now deep within his basement, of course). He's been shuffling along this mortal coil, even though he is immortal, for more than 850 years, and he longs for the old days when he was feared. Clement is a clever actor, clearly, playing even the most outrageous jokes (An analogy between sandwiches and virgins builds up to a punchline that may remain the funniest line of dialogue all year) completely straight. Waititi is a terrific co-star as Viago--the face of the group, so to speak (He is certainly the one who acts as talking head to the camera more than the others)--and gets an amusing moment of his own at the end of a night hunting for victims (It involves the dilemma in which a vampire finds itself with a punctured artery).

There are other characters here, too. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a rookie vampire at only 183 years old, and is heavily implied that he was a Nazi in his former life (The film knows no taboo); he has a familiar, or servant, in Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who desperately wants him to offer her eternal life by transforming her into a vampire. Petyr (Ben Fransham in a brilliantly deadpan performance) is the veteran of the group at somewhere likely over eight thousand years old; he looks like Count Orlok's younger brother and reacts to literally nothing, ever (Therein lies the brilliance of his performance). The vampires' rivalry with a pack of werewolves (who are led by Rhys Darby's Anton and seem oddly preoccupied with proper behavior) keeps time with Vladislav's rivalry with an apparently ruthless warrior called "The Beast" (The punchline to this one is the film's most predictable joke, but it's a testament to the screenwriters' cleverness that it still works).

The "plot" of the film is admittedly confined to a series of moments that often build to a punchline of some sort, but there is Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), an ex-boyfriend from Jackie's childhood whom Petyr inadvertently turns into a vampire while trying to kill him. The newbie is less than discreet about his new identity, inviting his good friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford), whom he will not turn into a vampire, to stay with the tribe; Stu is a popular choice with the other vampires--or, at least, they would eventually feel guilty for eating him and drinking his blood. The rivalry between the vampires and the werewolfs reaches a head before the end; the results are as gloriously offbeat as anything is likely to be for the rest of the year.

"What We Do in the Shadows" is a joyous deconstruction of vampire lore and absurdity, referencing popular, trendy vampire stories ("Twilight" and the like) while engaging us in the mundane irritations of being an undead creature that requires the substance of mortal beings to survive. Clement and Waititi's management of this material is meticulous to every detail, including that vampires can fly, that sunlight really does kill, that vampire hunters really do exist where we least expect them to be, and that potato chips spark a gag reflex soon after a feeding. The whole thing is so wild, wacky, and absurd that a grin develops even when one isn't laughing hysterically.

Film Information

Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonathan Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stuart Rutherford (Stu), Jackie van Beek (Jackie), Ben Fransham (Petyr), Rhys Darby (Anton the Werewolf), Elena Stejko (Pauline the Beast).

Directed and written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

No MPAA rating.

86 minutes.

Released in select cities on February 13, 2015.