I’ve been watching a lot of vampire movies lately, and a lot of shockingly good vampire movies at that. Between Only Lovers Left Alive last year and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night just a few months back, it’s seemed like vampire movies have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.
It’s as though all the talented directors of the world gathered together to snatch vampire films back from clammy hands of Twilight, rescuing an entire genre from mediocrity in a daring mission. What we do in the Shadows arrived a bit late, however, forcing the other movies to awkwardly wait while it applies its camo paint and checks its rifle, which is the kind of awkward-humorous scene you’d expect from the film itself.
Written and Directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, What we do sits about as thoroughly in that little sub-genre of post-modern vampire media as you can get. Like Buffy, Jessica Abel’s graphic novel Life Sucks, Only Lovers and countless others, the film casts its vampires less as fearsome and mysterious creatures of the night and more as isolated, temporally-displaced, socially crippled misfits, living at odds with the century they’ve somehow escaped impalement and sunlight long enough to see and puttering about their daily lives like any other gaggle of New Zealand flatmates.
The film is structured in a mockumentary style as an unseen camera crew follows Clements’ Vlad, a former bloodthirsty count long past his glory days, and his two flatmates: Waititi’s Viago and Jonny Brugh’s Deacon. There’s also technically Petyr, an ancient, near-feral Nosferatu type who lives in the basement and sadly doesn’t get much screentime. The film follows the group through their nightly comings and goings as a few new additions to the household threaten the stability of the group and at the same time force them to adapt more to the new century they’ve been trying to avoid.
The make or break for a lot of people on this film will be their receptiveness to that oh-so-UK style of awkward, uncomfortable “Cringe” humour that a lot of us met for the first time in The Office. The awkward pauses, the stammering improv dialogue, the painful awkwardness, it’s all there in spades.
For some people, this is the absolute height of comedy. For others, it’s just painful and awkward and not particularly sidesplitting, and if you’re in that second category, you’d better just accept that this movie isn’t for you. For my part, this style of humor isn’t normally my bag but I still managed to get a good chuckle or two out, even if some of the gags had me wincing just as hard.
“Oh goody, a masturbation joke, how lovely,” spoke Thomas, his voice dripping with sarcasm like slime from the flanks of shoggoth. And oh what’s that, Vlad’s arch-enemy, only referred to as “The Beast” is in fact his ex-girlfriend? Great, didn’t see that coming. I roll my eyes and sneer at a lot of the gags, but I can’t deny that Celement and Waititi have some pretty sharp comedic chops, even if their style doesn’t always work in my case.
Another thing that may leave audiences a bit divided is the structure of the thing. What we do uses the mockumentary style as an excuse to structure the film less like an A to B story-line with clear narrative thrust and more as a series of scenes or sketches with the skin of a narrative strung across them, like Buffalo Bill’s laundry line.
Characters and sub-plots will come and go, only existing for one or two scenes and not really contributing much or leading to any great pay-off. Petyr, the Nosferatu downstairs, is perhaps the best example, which is a shame since I somehow found him among the most interesting of the cast. Maybe it’s my weakness for Nosferatu-style vampires or the subtle humour that actor Ben Fransham brought to his few scant scenes, but I was genuinely sad when his part in the film came to a premature end.
The film has a very wandering vibe, not so much focused on larger narrative as it is with individual scenes and exchanges. Bear in mind, there’s nothing wrong with this, and a lot of great comedic films are done this way. Plus, when it comes to the Cringe Comedy movement, that’s prettymuch the name of the game most of the time.
If this style of comedy is already your bag, you’re probably ready to roll with this. If not, again, this may not be the one for you.
One thing that did definitely jump out and grab me by the neck is overall look and production design. The sets and costumes all look really terrific, and when the main characters recount their origins, it comes with period-style art depictions of their “younger” selves, and the art department did a damn convincing job of replicating the look of renaissance art, biblical illustrations, and that sort of thing.
In the same fashion, the effects department out-did themselves with the extensive wire-work and even a rotating hallway scene. These sequences, I found, are among some of the funniest in the film, mostly for how they almost always spring upon us out of nowhere to reminds us what we’re watching, like the snarling animal fights that pop up in The Fantastic Mr Fox.
In one scene, a heated exchange suddenly has the quarreling vampires thrust into the air before awkwardly and quite literally backing down. Moments like that are a great example of simple special effects being used for great comedic effect, and they were some of the highlights of the film for me.
As I’ve stressed on at least two occasions now, What we do in the Shadows is walking to the beat of a very specific comedic drum, one that not everyone can get in step with. If Cringe humour doesn’t work on you, and you can’t appreciate the canny post-modern deconstruction of vampire tropes, the flick may leave you as cold as one of its undead stars. If you’re in the right audience, though, and can recite whole scenes from The Office and Flight of the Conchords by heart, congrats, you have a new favourite movie.