What We Do in the Shadows

Hilarity keeps on coming with wry one-liners and slow-burn set-ups that exceeds a laugh-a-minute.
What We Do in the Shadows

Something slightly unusual is afoot in a share house in Wellington – something more than the standard flatmate issues. Amid dripping red walls and antique gothic furnishings, dandyish Viago (Taika Waititi, Boy), lothario Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords), self-described bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh, How to Meet Girls from a Distance) and the unsociable Petyr (Ben Fransham, Eternity) squabble about housework and harmonious cohabitation, but also about bloodstains and leaving the curtains open during the daytime. The foursome has lived together for decades and roamed the earth for centuries, their penchant for feeding on people and their aversion to sunlight the source of their commonality and problems.

In What We Do in the Shadows, a New Zealand documentary crew follows the four everlasting friends in the lead-up to the annual night of nights for their undead brethren, The Unholy Masquerade – and what an eventful few months it proves. In standard to-camera style that nods to reality television and augments the childish proclivities of such old figures, the routine of their never-ending existence is enlivened when change marks their number. From the ostensible normality of looking for companionship and endeavouring to satisfy their bloodlust, the unconventional group is soon adding a new member, attempting to avoid discovery and duelling with a pack of polite werewolves.

Just when audiences could be excused for tiring of all things vampire-related, writer/director/star duo Waititi and Clement turn the tables on every trope that has made the very mention of them so testing in recent times. The characters both inhabit and expunge the archetypes long-established in film and print, including the wealth of lore that has evolved from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and their various cinematic incarnations. Such gleeful skewering extends from the obvious, such as the stated preference for virgins, to the temporally contrasting, when endeavouring to cope with the onslaught of modern technology provides much humour and pathos. The mockumentary format evidently allows for such astute satirical renderings, with the concept enabling the comic freedom that comes from toying with familiarity.

Waititi and Clement’s memorable and highly quotable script, their latest in a long line of collaborations that includes 2007 feature Eagle vs Shark, their comedy double act Humourbeasts, and the 2005 short What We Do in the Shadows that inspired this film, is whip-smart, warm and witty, not to mention overflowing with wall-to-wall comedic hits. Transcending the self-evidence of an idea so rife for amusement it is difficult to believe that it hasn’t been done before, they fire off gags at a rapid rate, a feat all the more surprising for their continued success. Uproarious irreverence is the aim as wry one-liners and slow-burn set-ups combine with a frequency that, for the bulk of the film’s running time, exceeds laugh-a-minute. The pace may slow before an end-of-movie upswing, but the hilarity keeps on coming.

The duo also proves deadpan delights in their acting guises, among a roster of gifted talent turning in stellar performances that repeatedly strike the perfect note without a trace of irony. Waititi offers a sweet and foppish contrast to the seductive confidence of Clement, while Brugh enjoys the role of cantankerousness mixed with mischief. In support and drawn from previous players in Waititi’s works, the remainder of the cast add well-crafted texture, whether portraying a freshly fashioned creature of the night (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a transfixed groupie trying to work her way up to eternal life (Jackie van Beek), or that paradigm of humanity’s most boring, an IT guy (Stuart Rutherford). As the ensemble comes together, a study in fleshing out sketches and feeding off each other’s energy, conviviality is always the outcome.

That the characters are always more than mere supernatural stereotypes is a testament to the film’s triumph both on screen and off, especially when freewheeling is the name of its game in comic intent as well as construction. Falling under the spell of Viago, Vladislav and company is effortless; falling for the visually rich, narratively clever and even emotionally rousing What We Do in the Shadows is just as easy. In every way, this is a comedy worth its slice of immortality.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

What We Do in the Shadows
Director: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
New Zealand / USA, 2014, 86 mins

In general release: TBC
Distributor: Madman
Rating: TBC

Sydney Film Festival
4 – 15 June

Melbourne International Film Festival
31 July – 17 August

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 17 June, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay