[Review] - What We Do In The Shadows

Courtesy of the New Zealand Film Commission 
This is the film that the vampire subgenre needed: a kick in the pants to an overly stylized, romanticized and degraded notions that are the tropes of the angsty vampire subgenre. It's been ridiculed, it's been derided as vapid, but no one has actually done anything about it. Which is why out-of-left-field movies like What We Do In The Shadows are important. They aren't manufactured by the establishment that is producing the material needing satirizing. They come from outside, their message isn't dulled by risk of offensive (in fact, it is sharpened by it), and no one sees them coming.

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have created the Spinal Tap of vampire films. This film, aside from being a showhorse of puns, sight gags, brick jokes and slow burn comedy, has a heart and a narrative direction. A modern interpretation of the Stoker-esque, the film undermines the cardboard integrity of both Ann Rice and Twilight, while still managing to find moments to be horrific and sad, to provide some social commentary while also being delightfully hilarious. The first moment of the film is a joke, the last moment of the film is a joke, and it fills the gap with many a solid one as well.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that do their dark bidding on the internet (on eBay, mostly).

A documentary - a good one, at least - allows the opportunity for the narrative to reveal itself. A documentarian that goes into a project with a precise expectation of the story they intend to tell is not a storyteller open to the experience. Perhaps that is why so few attempt the mockumentary format, and so few that do are able to pull it off so well. Because the events are inherently fictitious, they cannot be relied upon to reveal their truth. they have to be structured. They have to be structure so as they appear to be naturally occurring, rather than enacted. This is why Christopher Guest is the grandmaster of the style; his reliance on improv from the actors provides the unexpected quality that the overall narrative lacks.

Waititi and Clement (who wrote and directed the film, as well as starring), found that element. The film is clearly precise in it's execution, but they managed to avoid telling a straight forward and obviously manufactured story. They did this by constantly adding in new elements, and giving nothing overt attention over anything else. The "point" of the documentary is secondary or tertiary to the events of the film, but everything that happens in the film feels tertiary. Scenes that, in a straight forward film, would have the audience asking, "why was that in there? Why wasn't that cut? What did that add to the story?" are integral to this film, imbuing it with a greater sense of happenstance. And, so as not to tip their hat entirely, Waititi and Clement find ways to bring a lot of these banalities back around to some level of importance by the film's end.

Following four flat mates, who are vampires, the film manages to be a lot of things, and all of them very cleverly. As a commentary on vampire fiction, and especially the brooding, love sick ones that populate mid-ninties Gothic romantic horror (which is about three subdivisions too many), it is beyond reproach. It is certainly not the first film to swim these waters, but it manages to cover material in a unique way. These vampires actually like being vampires. There is no brooding over their eternal condition. When Viago goes on his little journey about all the horrible ways vampires have to watch humans die, it is not a speech full of mourning. He recites the various calamities (including being pecked to death by ducks whilst wearing a mask made of cracker) as one would a shopping list. These are not undead caught up in moral quandaries. they are, first and foremost, blokes. Blokes just trying to get one. The fact that they are vampires informs their condition, but does not command it.

An extended sequence where they show their methods for choosing their victims does not get caught up in any sort of remorse. Even the newest member of their group, turned during the course of the film, shows no ethical dilemma over his need to drink human blood. He's more upset that he can't also eat chips. they accept their condition as one does diabetes, or that they are alive at all. And that is refreshing. They aren't played as demons or the cursed or anything that garners them sympathy. They are played as straight as a musician would be in a dockumentary about jazz music would be. And, critically, the way Waititi and Clement have directed the film, the movie hoists no ulterior interpretation upon the viewer. We are not expected to feel the remorse for the victims in the character's place. We experience events as passively and regularly as they do. In the film's most horrific moments (there are two extended sequences where jokes take a back seat to a real expression of terror), the atmosphere is perfectly created and executed, but immediately after, the film reverts to its passive style, relieving us of the horror payoff ("ahh... Petyr got him" is a perfectly delivered example of how to defuse tension).

It's also a fair indictment of bloke culture. These flat mates are rather solitary and independent. They tolerate one another more than anything else, but there is also an understanding that they are all misfits, and can only find tolerance among themselves. They socialize together, they stigmatize together, and their entire individual identities seem more wrapped up in their group dynamic. And the smallest disturbance to that (a new member, the immolation of another) throws them into chaos. the film spends the most time on bringing the newly turned Nick into the group, but Nick is never the focus. The focus is on how Nick's arrival affects Vlad, Viago and Deacon. The rivalry they have with the local werewolf pack is born more out of cultural expectation than actual dislike, as they discover towards the film's. And without the infusion of a new member, their dynamic is caught in sad, desperate nostalgia. To say nothing of the threat that the addition of a girl of equal standing poses to the guys (the character of Jackie might be the most successful satire of the entire film).

Aside from the success of the format, and the outstanding success in tone (the film is unfairly funny, as it rarely gives you a moments pause between laughs), I was very impressed with the production. Being vampires, these characters are capable of various supernatural abilities, all used for laughs, but executed in marvelous ways. CG is used sparingly and effectively, and for the most part, they rely on practical effects. the wire work in the film is, frankly, beyond belief. Perhaps because they use it in extremely unpretentious and unambitious ways. A frozen, mid air fight in a corner kitchen, while police poke about the room stands out. the most impressive effect of the entire film though was a hall way fisticuffs, which saw two characters move from ceiling to wall to floor more seamlessly and more realistically that Christopher Nolan was able to pull off in Inception, and he had a giant spinning room. What is clear is that they put big effort into appearing to have little ambition and it netted in maximum result. This film stands as an early contender for my favourite of the year, and anything else is going to have to put a lot of work into knocking it from that position.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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