What We Do In The Shadows (2014) Review: AFI Film Fest

The Family

There’s been no shortage of vampire films this year, so it’s pretty remarkable that the darts have been landing so close to the bullseye. The best of the group have succeeded because rather than recreate vampire lore, they use it as an entry way to more universal and interesting stories. The genre operates like the best of restrictions, providing a skeletal structure that creative writers and directors can animate as they see fit.

At their best, this year’s cast of vampires have explored relationships and milieus not typically found in a genre that lends itself so easily to romance and action. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE tackled ageless love and taste with its two vampire soulmates. VAMPIRE ACADEMY (not as bad as you were told) takes the often sexualized creatures to High School where the regular allures of popularity and status hold sway, even over immortal beings.

The more vampire movies I watch, the more I appreciate when they give in to the inherent silliness of their genre. After all, we’re talking about immortal beings who drink the blood of (preferably) virgins, have no reflection, and are warded off by garlic. As lush and hyper-sexualized as Coppola’s DRACULA is, for example, it works best because it’s constantly inches away from flying off the rails. There’s an energy and ambition to the film that comes from honoring what came before, but spinning it into something that feels so peculiar and otherworldly.

Vellington (A Real Place)

As it turns out, the “spin” is the key ingredient. The same could be said for just about any film, but vampire films are so common that they demand a new point of view. The spin is what gives the film its charm and energy. It’s a blood transfusion, if you will. Most importantly, the spin is what allows the marvelous mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS entrance into our world. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s uproarious film revels in capturing the banality and silliness of vampire life in a modern world. You know what being immortal means? Having to dishes for the rest of your life.

In WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, a documentary film crew gains access to a large Wellington home and the four roommates who live there…who all happen to be vampires. There’s Viago (Waititi), a prim and foppish vampire who’s determined to keep order in the house, Vladislav (Clement), a brutish, womanizing vampire who’s become more affable in his old age, and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the explosive “bad boy” of the group who’s full of youthful energy at the ripe age of 150(ish). Then there’s Petyr, a Nosferatu lookalike who spends most of his days throttling chickens in the basement.

Petyr

This is our family, and they’ve graciously welcomed us into their dysfunctional home. The movie explores the relatable mundane of their everyday lives while never forgetting that they’re actually vampires. But vampires are, or at least were, real people with their own eccentricities and demands. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works so perfectly because it’s a movie about a family whose circumstances force them to work together, despite their own selfish preferences. They all have to feed, and it’s easier to hit the town with your friends.

Our three vampires are the very epitome of aimless and it’d be easy to accuse them of wasting their lives if they weren’t condemned to this earth forever. After being alive for so long, what’s the point in having strict goals that you’re working towards? The filmmakers grasped this key point and utilized the “documentary” medium to explore the vampire’s life without digging any overwrought circumstances out of the closet. Instead of building towards a particular endgame, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS plays out almost as a series of vignettes, starting with an apartment roundtable and ending with an annual undead pow-wow at the “Cathedral of Despair.”

Vlad

Time moves at a very fluid pace, passing in days or months at a time, and our investment in the characters are reminiscent to how you’d feel about a good friend – they’re just a complete joy to be around, regardless of what’s going on in their life. That’s not to say these characters are immovable or bland; the film’s carefree pacing allows their eccentricities to truly shine, and surrounds them in a relentless volley of understated jokes about their personalities and circumstances.

The film uses its lean, 86 minute run time to skillfully tear down the sexual mystique of vampire life and lore. We’re always told that vampire life is full of people who have had centuries to perfect their bodies and minds, and we usually see portrayals that reflect this. If you’re not one of TWILIGHT’s sexual creatures, you’re one of BLADE’s badass, nighttime demons. Maybe not an ideal situation, but it could be worse.

But what if being a vampire means you’ve bought into these expectations, even though you’re still the pudgy, unmotivated dude you were when you were bitten? Early on, the greasy-haired Deacon confirms this while sprawled out seductively in an armchair: “Being a vampire makes you sexy!” The misconception makes sense. The most recognizable vampire activity – sucking the blood from the neck of your victim – has no shortage of sexual overtones. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS does the admirable work of revealing the truth: when feeding, it’s best to lay down newspaper first and avoid the main arteries at all costs. Duly noted!

Feeding

At the end of the day, the real appeal of becoming a vampire is the power that comes in tow, even though this may be a cultural misconception as well. Jackie, a middle-aged housewife in the film, juggles her private life while moonlighting as Deacon’s personal servant. Like Bella before her, Jackie’s goal is to be turned into a vampire, although Deacon is far less accommodating than Bella’s beloved. If he turns her into a vampire, who will clean his bloodstained bathroom? When she finally is turned, she uses the confidence and stigma of vampirism to turn the tables of her domestic life, forcing her husband to pick up the slack around the house. This seems to suggest, and rightly so, that the real allure of becoming a vampire is purely selfish, not sexual.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS revels in shaking up the vampire genre while sinking its comedic fangs in quickly and never letting go. If there’s a trope or cliché that exists, they’ll comment on it with results are funnier than they have any right to be. Even the obvious targets are handled with an incredible comedic touch – getting dressed when you don’t have a reflection or needing to be invited into clubs, for example. There are a few subplots with werewolves and lost love that are a little clunky, but the filmmakers know better than to dwell on anything that will slow down their joyous momentum. In a year full of inventive twists on the vampire genre, Taika Waititi and Jemain Clement have created a comedy that never misses an opportunity to undercut conventions in the most blissfully hilarious way possible.

Viago

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