WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Directors: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Jackie van Beek, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Elena Stejko
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 2/13/15 (limited); 2/27/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 26, 2015
There is nothing wrong with a little silliness for its own sake every now and then, especially when said silliness is as smart and persistent as the kind to be found in What We Do in the Shadows. The film is a fake documentary about a quartet of vampires who live together in a house in Wellington. The "young bad boy" of the group is 183 years old. The de facto leader of the house, who was (and, on an existential level, remains) a "dandy" from the 18th century before he became a blood-sucking monster, is mad at his flatmate because there are five years' worth of bloody dishes piled up next to the kitchen sink. He thought the chore wheel would make it easier for housework to be done, but no, the thing hasn't moved in five years, either.
Even if two or three of the jokes in this particular setup didn't work, there would still be three or two of them that did. The film is of the "throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks" tradition of comedy, but we get the sense that writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi at least put up a dartboard on that wall. There's precision to the jokes. The filmmakers know their target. It's just a matter of how close they get to the bull's-eye. They aren't afraid to miss the board entirely, but even when they do, we know what they were aiming for with the throw.
The jokes don't stop, but the film never becomes tiresome. That's because Clement, Waititi, and the rest of the cast (If they didn't improvise at least a good chunk of the dialogue, they do a great job making us believe they did) don't just give us the jokes. They build off each preceding one. Sometimes it's an obvious call-back, but in general, it's imperceptible. It's the overall feeling that the filmmakers and the cast have created a world and characters that not only provide opportunities for humor but also evolve with it.
That's part of the reason why the gag with the dishes, which is really just a throwaway bit of business in the bigger scheme of the film, works. On its own, it's funny that the "young bad boy" is almost two centuries old, but that frames the joke about the dishes as one about how a man who's that old is still as irresponsible as a child. It should go without saying that the notion of a vampire fussing over a chore wheel—made with cardboard and crayons, no less—is innately funny.
The film's humor stems from the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the humdrum. We meet the foursome in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball (Where it's held is a just-in-frame visual gag that pretty much sums up the mundane existence of the supernatural beings in the film's world). They've given a documentary crew permission to record their lives—on the condition that they all wear a crucifix for their protection, of course.
Viago (Waititi), the dandy, is still pining for his lost love, whom he followed to New Zealand. He arrived too late, thanks to a postage error made by his servant, and she married another man ("Of course I wanted to chop off his head and drain him of all his blood. What man wouldn't?"). He still has a silver pendant with her picture in it, and he proudly poses while wearing it as smoke billows from his chest. Now his former love lives in a retirement home, where Viago hovers outside her window.
Vladislav (Clement) is an aficionado of various torture methods, which puts him in the same category of Vlad the Impaler, although his nickname is slightly less intimidating. His powers have diminished after a battle with his archnemesis, known only as "the Beast," whose true identity reveals that even a vampire can be petty (The punch line's buildup, in which wood-carved illustrations of some vaguely terrible creature set to sinister music appear at every mention of "the Beast," is key).
Vladislav also has a familiar named Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a frustrated housewife who believes she's reached the peak age for becoming a vampire. He is too keen on having someone to take his blood-stained shirts to the dry cleaner to fulfill her wish.
Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the bad boy, is always at odds with his flatmates, flying in the air or turning into a bat to fight them, and the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) lives entombed in a closet in the basement. He looks like Max Schreck's Count Orlok but with worse skin and poorer dental hygiene practices. Later on, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a new vampire who never quite figures out the flying thing and who believes announcing his vampirism will earn him popularity at the local clubs, and Stu (Stuart Rutherford), Nick's human friend, become regulars at the house.
They fight over everyday things—chores, which club to go to, who to invite to a dinner party, cleaning up before and after a date (Viago—in the funny setup to one gag—lays out towels and newspaper for one such rendezvous in a failed attempt—the gruesomely hilarious payoff—to prevent blood from getting on his couch). They encounter other vampires, werewolves (who have a strange obsession with being well-mannered), and zombies, too, but they are as ordinary in their personal lives and concerns as our heroes.
The film's humor works because it is always in the process of undermining its characters' inflated perception of themselves. That helps to make What We Do in the Shadows not only precisely funny but also consistently so.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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