Vampires have long stood as an icon of horror cinema with their roots dating all the way back to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922. The problem with being such a popular staple of the genre is that, after so many years, said staple can become dull and lackluster. Even without the Twilight craze that erupted in 2008, vampires have lost much of their frightful vigor since the days of Max Schreck and Bela Lugosi. Rather than attempt to rejuvenate the classic monster, Flight of the Concords‘ Jemaine Clement and Takia Waititi have come together to create a satire film in honor of the once intimidating icon. Does What We Do in the Shadows succeed as a tasteful tribute to the ranks of the undead, or does it end up impaling itself trying to be being funny?
In the same vein as films like Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), What We Do in the Shadows is portrayed as a faux documentary, but instead of following a group of wannabe actors or over-the-top dog enthusiasts, this mocumentary centers around four vampires living together as roommates in Wellington, New Zealand. The roommates include Vladislav (Jemaine Clements), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Viago (Takia Waititi), and Petyr (Ben Fransham). Whereas the film could have played them as a diabolical bunch of killers, the four vampires are rather a typical set of individuals living under one roof. They have meetings about the distribution of chores, they provide feedback on how each other looks (vampires don’t cast reflections), and they’ll even partake in the occasional jam session. Things go uninterrupted until newcomer, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), is accidentally turned and takes up residence with the out-of-date vampires.
Typically, horror-comedies are usually not a balanced equation of horror and comedy, as the subgenre tends to favor humor over the scares. What We Do in the Shadows is no exception this ratio, and luckily the film’s moments of humor are genuine and plentiful. For example, there’s something undeniably funny about watching two vampires transform into bats and go at each other with their tiny wings, all while someone yells, “BAT-FIGHT!” This humor varies in scale and extends to the characters and their personalities, as each roommate reflects the has-been nature of the vampire in general. The once seductive Vladislav, for instance, is no long capable of hypnotizing his prey and must resort to banging on windows to even be noticed. Likewise, the sensitive Viago worries about keeping blood off the furniture, and Deacon tries his hardest to remain the hip and relevant bad-boy in spite of Nick’s presence. All the humor goes a long way to make the vampires fun and likable, as well as give the film a certain heart with undertones of loss, loneliness, and friendship. Most importantly, though, is how the humor never tips the film into the territory of blunt parody. All of the jokes feels in good spirit as they poke fun at vampires, but never turn the film into an outright roast of the children of the night.
As mentioned above, What We Do in the Shadows is a filmed as a documentary and it shows. One-on-one interviews, film grain, and various hand-held shots all do well in creating a documentary feel, even if that feel is contrasted by the film’s ridiculous tone. The only diminishing factor in the film’s visual style is the moments of shaky-cam that pop up during the rare, but nonetheless disorienting chase sequences.
What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t make vampires scary again, but that doesn’t mean the movie is a failure. Instead, it manages to both celebrate and breathe new life back into the former rock star of movie monsters. Although not every instance of humor is guaranteed to illicit laughter, the film largely succeeds at being funny and earns points for not solely relying on the use of punch-lines. Chances are, What We Do in the Shadows will go down alongside 2004’s Shaun of the Dead as being one of the more beloved horror-comedies.
What We Do In The Shadows is playing in select theaters and available on VOD