What We Do In The Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014)

Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet

At the intersection of the mockumentary and the vampire craze lies What We Do In The Shadows. You'd be forgiven a bored yawn. Both things are so played out, surely this can't be anything but a lame, tardy attempt to cash in on the last remnants of undead popularity?

Instead, the movie delivers sharp satire and knowing winks to all the right sources. This feat should in no small part be attributed to the immortally hilarious Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, who not only co-penned and co-directed, but also plays one of the lead vampires in a household of four. They're flatmates and each belong to a cinematic archetype of bloodsucker. Clement plays Vladislav, straight from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula. Then there's 18th century German dandy Viago (Waititi), Anne Rice-esque rocker vamp Deacon and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu-like Petyr. At a certain point they encounter a classic Bela Lugosi type to complete the troupe. The different stylings directly link to their personalities and form an immediate source of comedy. Deacon is too out of control to do the dishes, Viago's extreme foppishness makes him meek to a fault, Vladislav has erotic tendencies or turns into an old corpse when he's down in the dumps.

Rather than relying on its clich├ęs for quick laughs, the mockumentary element adds a contrast of the mundane and banal to these exotic figures. We see the vampires floating around the apartment to vacuum the ceiling, abusing their powers of persuasion for cheap amusement and making fun of a werewolf pack struggling to keep their baser urges in check. Before the Westside Story showdown can occur, their leader holds the rest back and reminds them they're “werewolves, not swearwolves”.

Rapid-fire, often deliberately cheesy vampire jokes (how to dress without a mirror reflection?) and convincing comedy performances keep the pace high, but what makes the satire work is the juxtaposition of the ways and rules of the secret New Zealand monster society and our own. The gang befriends a rare human, Stu, who somehow pleases everyone with his utterly bland and helpful presence. They erroneously take him to The Unholy Masquerade, forbidden to the living. When an undead asks him what he is, the creature obviously means what manner of monster. Crash-landing the conversion is Stu's completely human reply: software analyst. It's a joke that says so much about how we identify ourselves and make sense of our lives, that only when contrasted to a nonsensical vampire society it's suddenly clear how nonsensical ours is.

But if that's too high-brow, there are tons of afterlife shenanigans to enjoy. From the way these ancient creatures learn to use technology (“Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!” “What are you bidding on?” “...A table.”) to their meticulous preparations not to let the blood of their victims spoil the sofa – it's just good fun. What We Do In The Shadows has both a sophisticated and silly sense of wit that, rather than overbearing, trickles down like a drop of blood along a virgin's throat. Vampires may be all but played out, this movie shows they can still be surprisingly sanguine.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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