What We Do in the Shadows (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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A brave documentary crew, armed with crucifix necklaces and a pledge of protection, film a vampire quartet as they talk about their long lives and prepare for the Unholy Masquerade.  What We Do in the Shadows is co-written, co-directed, and co-stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi with additional performances by Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham.

The gang's all deadWith What We Do in the Shadows I can fret a bit less about the cinematic prospects of Jemaine Clement. I love Flight of the Conchords, be it in television or album forms, but Clement’s roles in front of the camera have had considerably less positive outcomes than former partner Bret McKenzie’s work behind-the-scenes. But his talent is so immense that even when the failures were robust, such as the horrid indie quirk-fest of Eagle vs. Shark or the painfully unfunny Gentlemen Broncos, he still showed promise.

Of the latter of those two I wrote that it should be charged with conspiracy to commit murder, which was an admittedly over-harsh reaction to a terrible comedy. But it has frustrated me to see Clement waste his talents in the broadest quirky way.

This makes the success of What We Do in the Shadows a great twist. The fantastical elements, in this case the mockumentary about vampires preparing for an annual ball (the appropriately titled Unholy Masquerade), and the deadpan humor, popularized by his stint in Flight of the Conchords, aren’t that far from Clement’s previous work. But the bone-dry humor at the core of What We Do in the Shadows keeps the former from spinning out into unchecked quirkiness while the odd setting serves as a reminder to keep the jokes flowing.

"Hold me back bro" is just as much empty posturing without the ability to fly, but makes for some great visual humor to typical bar crawl scenarios.

"Hold me back bro" is still empty posturing even with the ability to fly, but makes for some great visual humor to typical bar crawl scenarios.

Clement’s success here has a good bit to do with co-writer and co-director Taika Waititi, who plays the straight-man to Clement’s flamboyance. The opening scenes threaten boredom with Viago (Waititi) talking plainly and nervously about living in a flat with other vampires. If the film continued on in this vein it would have been too dry, but the visual humor really hammers down an excellent grasp of vampires in popular culture. Viago wakes up his roommate Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and “ha ha ha” he’s the lazy schlub of the crew but when he opens up Viago’s door he finds the leather-obsessed Vladislav (Clement) writhing about with three other vampire women against red sheets on the wall. With a quick “Sorry” from Viago the door slams shut only to have it reopened to reveal a drab room and a slightly annoyed Vladislav in a robe.

It’s a somewhat shocking, sudden, and whip-smart scene. All at once we’re introduced to a fantasy fueled most directly from Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, then right back into the mundane reality of making a television show. Clement and Waititi show a hilarious knowledge of this vampire history, especially with my favorite character Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is modeled after Nosferatu and spends the entire time glaring at his flat-mates before making hissing sounds. The reason that he can’t contribute to the well-being of the group is as funny as it is logical, “He’s eight thousand years old.”

The blending of the fantastic and the mundane seeps into the way What We Do in the Shadows is photographed. There’s plenty of the hand-camera shakiness we’re used to from documentaries, but also lovingly recreated historical photographs and stories about their lives pre and post vampire transformation. I have a special fondness for the durpy blown-out black and white photo of Deacon sporting a unibrow and way too much stuff in his travelling backpack. One bravura and hilarious sequence goes from a mundane shot of the vampires treating their victims to dinner before they are slaughtered, to a continuous set of tracking shots following the worried man while the three teleport and move throughout the house (bonus points for the black cat sporting Vladislav’s face because he “can’t do the faces as well anymore”).

The violent and fantastic emerges and disappears so quickly in What We Do in the Shadows that some of my laughter came from the shock of the image along with the subsequent jokes.

The violent and fantastic emerges and disappears so quickly in What We Do in the Shadows that some of my laughter came from the shock of the image along with the subsequent jokes.

Clement and Waititi’s approach makes the world Viago and his companions live in feel alive. We know vampires are real, but how about other monstrous creatures? This leads to another great sequence where the vampires encounter a group of easily-outsmarted werewolves (“We don’t smell our own crotches, we smell each other’s crotches”) and they posture over one another like it’s a production of West Side Story. It’s a fun reminder of how monsters are created from different class-based anxieties, with the werewolves looking like working-class folks and the vampire’s embracing what Vladislav likes to call “dead but delicious”.

I’ve done a lot of praising here, but want to ground the impromptu vampire / werewolf matchups in the slight drags of What We Do in the Shadows. The overarching plot involving the Unholy Masquerade is a non-starter. When it finally arrives the jokes, visual and otherwise, just end up being riffs from earlier moments and the dramatic tension comes from a lost-love scenario. It’s dry in the poor way, toning down the spectacular elements and ratcheting up the dry humor to the point where What We Do in the Shadows really could be just another reality show.

Since the run-time is split between the vampire slice-of-life stuff and this plot I ended up spending a lot of time smiling with few belly laughs. But the mix of Clement’s eclectic nature gave us moments where a roommate squabble briefly turns into a flying hissing match, while Waititi’s grounding influence provided small yet brutally funny moments like when the gang encounters some prepubescent vampires locked in their childlike frames who are “going to kill pedophiles”. Occasionally hilarious, but never dull, What We Do in the Shadows is a great introduction to Waititi and a funny return to form for Clement.

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Tail - What We Do in the ShadowsWhat We Do in the Shadows (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.
Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, and Ben Fransham.

Posted by Andrew

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