Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

Rated R for bloody violent content, some sexual material and language

Score: 4 out of 5

(Note: while this film was released in 2015 in the United States, it was first released in 2014 in its native New Zealand and in Australia.)

What We Do in the Shadows is a deliciously offbeat and often hysterical vampire horror-comedy, though it's one that's quite a ways outside the normal wheelhouse. Its sense of humor is very dry and deadpan, less about mile-a-minute gags and more about putting its characters into humorous situations and letting things run their course, and many scenes exist entirely to set up jokes later in the film. Some parts flew over my head initially, only clicking once some time had passed. The closest comparison I can think of in American comedy would perhaps be the sitcom Arrested Development, another work in which nearly every scene and joke, especially in later seasons, is a callback to events in earlier episodes. It's the sort of film that begs for rewatches to catch more little things that you missed on your first viewing. And there's a lot of stuff to catch here, making this a very funny and rewarding experience for those willing to put in the effort to keep up with it.

Our protagonists are three men living in a flat together in Wellington, New Zealand: the sharp, flashy dresser Viago, the older, grumpier Vladislav, and the young, rebellious Deacon. They argue over who does the chores, they go out to the club every night, and they bring people home to feast on their blood. Oh, about that last part: they're also vampires of varying ages, living with their reclusive sire, the 8000-year-old Orlok-looking monster Petyr who sleeps in a stone crypt in the basement. Vladislav is a medieval vampire in the vein of Count Dracula, Viago is a man from the Renaissance seemingly inspired by Lestat, and Deacon is a more "edgy" vampire straight out of The Lost Boys who takes a lot from his namesake, Deacon Frost from Blade. One night, after bringing home a pair of victims, Petyr turns one of them, a young hipster named Nick, into a vampire, forcing Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon to show him the ropes and explain to him the rules of vampire society. All the while, they have to deal with an annoying gang of werewolves, their human servant Jackie wonders just when the hell she's gonna get her chance to become a vampire, they have to prepare for the "Unholy Masquerade" ball where all the supernatural creatures gather each year, and Vladislav has to contend with "the Beast", which I assure you is not the "enemy within" of so much vampire lore.

Most of the jokes, especially the ones on the surface, come from exploiting the "rules" of vampirism to humorous effect. For instance, since they don't have reflections, vampires are terrible at grooming themselves like humans, and need others to keep them from becoming walking fashion disasters. Having been around for centuries, they're hopelessly behind the curve when it comes to technology, and when the newborn vampire Nick introduces them to the internet and cell phones, they go absolutely crazy with it. They can turn into bats, but a fight between two bats is as silly as it sounds. Their ability to hypnotize people is exploited for gags on more than one occasion. Some of the rituals of vampire society are patently ridiculous, and the Unholy Masquerade isn't held in a decadent mansion or a spooky castle, but in what looks like a community center or a VFW hall. They aren't alone; werewolves are shown to regularly take anger management classes in order to prevent themselves from Hulking out ("we're werewolves, not swearwolves!"). These aren't the only source of humor, however. Jokes abound about ex-lovers, assholes of all stripes, and the sort of bickering that goes on between roommates, and while some of it takes some time to pay off, it does so wonderfully when it does. It's not the sort of rapid-fire humor seen in Zombieland or The Final Girls, and some of it is bound to fly over your head, at least partly due to the cultural gap (this film was made in New Zealand). Still, it's a standout example of world-building that serves as a stream of laughs and engaging material rather than boring infodumps, and the more memorable moments managed to stick with me long after the credits rolled.

A huge part of this has to do with the creators of this film, Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) and Taika Waititi, who also play Vladislav and Viago respectively. They do great work bringing their characters to life, as do the rest of the cast both vampire and human (composed entirely of local unknowns), without a weak link in sight. Furthermore, while Clement and Waititi bring a quirky style to the proceedings, they never ignore the unavoidable fact that the characters they created are predators. These aren't "vegetarian vampires"; they see humans as prey, they aren't the least bit conflicted about the fact that they kill people to survive, and when they go out to hunt, things get violent (though even here, there are laughs to be found). There's real edge here; it's more a comedy version of Interview with the Vampire (right down to the framing mechanic of a journalist, or a documentary film crew in this case, exploring their society) than Twilight. Speaking of, I would've liked to see a larger role for the film crew, as here, they serve little real purpose except to make the film look like an extended episode of a single-camera sitcom like Modern Family or Parks & Recreation. Several scenes in particular should've provoked a far greater reaction from them, especially in the third act when they start seeing some serious stuff go down; as it is, they only play a direct role (and even then, only a minor one) in a single scene. Given films like Man Bites Dog and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon that did far more with the idea of documentary filmmakers following the exploits of murderers, it felt like they didn't know what to do with those characters. It was a minor flaw, but a noticeable one that worked against the film's mockumentary conceit and made it feel a bit extraneous.

The Bottom Line:

A small but fun treat for fans of vampires that has fun with the tropes of the genre while also paying it tribute. In what's been a great last year for horror-comedies, this one shouldn't be overlooked, just so long as long as you know what sort of humor you're in for.

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