Vampires – is there another brand of movie monster that have a more fascinating history? From Max Schreck and Bela Lugosi to…Wesley Snipes and Robert Pattinson, vampires have been around for the entire extent of what we call cinema. Then how is it, after nearly 100 years of vampire movies, that a film like What We Do in the Shadows comes along and truly does something very different? Its a mystery, but not one I particularly want to know the answer to. What results is something incredibly complex and brilliant and absolutely brilliant, and this tiny film could very well be the best film of the year.
A little history of comedy horror – for as long as there have been movies that scare us, there have been movies that make fun of those movies. In 1981, a brilliant young filmmaker, fresh from making my favorite film of all time the year before, decided to make something that would essentially destroy the entire reputation of scary werewolf movies. It was called An American Werewolf in London, and the result was a gut-busting, darkly horrific horror comedy that made a fool of werewolf film, while still holding them in great esteem. Then in 2004, another great horror comedy came along in the cult classic Shaun of the Dead, which achieved the same results that An American Werewolf in London did by lampooning zombie films while still respecting them wholeheartedly. Now vampires have finally been given the same treatment in What We Do in the Shadows. Directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement create such a unique portrayal of vampires, but never stray from the canon of the undead, and instead use the past few hundred years of vampire mythos to their advantage, and I will go into the region of being an insane film fan when I say this may very well be the greatest vampire film ever made. It obviously isn’t, but when you’re watching it (and rewatching it, which I did the very next day), you’re struck with the subtle brilliant held within.
Mockumentaries are my favorite film sub-genre ever. People like Christopher Guest (or let’s be honest, it is entirely Christopher Guest who is responsible for this), created something so dastardly and cruelly interesting and revolutionized the format of filmmaking. For once, a documentary could be made about the most obscure and strange topics. Essentially, the rule is that a documentary can be about anything, even fictional events. It is also very difficult to do, because as legends like Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy show, it is difficult to do comedy, and it is even more difficult to do big, broad moments of huge physical comedy. Yet making a mockumentary is even more difficult, because you need to pass these outrageous events and characters off as if they are real. You are essentially breaking the wall between the characters on the screen and the audience. Sure, horror films these days seem to try to attempt the format of “found footage” to make these events seem real, but if you gave me Best in Show and The Blair Witch Project side by side, I would always agree that Best in Show is the more realistic, more interesting and better made film. Life honestly isn’t serious – which of us can say that our lives are completely devoid of any lightheartedness or humor? That is essentially what mockumentaries tend to try and capture – life, in its purest form.
Now that we have had a lesson on comedy horror and mockumentary, it is time for us to dig deep into the world of What We Do in the Shadows. The best way to describe the film is in Vladislav’s immortal line “when you get three vampires in a flat, obviously there is going to be tension”. The entire film (which unfortunately only runs at about 80 minutes) is one hilarious moment after the other. From the first moment, when you see an alarm clock next to a coffin, and Viago’s attempts to wake up his flatmates, you already know this is going to be something extraordinarily special. Taika Waititi, who co-directed the film with fellow co-star Jemaine Clement, is the glue that holds the film together. If there was ever a reason for a vampire to be so damn likable, it is found within Waititi’s portrayal of Viago, the most level-headed of the three. A lot must be said for Clement’s Vladislav, also formerly known as “Vlad…the poker” and Jonathan Brugh as Deacon the “young bad-boy of the group” who just happens to be 183 years old. It is a comedic goldmine to have these three on screen together, and hearing that they filmed an estimated 120 hours of extra footage of just improvisation makes me both giddy and depressively sad, because if there was a reason to watch 120 hours of anything, it would be this film. The three leads are so likable and have chemistry you rarely ever see in mainstream horror or comedy films. A special mention has to go to Ben Fransham, who pretty much plays Count Orlock from Nosferatu, and creates the most terrifying and endearing character in the film just with facial expression and makeup. Tons of makeup.
It is hard to gauge why I loved this film so much. Perhaps it is because I am one of those people who find people doing things one wouldn’t expect absolutely hysterical. Seeing vampires argue about who is doing the dishes instead of killing people just gets to me for some reason. Clearly it also got to the filmmakers, as it is obvious that they had a great time making this film. Passion in a film does shine through, and when the cast and crew enjoyed making a film , it just makes watching it a whole lot more fun.This film was clearly never meant to be mainstream. This isn’t the type of film that audiences flock to watch, or awards bodies tend to give gold to. Instead, this is a film quietely put out there, and that you stumble upon one foggy evening, and watch and rewatch and give it to your friends to watch. Its a small film with small ambitions but a big heart, and those are normally the films that get the greatest cult followings and the best fans, one of which I am so proud to be. I personally cannot wait to watch this film again, to be quite frank.
Can you believe I have gone this entire review without mentioning the word “indie” once? Its an impressive feat, considering that was my primary draw to this film. I remember thinking “an independent horror comedy from New Zealand, what could go wrong?” and I was so surprised. I won’t exactly say I kept my expectations low, but there was just such a co-mingling of heart, humor and horror, it was impossible to resist. The humor is sharp and smart, and there are some small moments of legitimate terror. The most part is that this film never once rings false. It feels real, and it feels like these characters are there, right in front of us, giving us a small look into their lives. That’s not an easy feat, and just goes to show how wonderfully talented the filmmakers and cast are.
In conclusion – there has to be one, I could go on for hours about this film, but I won’t – along with Housebound, New Zealand had a fantastic year for horror comedies recently. Maybe it is the small-town sensibilities of the place, or the underrated talents there, but both of these films are marvelously original, imaginative and could give any mainstream horror a run for their money. Absolutely tremendous work, and I really think What We Do in the Shadows is a very underrated piece of cinema that I strongly urge anyone who wants something uniquely hilarious to watch.