Review: 'What We Do in the Shadows' is the First Must-See of 2015
by Jeremy Kirk
February 27, 2015
Yes, you're tired of "fresh" takes on the vampire myth, and you're sick to death of the found footage/faux documentary filmmaking style. Both have been driven well into the ground, especially in recent years, but there's a good reason these types of films continue on for so long. The simple reason is that films like What We Do in the Shadows come along once in a while achieving something that is as simple as it is clever, as hilarious as it is atmospheric, and as revitalizing as it is genuine. Not only is it the first must-see movie of 2015, it's sure to have a hand in lengthening the shelf lives of vampire movies and found footage horror.
At the heart of the film are three vampires: Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Vadislav (Jemaine Clement) who all share a suburban New Zealand flat. The members of the living dead, unbeknownst to their kind, accept a documentary crew to enter their domicile and record the day-to-day events of a vampire's life. The crew follows them as they prowl the streets looking for warm blood; remain invisible to the general, human public; and avoid werewolves at any and all costs. As you can assume, the modern age isn't exactly conducive to the vampire lifestyle, and each of the three must compromise in order to fit in with this technologically advanced world.
There's so much more to What We Do in the Shadows than that synopsis implies. Despite the rather simplistic and straightforward premise Waititi and Clement, who co-wrote the screenplay and co-direct for the first time, have packed their film with ample amounts of intriguing lore and vampiric humor. Every detail of the vampire myth is touched upon in their screenplay, often turning the popular beliefs about the mythological creatures on its ear. The team at work here has clearly done their homework and all for the better of their film's comedy.
As important factors in works like HBO's "Flight of the Conchords," Eagle vs Shark, and Boy, it's become a foregone conclusion that anything Waititi or Clement put their names to is sure to bring the funny in droves. No exception here. What We Do in the Shadows is frightfully funny, the humor often slipping into dry wit rather than slapstick visuals. There is an apparent effort in keeping every character within the film as fresh and as realistic - to this universe, anyway - as possible. Despite its brisk running time Waititi and Clement create a believable, lived-in world for their vampire characters complete with societal awkwardnesses, long-lost loves, and, yes, those damned werewolves.
As funny as this film is, though, it never skimps on the classic, horror elements that made the vampire film such a popular sub-genre in the first place. The three leads, each with their own hilarious eccentricities, are still bloodsuckers through and through. Waititi and Clement take as much care in the frights of their film as they do the laughs, more often than not the two juxtaposing against one another for added, hysterical value. Even the fourth vampire in the flat, Petyr, an 8000-year-old vampire who has long since given into his more savage needs, has the classic, Nosferatu look that made FW Murnau's 1922 film so timeless, but this, too, is made light of in casual and painless ways. Believe it or not, Waititi and Clement have their cake and eat it too on multiple occasions throughout What We Do in the Shadows.
A major credit to all of this working so well is the main cast and the way the three leads co-habitate the picture. None of them are what you'd call the "straight man," and, instead, they each bring their own quirks to their individual characters, fleshing them out more and more with each, passing scene. Waititi's Viago has the biggest, emotional arc throughout the film. It doesn't lay the drama on with much weight, not that it needs to. Instead, Waititi, the actor and director, uses this emotionality to more strongly connect the character with his audience. Clement's Vladislav and Brugh's Deacon, human as they once were, still embody the brash generalizations that come with the vampire territory, each knocking the humor out of the park with simple glances or subtle gestures. Waititi, still playing a vampire, is a far better conduit into this vampire world than a documentary crew could ever be.
That isn't to say the mockumentary style has no place in What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi and Clement, clearly fans of both sub-genres they're trumping here, knit a close-fitting structure around the crew element that keeps each, progressive scene flowing and every conflict they run into at an arm's length from being truly terrifying. Every element found within What We Do in the Shadows works its magic well, the humor sparking every bit of your interest while the atmosphere plays with your senses subconsciously. The thrills and chills with which Waititi and Clement have packed their film keeps the very idea of what we're seeing alive. As long as films like What We Do in the Shadows are being made, neither the found footage film nor the vampire story will ever be getting labeled as "dead."