What We Do in the Shadows
Vampire Mockumentary | 85 Minutes | 2014 | New Zealand
Vampires on film are best taken seriously. As archetypes, strange and sad figures who permeate given spaces while proving difficult to grasp, they model for us fear, loneliness, and alienation, and are uniquely suited to expressive visual contrasts of light and dark. The great vampire films, Nosferatu (1922), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and more recently Let the Right One In (2008), more than mere formal exercises, treat subject matter and cinematography with something bordering awe.
When preyed on for comedy, vampire movies tend to fall flat. Dracula: Dead and Loving It, for instance, is the worst received film of Mel Brooks’ career, but at least it contained moments of moderately entertaining slapstick. What We Do in the Shadows takes the opposite tack, as rather than magnifying some of the genre’s supernatural silliness, it attempts to drolly root its tropes in the everyday and the mundane.
Jemaine Clement deadpanning as one half of Flight of the Conchords is at once relatable and riotously funny, but the comedy pertains to our world, which is infinitely varied, exuberant, and highly strung. Here, an inability – whether through awkwardness or disinclination – to meet the whims of inflated circumstance can act as a form of revelation. But in the realm of vampires, especially when they are handled not with reverence but as mere creatures of habit, there is little to sink one’s teeth into, little that can be meaningfully or surprisingly undercut.
The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows might dress differently, but they are fairly typical thirty-something bachelors at heart, sharing a flat in contemporary Wellington, hanging about at home and at bars with a faint interest in girls and a penchant for pulling each other’s strings, only they also have an insatiable appetite for blood. Shot as a mockumentary, the first part of the movie juxtaposes their special routines – how often they must feed, their manner of sleep, the need to avoid sunlight and crosses at all costs – with disagreements over the household chores. The juxtaposition itself is the gag, solitary and drawn out, with the film sorely lacking in sharp dialogue, nuanced characterisation, or novel uses for the genre’s customs. As it drags on the focus shifts to an IT guy named Stu, a human interloper who stares blankly at the camera before him, the audience meant to laugh partly at the vampires’ fondness for such a bland presence, but more broadly at the sheer incongruity of seeing such a hapless figure on the big screen.
I went into this film with the best intentions, as a fan of Clement – who stars alongside his co-writer and co-directer Taika Waititi – and having heard and read only positive things. There are brief passages of levity – the appearances made by Rhys Darby as the leader of a pack of werewolves, and when a would-be vampire bemoans packing his master from Germany to New Zealand with insufficient postage, leaving his hopes for immortality unfulfilled – but What We Do in the Shadows proves an insensate bore, barely capable of raising a smile, much less animating a chuckle.