Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Country: New Zealand.
Director: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi.
Screenplay: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi. (Documentary)
Runtime: 86 minutes.
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer.
Plot: Released by the esteemed New Zealand Documentary Board, What We Do in the Shadows offers a riveting look into a secret cabal of vampires, who have retired to Wellington to enjoy the afterlife in peace. Wearing crucifixes and the sworn protection of their subjects, the core group of Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr must come to terms with newly turned Vampire Nick, while he shows them the ropes of living and partying in the modern world. Hijinks most definitely ensue, and they are fantastic.
Review: Rejoice, movie goers! After a near-biblical plague of fictional teen-orientated vampire films, filled with angst and forbidden love, What We Do in the Shadows is here to show us how vampires really live within the modern world – and it is fucking hilarious. In a documentary feature debut from respected writers-actors-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, under the auspices of the august New Zealand Documentary Board, the film peels back the layers of a hidden underworld of the undead right in the heart of Wellington. Personally, I was shocked how the subjects of this film live in plain sight among us; but after this 86 minute powerful expose, I have to say that the pieces all fit together in a blast of realisation. Not only are vampires real, but they organise a large annual celebration in concert with the zombies of New Zealand and an affiliated group of witches, a grand masquerade ball and orgy which celebrates their undead lifestyle. The film crew were remarkably lucky to catch the lead-up to the festivities and their consequences at a particularly tumultuous time for the undead, with a progressive upheaval of conventions, challenges from younger members, and the ever-present risk that the authorities and respectable society might uncover their existence. With the documentary What We Do in the Shadows now in mainstream cinemas, consider that cover blown; but to an admirable purpose, as we are shown that vampires are not so different from you or I, except in their penchant to kill and devour people and fight with werewolves.
The core of this documentary is solid and fascinating, representing a cross-section of the long-dead vampire community. We meet 397 year-old Viago (Viago), the heart of the documentary and a respectable dandy who moved to Wellington in the 1920s to pursue his human love. Sadly, he was waylaid and heartbroken on his arrival; having survived since then among the community of his fellow vampires, with whom he flats and who refuse to do the dishes. A sensitive soul at heart, Viago spends his spare times practicing pottery in his basement and pining away for his now elderly love outside of her nearby retirement village. Younger, 183 year-old Deacon (Deacon) fancies himself as the Casanova of the group, refusing to help with the chores of running the community and interested only in partying with young ladies and occasionally young men. He is assisted by his familiar, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), who procures ‘guests’ to hypnotise at the group’s notorious dinner parties. Some of the tension of the documentary is created through this relationship, as Jackie insists that Deacon fulfil his promise to grant her undeath and Deacon avoids this, realising it means the end of a somewhat exploitative but advantageous relationship. Slightly older Vladislav (Vladislav), at 862 years, balances out the other two with his broad experience and charisma. A former master of hypnotism and torture enthusiast, Vladislav is left reduced by a battle with the mythical “the Beast,” a figure from his past that he must confront at the climax of the documentary (where the crew were graciously, but dangerously, granted entrance to the yearly masquerade). ‘You can’t go to the [vampire] ball dressed as Blade’ Deacon remarks as they prepare for the big night, ‘but vampires love Wesley Snipes’ Viago responds. Finally, the group is rounded out by 8,000 year-old Petyr who is somewhat beyond his best years.
Where the documentary simply a means to get to know these characters, and the way they survive covertly within a world that would probably rather see them dead, it would be valuable enough. But the filmmakers are fortunate enough to witness the introduction of newly turned vampire Nick (Nick) into the group, disrupting their dynamic but also opening up opportunities to the members they would have previously thought impossible. Part of the delight of the documentary is watching these rather out of touch vampires discover modern technology and innovations through Nick, and it is rewarding to see a narrative where the elderly take to these innovations like fish to water. Viago is finally able to skype with his now aged man-servant, and all are impressed by the all-knowing powers of google and the internet’s ability to bring them their every desire. Yet just like us, they slowly must come to terms with the realisation that having the short-term satisfaction of all of these desires at your fingertips does not mean a life free of conflict and full of joy. Quite the opposite.
A turning point in the film, which is moving and worth mentioning, is Nick’s coming out to his human best friend Stu (Stewart). Initially shocked, Stu is supportive of Nick’s new lifestyle and is keen to meet his new friends and mentors. This initially causes conflict, with the vampires unhappy that a human has been introduced into their comfortable world, without the explicit intention of draining him of all of his blood. But the group is accommodating and quickly come to appreciate Stu as a great guy and a wonderful addition to the team. Audiences can’t help but be moved by this narrative of acceptance and overcoming differences. I know I was. An unfortunate visit to the manor by the local police, equipped with numerous safety tips, quickly proves the highlight of the film.
Ultimately, What We Do in the Shadows is a revelation, forcing us to reassess our own relationships with death and our society’s relationship with other hidden subcultures. But as Nick, Stu, and the rest demonstrate it is possible, holding out the hope that revealing the fact that vampires live among us might lead to peace rather than a blood bath. But emphasising all of this is to understate the wonderful gift of this documentary – which is just how fucking hilarious it is.
Rating: Four stars.