Friday, March 4, 2016

What We Do in the Shadows Review

I had a friend show me What We Do in the Shadows (2014) the other day. It's a mockumentary vampire movie from New Zealand that has a whole lot more wit and humor than it initially appears to have. Drawing from different vampire mythos, it puts together several mismatched varieties of vampires and has them cohabitating in a rented flat together. Interestingly, it makes some unexpected social commentary while showing us some absurd humor.
Follow the lives of Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) - four flatmates who are just trying to get by and overcome life's obstacles-like being immortal vampires who must feast on human blood. Hundreds of years old, the vampires are finding that beyond sunlight catastrophes, hitting the main artery, and not being able to get a sense of their wardrobe without a reflection, modern society has them struggling with the mundane like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs, and overcoming flatmate conflicts.
The concept of a documentary crew following around four mismatched vampires in their everyday lives is silly as can be and generates a whole lot of situational humor. Like many reality TV shows each of these vampires will speak to the camera about themselves and what they think of the situations they're in. Their insight is often interesting and sometimes ridiculous, such as lamenting the lack of a reflection to see how they look when trying to dress up for a night on the town. Other times it's about frustration with their flat mates about pulling their weight by helping to pay rent or doing the dishes. The absurdity of the situations this creative concept generates simply lends itself to hilarious situational humor. This movie is about the "real," mundane lives of vampires. Almost like a behind the scenes view of James Bond when he'd have to, say, go to the bathroom, shop for grocieries, or clean his house. All the things that would not be put into a Bond movie simply because it's not that interesting. Here, we are shown a behind the scenes look at the lives of vampires and all the banal things they have to do unrelated to being a monstrous creature of the night.
The four characters here resemble established vampire characters from pop culture. We basically have Count Orlok from the classic black-and-white film Nosferatu, Count Dracula, Lestat from Interview with the Vampire, and David from The Lost Boys. All have different values and means of hunting, each has different goals, and each one tries to keep the other in check for their collective well being. And blessedly, the characters in the movie even make fun of Twilight and how that it simply does not depict real vampires; that alone earns several bonus points in my book.
This was an independent film, and the visual effects and camera work are delightfully cheesy. Getting the characters to float in the air is obviously a simple means of wires attached to actors. What little CGI is used was not great, even though it was well implemented. One genuinely excellent bit of horror-style cinematography featured the camera following a victim through the vampire's flat as he tries to escape. The intensity of this scene was broken up with some silly antics such as Jemaine Clement's face superimposed on a black cat's head in a rather campy looking way. In one scene, two vampires get into a physical fight with each other and are tumbling around the hallway walls and ceiling, lunging at each other. Up until that point the special effects were so low quality that this scene caught me off guard and made me wonder how they did that. Having a rotating hallway set to create the illusion of the actors flying around the ceiling seemed a much more expensive stunt than what other visuals leading up to it suggested the movie had a budget for. There was a lot of shaky camera work to suggest an improvisational quality of this "documentary." It was a little annoying after a while, but fortunately it was not so erratic as to give me any kind of motion sickness.
What We Do in the Shadows is far from being preachy or taking itself so seriously as to have a deep meaning or philosophical idea holding it together. However, I saw this as commentary on male bonding. As adults, men don't seem particularly adept at making friends with other men these days. I could go on a nice long rant speculating why, but that's not the point. The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows are a small group of friends trying to get through life together and find women to have relationships with. Life keeps throwing challenges at them, but they keep going making the most of their situations. Even when arguments arise between them, they will make a display to try and intimidate the other (as vampires this takes the form of floating in the air hissing at one another), but neither of them want to actually come to blows with their flat mate and friend. I doubt anything new you hadn't seen before relating to male bonding would come of viewing this movie, but men being friends together in a heterosexual sort of way and sticking up for one another seems to be the unifying theme of the movie and it worked well.
What We Do in the Shadows was a funny movie. It's a cleverly constructed riot that delivers constant laughs from its premise without bleeding it dry. It's a smarter, fresher, and funnier take on vampires than I've seen for some time now. They do vampires right, even if it is in a humorous way. There are competent actors delivering some witty humor, a skilled director who knows what he's doing with camera work, and some deceptively skilled visual effects artists. It's well written enough that it's hard to tell how much of it was improvised or there was improvisation at all. What We Do in the Shadows is a good, solid movie that is worth seeing.

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