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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: What We Do in the Shadows

Being a vampire is cool, right? That's what most vampire movies tell us at their heart, despite the sometimes theme of immortality as a curse. You get to live forever, fly around, turn into a bat, and of course you "become very sexy." But what you don't usually get to see is that vampires have a lot of the same social anxieties that we have: they have trouble getting into cool nightclubs, get jealous of younger vampires, and squabble over who's turn it is to wash the dishes.
This is the basic idea behind What We Do in the Shadows, the new comedy-horror film directed and written by Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also star in the film.

We are informed as the movie opens that a documentary crew in New Zealand has been granted a rare opportunity to follow a group of vampires leading up to the Undead Masquerade, the biggest social event of the year for vampires, zombies, and banshees. Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon live together in a flat, along with the ancient Nosferatu-style vampire that turned all of them over the last few centuries, Peter. They fight with each other and generally make a mess of trying to be good vampires and flatmates. Things get stickier when Peter turns a young man, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into the newest vampire of the clan, much to the jealousy of Deacon. Nick makes a lot of careless mistakes, but brings in the weirdly unfazed Stu, his human friend, into the mix, who teaches the centuries old guys how to use the internet to scope out victims and watch a sunrise on YouTube.

Right off the bat (pun intended), What We Do in the Shadows hits hard with the comedy in a really great way. By making the documentary framing device feel very authentic from the opening credits, the goofy mayhem is all the more awkward and funny. Much like something like The Office, the documentary perspective lends itself to this type of improvised comedy. Of course, a lot of the humor comes from the contrast of these mythically powered vampires worrying about getting into a nightclub when they have to be invited, struggling to fly through a window, and having run-ins with the local werewolf gang.

Although the documentary style really makes the film in a lot of ways, the editing used and the plot (or lack thereof) is a bit of a problem. It utilizes MTV-style editing, which feels true to the style but is distracting as we unnecessarily fade in and out at times. More important though is that there's a real absence of a strong narrative thread. Bits of story come in and out, like the introduction of Nick and the masquerade that is alluded to in the beginning of the movie, but it feels episodic and a bit messy. In a lot of ways What We Do in the Shadows might have worked better as a TV show, where they could really dig into the petty Real World problems one at a time and focus on a particular idea for a short time, instead of just kind of randomly putting them together.

However: this is one case where I can say the story arc almost doesn't matter, and this is purely because of how damn funny the movie is. There is so much to love here as a classic horror fan, so many callbacks to essential vampire mythology, but twisted to be utterly ridiculous in the modern era that the film takes place in. The inclusion of Peter in all his creepy Nosferatu glory really hammers this point home and makes the whole situation even sillier. It has already drawn comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, and while this isn't remotely as tightly scripted it shares an obvious deep love for the source material that makes it a ton of fun–I can safely say this will be making my list of Halloween comedies next year when I've got a craving for new horror.

In addition to the slew of extremely clever ideas and homages, its the really great improv work by the cast that truly sells the humor. Clement, Waititi, and Jonathan Brugh have a special chemistry and timing that made me laugh out loud throughout. The extended cast is mostly pretty wonderful too, especially Conchords alumni Rhys Darby as the "alpha male" werewolf who keeps the bestial tempers of his gang under control by making them repeat, "We are werewolves, not swear-wolves."

So: it's not a masterpiece. It's got a lot of serious plot issues that, in less funny hands, would banish this film to obscurity very quickly. Luckily, the pale, vampiric hands that guide each individual scene craft about as much hilarity imaginable, even if those scenes don't make a perfect whole. This movie is hilarious, and is especially fun as a fan of horror. But even if you aren't, if you liked Flight of the Conchords the comedy here will likely click with you. I'll leave you with this gem from Vladislav as to why they prefer to choose virgins as their victims: "I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."

What We Do in the Shadows gets a limited U.S. release on 2/13, and is hitting Atlanta's Landmark Midtown Art Cinema on 2/27.

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