‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Review: Not Your Typical Vampires

Posted in The Screening Room by - February 28, 2015

The mockumentary format has become so common in the indie comedy world that it’s hard not to roll your eyes when a new trailer for one drops. This is largely the fault of amateur film makers using the affectation as a crutch to cover up for a lack of budget, poor directorial vision, undeveloped/ non-existent script, amateur actors, or number of other excuses for bad film making. In my mind it’s akin to the parade of off-brand Blair Witch substitutions that choke my Netflix browser to death every time I peruse the horror section. It’s the perfect excuse for any lazy unprepared young director to grab a camera and just, “Go for it young man. You know, really do it, like without all those film school restrictions and bullshit,” without putting in any thought  into the process at all. Admittedly, this isn’t always the case. There have been plenty of great mocumentary films over the years, but these days it can be hard to give film makers the benefit of the doubt, and assume you’re not in for a couple hours of improv shot on an iPhone. So, which camp does What We Do In The Shadows, a film directed by its stars Jermain Clement and Taika Waititi, about a documentary crew following around a few vampires that share a flat in New Zealand fall into?  

The plot is loosely centered around blood sucking housemates Vlad (Jermaine Clement) Viago (Taika Waititi) and Deacon (Jonathan Burgh) and their daily lives in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, the biggest undead event in New Zealand. The build up to the event is just a small sticking point to punctuate the film, and doesn’t serve as a central focus. For the most part Shadows is concerned with the drudgery of day to day life as a vampire in the modern world. As a premise, this breathes new life into what would otherwise be tropes familiar to anyone familiar with family sitcoms or college comedies. The trio argue about dishes piling up, and what to wear on a night out on the town. Injecting these familiar situations with a sharp satire of vampire lore, strong performances and a great setting prevents anything from ever feeling rote, and for the most part nothing ever falls flat. Nothing ever transcends or leaps very high either. It’s an even handed ride of what I have to say is the best vampire sketch I’ve ever seen. 

One of the strongest  aspects of Shadows is the way it gleefully disintegrates the notion that vampires live an elevated, dangerous, and god like existence. Just as satanists in real life are less the stuff of black mages and demons, in this world vampires are a sad group of isolated nocturnal losers, who spend their time looking forward to social events held in the same halls as bar mitzvahs and AA meetings. Moments when the characters temporarily drop the gleeful air of foreboding and power they’ve put on for the cameras, and momentarily let slip their true feelings about their lives stand out. 

Despite everything it has going for it, without any truly compelling narrative to deliver, or any transcendent moments of, “These ones go to 11,” the whole experience feels a bit slack. The several small plot lines that are inserted throughout may even serve to dilute rather than focus the experience.  What We Do in The Shadows certainly can’t be accused of using the format to hide shortcomings, but it doesn’t use the documentary conceit to its fullest potential either.

Final Say: Watch it…on VOD or rental or something 

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He holds a BFA in writing for screen and television from the University of Southern California, and has co-writing credit for the indie-as-fuck feature film All Together Now. A fan of all things entertainment, he spends his free time watching TV, reading comic books, and cataloging a warehouse full of VHS tapes.
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