Immortality can’t all be glamorous cloak-swishing nights out or chases pursued by 15th century pitchfork-waving villagers. At some point someone has to sort out the recycling and wash up the blood-spattered plates.
Mockumentaries rarely get it completely right. Balancing out the laughs with situations that could actually be real, and which also propel the story forward, is trickier than it looks. Obviously in this case “real” depends on whether you believe in the undead, but What We Do In The Shadows is as real as it could be. Funny, clever, and – yes – offering a weirdly believable take on how the ancient undead can navigate modern life, it is also eminently quotable in a way that only the best comedies (Airplane, Life of Brian) are.
Four vampires are sharing a flat in Wellington, New Zealand, in the present day (think The Young Ones, only the youngest is 183 years old). As they search for victims and make half-hearted attempts to adapt their lifestyles to the 21st century, they are followed by a human documentary team, though you don’t need to worry about them as “each crew member wore a crucifix and was granted protection by the subjects of the film”.
It’s a movie that has you rooting for the undead but at the same time their murderous habits are never glossed over. The vampires think they are nice people, as far as their food requirements allow, and they get upset when things go wrong, though it has to be said that for them, “wrong” isn’t the actual killing bit. As one blood-drenched creature of the night says as his female victim slumps lifeless on the floor, and for whom death was always on the cards once she had entered his flat, “well that didn’t really go great, I hit the main artery. On the upside I think she had a really good time!”
As in all flatshares everyone has their allotted role, though their back stories are more impressive then the usual “I’m from Berkshire then I went travelling in my gap year and now I’m at uni studying Agriculture” stuff.
379 year old Viago (Taika Waititi) is the one who keeps their home in some kind of good order. Fastidious when it comes to housekeeping (all I can say is if you’re ever in New Zealand and your new boyfriend starts putting down newspapers before kissing your neck, run, run like the wind), he was a dandy before becoming a vampire. Pitching up in New Zealand several years previously in pursuit of the woman he loved, he pines for her to this day even though she married and is now in her 90s.
Petyr (Ben Fransham) is silent and scary. Several thousand years old, he looks like Nosferatu with a full set of hideous yellow pointy teeth and a bald head. He sleeps in the basement in a stone coffin and rarely takes part in house events or meetings.
Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is 832. Turned at 16, he now looks like an ageing Harry Styles (his image is “dead but delicious”). He has apparently mellowed since his early days of tyranny and torture – and a run-in with his nemesis The Beast has dented his confidence and his vampiric abilities.
A mere 183, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) sees himself as the hip one and is convinced he is cool. Turned after being taken to a castle and forced to suck the blood of a vampire, Deacon relates how his killer then loomed over him shouting “‘Now you are VAMPIRE!’ And it was Petyr! and we’re still friends today!”.
There’s a peculiar morality at work here. Although Deacon’s servant and Familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) procures victims based on their wickedness to add a sheen of retributive justice to proceedings, their crimes seem rather vague and based entirely on slights or perceived slights done to her, sometimes decades earlier.
And the documentary team don’t intervene but merely watch and record, like wildlife film makers who stand by as a cute fluffy baby animal is is eaten by a predator as part of the great Circle of Life (though the furore over that would probably be greater than the death here of a school bully).
There are two sides to vampiredom of course. Immortal life can be both a blessing and a curse, partly, like life itself, depending on your flatmates. Learning to fly is a blast, and many an hour can be whiled away playing wth objects in a mirror when you yourself are un-reflectable. Bleeding from the eyes and suppressing the urge to eat your human friends is not such fun. Poor Viago occasionally wears a silver locket his girlfriend gave him, keeping it round his neck until his skin blisters and he can bear it no longer.
The vampires aren’t the only undead in Wellington. They have an ongoing snarky relationship with a pack of local werewolves who they bump into on occasion. The werewolves seem more grown up then the several-hundred-year-old vampires, who goad the wolfmen with jokes about crotch-sniffing. By contrast the lupine leader reminds his pack that they are “werewolves not swearwolves” when one keeps on lowering the tone. In fact the werewolves in particular seem to be trying to live according to modern values, while not denying their pack mentality. “I’m the Alpha Male!” announces the leader of the Wellington Werewolves, before trailing off into a rather Beta “so… generally… all the other guys follow me…”
The vampires are more stuck in the past though newly turned vampire Nick offers a chance to move forward. He introduces them to his still-human friend Stu, who they try try hard not to eat as he seems nice and also helps them with technology. “If we press Images we can see pictures of virgins” he helpfully informs them during a laptop demo.
Like the best undead comedies, What We Do In The Shadows shines a light on old beings having to adapt to modern life. And despite the laughs the film also touches on the loneliness of the Immortal – “this is what happens when you are a vampire, you have to watch everyone die” says Deacon, though even this melancholy statement is lightened with a long list of ways mortals meet their end, from the bizarre (falling into autumn leaves which then “block your windpipe”) to simply getting older.
What We Do In The Shadows is perfectly paced, and perfectly pitched. Like all the best scary and/or funny films there’s also a message and as usual it’s about overcoming difference and everyone learning to rub along together – though in this blissful case without a po face in sight (except perhaps the Edgar Allan variety).