What We Do in the Shadows
If you’re a fan of the way The Office or Parks and Recreation was filmed, this is the comedy for you. It’s always the first film I recommend to people with Amazon Prime memberships because it’s free to stream and absolutely amazing.
Set up as a documentary sponsored by a New Zealand state agency, the crew follows four flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand as they lead up to the biggest social event of the year. They just happen to be vampires. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, star as two of the roommates. Waititi’s character – Viago – introduces the audience to the house and the other vampires living there at the start of the film. The mockumentary contains an entertaining balance of history, vampire legend, showing how these undead characters blend into modern New Zealand culture, and mundane housemate squabbles.
The four flatmates are Viago, Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham). Arguably the best part about this comedy is how each person represents a different type of vampire and/or a different period of history. Viago is the dandy vampire, who comes from the 18th century and cares a great deal about cleanliness and appearances. Vladislav is over 800 years old and the “sex god” depiction of a vampire; lover of torture and orgies, he was known at least at one point in history as “Vladislav the Poker” (which leads to an amusing gag later in the film when he’s introduced to Facebook pokes for the first time). Deacon is the young, party animal vampire who is a mere 183 years old and is suspiciously reminiscent of The Lost Boys. Finally, Petyr is an 8,000 year old, Nosferatu-style vampire who has a penchant for leaving discarded bones scattered about and turning victims into new vampires.
It is endlessly entertaining watching these different personalities and eras of history coexist in the same space. Each one escaped or left Europe for a different reason, and they have created their own little family in New Zealand. This mixture of typical vampire tropes keeps the humor fresh and the altercations that crop up from culture clashes endless.
The primary plot arch, the given reason for the documentary, is the upcoming Unholy Masquerade. The entire undead community of New Zealand is invited to this annual social event, and Vladislav is expecting to be The Guest of Honor this year. However, his archrival “The Beast” is named instead, and the film expertly offers teases as to who and what The Beast may be before the reveal towards the end of the movie. Although this is the main driving force and motivation for the film, this does get lost a bit during the antics of the flatmates. A large portion of the development of the plot continues without mentioning or tying in the Masquerade. This isn’t bothersome in the moment, as you’re so amused with watching these characters navigate their daily lives in a ridiculous fashion, but it becomes apparent upon reflection of the film.
The subplot is the more entertaining part anyway. Deacon’s female servant, who he’s leading on under the premise of giving her eternal life, is ordered to bring over a couple of friends for a “dinner party.” She drops off the victims, a woman and a man, who sit through an uncomfortable pretend dinner. The man, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), gets fed up and tries to escape. After being chased all throughout the house, he finally manages to get outside and seems to be in the clear, but Petyr gets to him and turns him into a vampire as well. At this point, the documentary crew begins to follow Nick as well, chronicling his transformation and how he learns to cope with his new life.
With Nick being a brand new vampire, he’s more familiar with Twilight than he is with the older vampire legends, and he struggles to gain acceptance from the flatmates. His cocky attitude and large mouth is off-putting to the group who understands the importance of keeping their true identities under wraps. However, he is able to get them into new nightclubs to find victims and brings them into the modern era via his best friend. Stu (Stuart Rutherford) is a human who takes Nick’s new identity in incredible stride. It’s normally a huge no-no to invite a human into a vampire lair, but Stu wins over all four roommates much faster than Nick himself is able to. Stu introduces them to such things as the Internet, Skype, digital cameras, and television.
Stu becomes so popular that he snags himself an invitation as a plus one to the Masquerade. The culmination of the film happens there, when the flatmates have to work together to escape and save Stu’s life from the rest of the New Zealand undead community. Unfortunately, on their way home they run into a pack of werewolves about to transform during a full moon. Deacon has an unfortunate habit of picking fights with this pack, and his taunting has disastrous ramifications. The resulting chase ends in both Stu and a cameraman falling victim to the vicious werewolves.
There are so many small additions and small asides in this mockumentary that make it into a complete masterpiece. The delivery of the lines has an improvisational feel to them, and really beautifully showcases the prowess of these comedians. The total commitment to even the most ridiculous aspects of their characters leads to some of the funniest moments of the film; including hissing spats where the roommates fly at each other and an erotic dance Deacon performs for the other vampires before they’ve been introduced to television and other forms of entertainment.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- The source music is what shines in this film. Waititi and Clement decided to go local for the original music, hiring the New Zealand-based trio Plan 9. However, there is also a massive amount of source music used in this film. This really benefitted the mockumentary angle because it really reinforced the idea that this was a low budget documentary. There were no sweeping orchestral themes or driving synth pulses that continued throughout the film acting as thematic glue – which was perfect for this style of film.
- A strong concept is all you need for a strong score. Although there wasn’t a strong musical theme to unite the score, it still had a strong concept. The film intentionally cobbled together a variety of source cues along with Plan 9’s original music to give the effect that you’re actually viewing a real documentary. And the choices of source pieces really give evidence to how strongly this was conceptualized before the final product. Most of the music is not what you’d typically find at the surface of stock music libraries – they’re eclectic choices, which means they really had to know what they were looking for ahead of time.
- The range of both musical styles and emotions is enormous. Again, there was an impressive amount of really unique and eclectic source music cues included in the film. But there were also cues with medieval choir, sentimental piano, baroque orchestra, solo guitar, and a wide range of ethnic instruments. Not only do these differing styles give a massive amount of musical diversity, they also contribute to a wide range of emotional diversity. Each style tends to have a societally enforced emotion tied to it, and each cue in the film is used to take advantage of this. I’m sure the mockumentary angle made the wide range more aurally acceptable than in other films, but I do think it’s a super effective score.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- In a film where so much of the humor is deadpan, Stu reigns supreme. The addition of this human into the fold is pretty unexpected, but he really helps to further the plot. He seems like one of the extra asides when he’s first introduced, but you quickly come to realize that he’s much more important than a fleeting extra. And he almost never changes his expression the entire film; he does such a remarkable job of appearing as a fairly boring IT professional who is taking this new undead world he’s learning about in stride. In fact, the vampires end up learning much more from him than vice versa.
- The mixture of humor and legend is spot-on. The juxtaposition of the everyday with larger-than-life vampire lore is partially what makes this film so funny. You see clips of the vampires completing chores and performing various shenanigans, mixed with interviews of them lounging in chairs or cleaning up blood, mixed with historic stock footage of ancient evil beasts. It’s a beautiful blend that convinces you of its bona-fide documentary purpose, but still keeps you massively entertained all the way through. The range of characters they introduce and how they fit them into history – and then into modern society – is clearly well thought out and totally believable.
- It’s just a funny movie! The style of humor is one that I personally love, so it was easy for me to fall in love with this film. There are so many wacky things that happen to keep you on your toes. From the police investigating the flat while they’re being hypnotized to the struggles the vampires have with obtaining their victims, you’ll be laughing the whole time even if a human is bleeding out right in front of you!
This is definitely the perfect comedy to watch if you want a film with intelligent humor and a hint of history and mysticism. At the end of the day, it’s not a vampire movie; it’s a comedy. It’s got quite a bit of language, but as Anton (Rhys Darby) frequently reminds his pack, they’re “werewolves, not swearwolves.”