Reality Bites: What We Do in the Shadows

02/11/2015 9:00 AM |
photo courtesy of Unison Films

What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Opens February 13 at the Landmark Sunshine

It was already a well-worn literary technique when Bram Stoker used it, presenting Dracula partly as a sheaf of firsthand accounts about a toothy phenomenon stalking Europe, and you might consider the vérité-style new film by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement to be only the latest attempt at true fiction. Tweaking a number of pretenses at realism, recent and not so recent, What We Do in the Shadows is a note-perfect comedy generally in the tag-along, self-absorbed style of a housemate reality show. But starting with that title—with its breathless implication of an investigative scoop—it’s also a parodic look at the absurdity of vampires in a contemporary age, which somehow mixes both lazy flatmates and terrified familiars (i.e., bound servants).

Framed as a product of the New Zealand Documentary Board—cameramen were granted immunity from being, well, eaten—our glimpse at how the undead half lives begins with cuddly, fussy, fuzzily German-accented Viago (Waititi). He takes us on his chipper morning rounds, waking up the others and chattering away in voiceover with the blithely mundane manner of hundreds of (living) TV-doc participants before him: “I just really like having a good time with my friends.” Like grumpy old cats, they squabble but stick together, and span an inhuman stretch of history in their eternal life: Vladislav (Clement) from the Middle Ages, Viago himself a dandy from the 18th century, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and finally Ben Fransham’s Petyr—the name, spoken, could belong to a software technician—who’s a hilariously preverbal example of the Noseferatu model, still in a stone crypt.

Viago et al. are, crucially, not even remotely bitter about how far their existence is from Translyvanian castles and villagers held in terrified thrall (they’re almost a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for the chill gentrification of Wellington, NZ). Broad-shouldered and imperiously mustachioed, Clement brings the goofy stature of characters from Flight of the Conchords; Brugh’s Deacon, obtuse about his familiar’s impatience about earning immortality for doing his shit work, adds an element of prickly unpredictability (though all are prone to hissing hover fights). And in fact, improvisation games are a key touchstone for the imaginative elaborations on vampirical daily life here—the sort of point-of-view exercises in which someone is told to offer a first-person account from an imagined, blinkered perspective.

Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is one more vampire that joins the group and threatens their secrecy by reckless boasts during the long nights out—clubgoing being a key social and nourishing activity. And one other name does in fact belong to a software technician: the hilariously ordinary Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a nervous human bystander who’s along for the ride and helps out with new technology. Clement and Waititi—who honed the film over several years, long after its supposed expiry date with the Twilight all-or-nothing-adolescent-angst empire—succeed through sharp, sometimes off-kilter one-liners rather than the supposedly squirm-inducing pauses of The Office or the broad-as-a-barn target practice of Christopher Guest. And I haven’t even mentioned the werewolves…