What We Do in the Shadows is a found footage horror comedy co-written and -directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi. The film was preceded by a much rougher half-hour short film What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires, featuring much of the same cast and some of the same scenes.
Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonny Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) are four vampires sharing a flat in modern-day Wellington. Viago, transformed as an 18th century dandy, is friendly and charmingly awkward. Vladislav is a former Vlad the Impaler-esque warlord, still coping with a shameful defeat at the hand of his archenemy “the Beast.” Deacon is the young (only 195 years old), handsome, and allegedly suave vampire, a subtle skewering of Twilight. At 8,000 years old, Petyr is mute and monstrous in appearance, primarily residing in a tomb in the basement, calling to mind the Nosferatu style vampire. They are eventually joined by Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maceur), a young man they intended to only be a meal, but was turned into a vampire by Petyr.
An opening title card informs us that a small documentary crew (each protected by a crucifix) has been granted access to the flatmates to film them in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, a gathering of undead creatures. There are other subplots, including Viago’s human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) pressing him to turn her into a vampire; the vampires’ affection for Nick’s human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford); Viago’s unrequited love for the human woman he followed from Europe to New Zealand; Vladislav’s hatred for the mysterious “Beast”; and the vampires’ rivalry with a group of werewolves, who do their best to be polite and control their animal nature (reminding each other to watch their language by repeating “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves”). All of these various plot threads come to a head on the night of the Masquerade, in a climax equal parts dramatic and hilarious.
The film deftly parodies tropes of vampire fiction and documentaries, to hilarious effect. At the same time, it presents scenes of genuine drama and pathos, often mingled with comedy, without undermining either element. In one notable scene, Deacon describes to a grief-stricken Nick the dark side of being a vampire, namely being forced to watch human friends and family inevitably die—from typical causes of death, such as “making the simple mistake of fashioning a mask out of crackers and being attacked by ducks.” Even while the audience is laughing, they are simultaneously struck by the underlying sadness of the vampires’ existence.
Co-writer/director Jermaine Clement is probably the cast and crew member best known outside of New Zealand as a member of the comedy band Flight of the Conchords, who starred in an HBO series of the same name. As for his fellow writer/director, since the release of What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi has broken through in Hollywood. He is one of the writers of the soon-to-be-released Disney film Moana (Waititi being himself part Maori), and is also currently directing the third entry in Marvel’s Thor series, Thor: Ragnarok. Shadows follows in the proud tradition of other well-received offbeat Kiwi horror comedies, such as Housebound, Black Sheep, and Peter Jackson’s delightfully blood-splattered Braindead.
A sequel to What We Do in the Shadows is currently in development, tentatively titled We’re Wolves. The film will focus on the further adventures of the group of werewolves. Although few details have been released, it appears as if Waititi and Clement will return as writer/directors, as well as actors Rutherford and Rhys Darby (Anton, the werewolf pack’s alpha).
Obviously, being a comedy, Shadows is entitled to a greater deal of leeway in terms of realism. The movie’s side-splitting humor distracts from most inconsistencies and plot holes and convinces the audience to excuse the ones which are blatant. The film clearly isn’t taking itself too seriously, so it is difficult for the audience to hold it to the same standards of strict realism that would be expected from a non-comedic found footage film.
Of course, the central challenge to realism and immersion is the film’s basic premise: that a documentary crew has been granted access to follow the flatmates, despite their apparent attempts to live a life of secrecy and their regularly murdering human beings in front of the cameras. Waititi and Clement don’t make any attempt to justify the absurdly unrealistic setup because they don’t need to. This mixture of visceral realism and absurdity is the key to the film’s comedy.
To its credit, Shadows does not scrimp on special effects. The creature effects for Petyr are excellent and even genuinely scary. The scenes where the vampires fly or transform, as well as the gore effects, are realistic, especially considering that as a comedy it could have gotten away with less-than-perfect visual effects. Visual and special effects supervisors Stan Alley and Doug Falconer (respectively) have worked on productions including Avatar, The Avengers, and the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. The werewolf transformation effects are also top-notch, designed by accomplished effects artist Steve Boyle.
Reason for Filming
The documentarians in What We Do in the Shadows are one of the least involved or developed crews in found footage. None of them are named, none say a word, and one of them is only seen very briefly towards the end of the film. The film never describes how the documentary crew found out about the vampires or how they convinced the vampires to let them film—or if the vampires asked them. The crew notably never makes any attempt to intervene when they are filming humans being killed in front of them.
The movie is centered around a bald-facedly ridiculous premise: vampires stalk the streets of contemporary Wellington and a documentary crew is following them. This being a comedy, the film is completely aware of the ludicrous implausibility of this conceit. At one point, the script even hangs a lampshade on it. Nick is confronted by the other flatmates for telling everyone that he is a vampire. Incredulous, he protests that they have a documentary crew following them. The others move right along without acknowledging his point. The fact that the real filmmakers are aware of the weak reason for filming makes any implausibility much less distracting than it would be for the audience, were the film taking itself seriously.
The way in which the cameramen interact with their subjects also feeds into the satirical edge to the film. The crew films with the same detachment as if they were shooting any random group of flatmates sharing an interesting quirk. That quirk, in this case, involves killing innocent people. The crew treats these murders as casually as the vampires do, adding to the surreal comedy. This is the rare found footage film which actually justifies a weak filming reason within the premise and theme of the story itself. It’s an interesting combination and proves that the found footage format can be a strong vehicle for comedy.
Found Footage Purity
The film contains a brief, but stylish opening credits sequence. Many found footage films will make the error here of including credits for writers, directors, or directors of photography which yank out of the film by reminding them that what they’re watching is fictional. Shadows, however, cleverly includes only production credits and the opening title screen, as would be consistent in an ordinary documentary. As a frequent viewer of found footage, it is refreshing to see a film avoid this common pitfall.
Although, as mentioned above, the film handled its opening credits well, the ending credits are more inconsistent. While credits for cast and writers scroll by, we are shown clips which are meant to be genuine documentary footage. This is the largest breach of found footage purity in the film, but the impact isn’t terribly jarring, coming as it does after the end of the film proper. And, again, the clips themselves are hilarious, making it difficult to be bothered by the wandering from found footage purity.
Overall, the cinematography is consistent with that of a traditional documentary of this type. The simplicity of the cinematography enables viewers to focus on the thematic elements of the film, namely the humor and horror. Images such as Nick vomiting geysers of blood beside a dumpster or Viago cheerfully brushing Petyr’s rat-like teeth are presented starkly and unadorned, rendering them simultaneously more disturbing and hilariously absurd.
One scene, however, does break from the documentary approach used for most of the film. For a few minutes, the film switches to a “re-enactment” segment (labeled as such) in which the documentary crew convince their subjects to re-enact a dramatic scene which the cameras were not present for. In addition to the “Dramatic Re-enactment” subtitle, the scene is differentiated from the “real footage” by being shot in black and white.
What We Do in the Shadows has no true defined beginning, middle, and end. The documentary effectively captures a slice-of-life of its vampire subjects—wandering between points of interest, sliding over periods of time. The story is propelled through strong character development and hints of foreshadowing. The opening title cards introduce the Unholy Masquerade, providing the audience with a point of reference for where the film will eventually head.
Part of the film’s strength lies in the way it combines comedy with darker and even genuinely horrifying moments. This is best illustrated in an early scene where Viago is preparing to feed on a human victim. While she talks about her plans for the future, he lays down newspaper to avoid getting blood on his antique couch. However, the disturbing mood is offset when Viago accidentally bites into her jugular vein and sprays himself and the entire room in blood. The scene is capped off with the surreal image of the sheepish, blood-drenched vampire holding a roll of paper towels, a tableau which captures the film’s bizarre, yet hilarious tone.
Hardcore vampire fans will be pleased by how Clement and Waititi manage to cram in nearly every popular vampiric trope. They are repelled by crosses, burst into flames in sunlight, can’t touch silver, sleep in coffins or hanging upside down, have fangs, have the powers of hypnosis and flight, cannot enter a building without being invited, can transform into animals, particularly bats, and are natural enemies of werewolves. As much as they mercilessly lampoon these tropes and cliches, What We Do in the Shadows possesses the crucial ingredient of all great parodies: a genuine fondness for the subject, which projects loud and clear in every scene.
What We Do in the Shadows ends on a surprisingly, uncomplicatedly upbeat note, with every plot thread neatly and satisfyingly tied up. Some audience members may view this ending as a cop-out, given the pitch-black comedic tone of the preceding film. In truth, though, the twist in tone adds to the film’s offbeat and unpredictable character. Once again, the humor is derived from juxtaposition of contrasting elements. Despite all of the horror and darkness of the character’s lives—they are all still murderers and monsters—they end up happy, and Clement and Waititi succeed in making us happy for them.
All of the cast turn in believable and naturalistic performances. Jemaine Clement is the most well-known actor from in his work in Flight of the Conchords. His “known” status could potentially distract from the found footage conceit, but Clement is made much less recognizable with the addition of his thick mustache and an ambiguously-Eastern European accent. Clement is tasked with portraying the unique character of a sadistic medieval warlord transported to the banal modern world, and succeeds in playing Vladislav as charmingly lame, while still maintaining an edge of menace.
Waititi’s Viago is even more loveable, forming the heart of the film. Even though Nick is ostensibly meant to be the audience surrogate, Viago is perhaps even more relatable. He seems closest to the camera crew, informing them (and therefore the audience) about the vampires’ lives with an earnest sweetness. Chilean-born stand-up comic and occasional actor Cori Gonzalez-Maceur plays Nick as clearly unlikeable (or, as Deacon accurately describes him, “such a dick”), but never lets himself become insufferable or unpleasant to watch. In smaller roles Jackie van Beek (Jackie) and Rhys Darby (Anton), turn in hilarious performances.
The film’s surprise star is Stu Rutherford as Stu, Nick’s human best friend. Nick reveals his transformation to Stu, only for Stu to be utterly underwhelmed, with the rest of the vampires coming to like him far more than they do Nick. Aside from a very brief cameo in another Waititi production, What We Do in the Shadows is Rutherford’s first role, having previously worked in software. The part (that of an IT guy named Stu) was written especially for Rutherford. Right out of the gate, Rutherford turns in a hilariously understated performance, which will hopefully get more time to shine in the upcoming sequel.