Review first published by EyeforFilm
Where television’s Flight of the Conchords (2007-9), starring its co-writer Jemaine Clement and occasionally directed by Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark, Boy), concerned a pair of clueless New Zealand musicians lost, confused and trying to get by in New York City, What We Do In The Shadows, on which Clement and Waititi serve as co-writers, co-directors and co-stars, plays like an undead inversion of that dynamic, focused as it is not just upon old-world European outsiders trying to fit into modern New Zealand, but upon vampires trying to find accommodation with their would-be victims.
Viago (Waititi) is an 18th century dagger-toothed dandy who made his way Down Under for a love that seemed destined never to be. Eight-hundred-and-twenty-year-old Vladislav (Clement), aka Vlad the Poker is, as Viago describes him, “a great guy, a bit of a pervert”, with a penchant for medieval torture – but ever since an emasculating clash with his legendary arch-nemesis The Beast, he has lost his mojo for mesmerism and metamorphosis. By far the oldest of the bunch, Pyotr (Ben Fransham) is a Nosferatu type who generally keeps himself to himself behind a stone slab in the cellar – while 185-year-old ex-merchant Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) has remained his faithful friend ever since, centuries earlier, Petyr turned him.
Drawn together by their common provenance and tastes, these four vampires have been flat-sharing in Wellington for decades – but when local lad Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), bitten by Petyr, joins their ranks, Viago, Vladivar and Deacon decide to take this fledgling bloodsucker under their batwing and show him their weird ways, even as he introduces them to the club scene. Meanwhile Nick’s utterly human best friend, the data analyst Stu (Stu Rutherford), becomes everyone’s improbable best friend, primarily by showing them how to find virgins on computer dating sites.
In this fish-out-of-water comedy, mundanity is key. Not only do we watch these misfits of the night struggling to negotiate all the usual tensions of house-sharing and the everyday challenges of post-millenial New Zealand life, but we also see their peculiarly outlandish behaviours and abilities rendered all the more absurd by the sheer banality of their surroundings. That all this is presented as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with an unseen human film crew inexplicably shooting all their night-after-night exploits, to-camera diaries and botched blood-lettings, only heightens, through an improbable naturalism, the comically surreal effects of defamiliarisation.
Here the conventional ‘normality’ of New Zealand grounds all these undead antics into something like reality, while itself becoming richer and stranger before our very eyes – as though this most marginalised and un-gothic of nations genuinely could be playing host to a multicultural menagerie of vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies, all trying to find their place in a post-colonial society where native and immigrant cultures have long been living side by side. This is, in the end, a story of (undead) assimilation.
Drawn from over 125 hours of improvised footage – the actors were never shown the script – What We Do In The Shadows is 89 minutes of sharp mockumentary hilarity, exposing the oddest of horror motifs and myths to a puncturing modernity. And all this without a single fang pun…