A few weeks ago I posted my list of the best movies of 2014. Undoubtedly some of you wondered about my #3 ranking, What We Do in the Shadows, written, directed by, and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. Well wonder no more, shut-ins, societal outcasts, and other fans of Entertainmental. What We Do is finally at the Darkside Cinema.
The premise of this oddball comedy is simple: a mockumentary about a house of roommates who happen to be vampires. It’s so simple, in fact, that it lulls you into a false sense of “Oh brother, this is a film school idea…” This type of high concept is, not to overuse a Blackeyed Peas phrase, so 2000-and-late. But the twist on this sort of worn premise is that they’re living in Wellington, New Zealand, and they’re all hilarious and amazing.
I know that was effusive but I can’t overstate how perfect the cast is in this film.
The four vampires live in contemporary Wellington, and the youngest of them, Deacon, is 183. So the movie is about fitting in, at its heart. It can be hard to make friends when you can’t go out in the sun and you’re way, way older than everyone.
The first of the house we meet is the dandy, Viago, a well-dressed 379-year-old optimist who wants to find love while also maintaining order in the house. There’s also Deacon, the young hot shot; Vladislav, who is 862, and is sort of the Bram Stoker type; and Peter, who is 8,000 and is in his full-on Nosferatu stage of life. This is one of the brilliant decisions Clement and Waititi made with the script: to make the vampires of different class, background, and age, without explicitly tying any of them to a particular property. Each of them has elements of classic vampire lore within them, but they are of varying levels of skill and creepiness based on their age and type, and they all share a certain loneliness and self-consciousness. This makes for an amazing Odd Couple meets Friends roommate dynamic that carries their mostly light adventures, which include clubbing, dating/eating (which for a vampire is often the same thing), and interacting with the greater occult community. The topic of turning new vampires is deftly handled, and provides one of the best of many likable storylines.
The film is carefully constructed, despite the feel of improvisation and the documentary styling, and it’s surprisingly effects laden. The camera work and special effects are particularly impressive highpoints of the production and are so judiciously applied that they fit seamlessly with the rest of the production.
But the thing that really carries the whole package to the mountaintop is the performances. Waititi, who stars as Viago, is a revelation. I haven’t seen much of his work, but this is a star-making turn that should make him a household name in the US soon enough. Clement, who plays Vlad, is already a star mostly from his brilliant comedy band Flight of the Conchords. He is so devastatingly perfect as the lothario with old fashioned ideas about the world that he steals nearly every scene he’s in. Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko, and Stuart Rutherford round out a sublime ensemble that should have you curious about the New Zealand comedy scene.
And that’s part of the brilliance of What We Do in the Shadows, it’s also about getting lost in a small place, which is what loneliness can feel like. New Zealand is a small and unique country, not much larger than Oregon, and the film is at once a paean to it and a criticism, which uses it as a character in the film. This brings the film’s plot and themes over the top of an ordinary mockumentary. It also doesn’t hurt that it stays fresh and laugh-out-loud funny throughout.
Whether they’re making fun of stuffy vampire movie cliches or making subtle social commentary, as with their rivalry with a pack of werewolves, or Deacon’s “familiar” Jackie, who serves him in the desperate hope that he’ll one day turn her, Shadows bounds from one scene to the next with effervescent energy.
So again I enjoin you, hermits and miscreants, go see your kindred spirits at the Darkside. What We Do in the Shadows needs to see the light of day.
What We Do in the Shadows is playing at the Darkside Cinema. Tickets and show times are available at www.darksidecinema.com.
By Ygal Kaufman