What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Rating: B

Dir: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Star: Taika Waititi, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Rhys Darby, Ben Fransham

Almost a decade after this came out, Waititi is now one of the mainstays of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There hasn’t been such a meteoric rise for a New Zealand director since Peter Jackson – who is, coincidentally, about the first person thanked in the credits here – went from splatstick and puppet sex to the Oscars. Yet, as with Jackson, I can’t help feeling a little heart has, probably inevitably, been lost in Waititi’s product, when his budgets balloon to $250 million for Thor: Love and Thunder. This is about 150 times the cost here, and I’m not convinced the trade-off for polish and spectacle is worth it. The effects here are generally good enough for the purpose, and frankly, it’s a better story. Certainly one more worth telling.

Mind you, we have no small Waititi/Clement Cinematic Universe as well now. There’s the TV version of Shadows, which I expressed qualms about in my original review, yet which turned out very well, at least initially (after four seasons,  it feels like it’s heading quickly into dead horse territory). But I’d forgotten about the appearance here of Wellington police officers O’Leary and Minogue, deliciously concerned more about the absence of smoke alarms then the murder scene in the basement. They’d go on to their own show too, Wellington Paranormal. Sadly, the intended lycanthropic spin-off, We’re Wolves, appears to have been sacrificed on the “too busy” altar of Waititi’s Hollywood career. Perhaps he’ll revisit it, after the tepid reaction given to Love and Thunder.

As for this, I enjoyed it more than on the original viewing. Having gone into the WCCU, I have a better handle on the approach of Waititi and Clement, and wasn’t distracted by how unashamedly quirky this was. Seeing Waititi as Viago couldn’t help remind me of him playing Adolf Hitler in Jojo Rabbit. There’s the same sense of neurotic self-doubt, made up for in empty bluster. Discovering his half-Jewish background (he was born Taika Cohen) makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting to see the tweaks and adjustments made from the movie for the series. The addition there of female vampire Nadia is likely the most significant, and does help defuse what does end up feeling a bit of a sausage-fest.

Yet that’s perhaps kind of the point. The whole thing feels like the kind of flat-share of convenience into which you ended up fitting at college. You had one over-riding characteristic in common, be that being a student or a vampire, yet beyond it, the disparities were often bigger than the common attributes, and friction was the inevitable result. As Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) points out when chided about not doing the washing-up when it’s his turn, “Why does it matter? Vampires don’t do dishes!” Though you do wonder why he doesn’t just order his familiar to do them. Her yearning to be a vampire echoes that of Guillermo in the spin-off series: gender-swapping that character negates a somewhat creepy feel to that relationship here, especially in the #MeToo era.

It’s the little things in this that perhaps work best. For example, the sadness of new vampire Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer) discovering he can no longer enjoy his favourite food (top), sadly proclaiming: “I can’t even eat chips. Being a vampire sucks. Don’t believe the hype.” Though next time you watch the scene, pay attention and you’ll notice that none of the clan cast a reflection – not just in the restaurant’s mirrors, but also in the top of the table on which they’re eating. That was, according to the makers, the film’s biggest special effect, requiring 80 hours to render, for a throwaway moment I’m sure 99% of viewers will have missed. You won’t get that kind of unrequited attention to detail in a Marvel movie.

This review is part of our October 2023 feature, 31 Days of Vampires.

[March 2015] Regardless of whether this is the first entry in the “vampire mockumentary” sub-genre – Belgium’s Vampires got there a full four years previously, though the origins here date back to a 2006 short film – this New Zealand effort does find fresh life in the undead, who come over as an adorable combination of incompetent and threatening. A group of vampires share a flat in Wellington, having to deal with all the usual issues, i.e. people not doing the washing-up when it’s their turn, as well as the additional ones due to their unconventional lifestyle, such as dealing with vampire hunters.

They range in age from the newly-minted Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer), to the archaic Petyr (Fransham), with Viago (Waititi) acting as the unofficial leader of the group. Which basically means he tries to enforce the cleaning rota, whines about the mess left by the others’ kills, and keep the group under the radar. Nick, however, is having issues coming to terms with his recent change, and friction results, not least when he turns a human minion into a vampire. The balance in this horror-comedy is tilted firmly toward the latter: Petyr, who is firmly in the Nosferatu rather than Twilight camp, is the only one vaguely threatening. Mostly, the targets are the results of trying to combine the vampire and modern environments. For instance, it’s hard to have a night out on the town, when you have to be invited in everywhere.

The best moments result from this interplay between the two sides, such as a police visit where Viago has to use his wobbly hypnotic skills to prevent them finding the corpses in the basement. Less effective are the efforts at portraying a whole paranormal subculture. The end of year get-together, combining vampires, witches and zombies, looks more like a night at a crap Goth club. Which, I suppose, may be part of the point [Viago has more than a touch of Chris Kattan from SNL‘s “Goth Talk” skits]. Still, there’s enough here to make for a gently amusing time, even if one awaits the eventual IFC spin-off series with dread.