J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows: When You Can’t Kill Your Roommates, Because They’re Already Undead

Viago definitely needs a laundry detergent that gets out blood stains. Even though his housemates are just as apt to cause them, he is the only one who is really good about doing the chores. Mundane Real World-ish conflicts get bloody in Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement’s sly spoof What We Do in the Shadows (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With a firm agreement and the traditional protections against vampires in place, a crew from the New Zealand Documentary Board will produce a vérité record of the goings-on inside a vampire house somewhere in the suburbs of Wellington. Viago, a natty Eighteenth Century gentleman, will be the most welcoming and loquacious. We will also get to know Vladislav, an eight hundred year-old torturer and impaler, who has mellowed and recent years, and the relatively young Deacon, who is still trying to forget an ill-advised dalliance with the occult-obsessed National Socialists. They also live with the 8,000 year-undead Petyr, who has pretty much gone the full Nosferatu by now. He doesn’t do chores—and nobody hassles him over it.

Deacon has a human familiar who periodically brings over prospective victims, but when Petyr accidentally turns Nick, they reluctantly welcome him into their lair. They quickly tire of his crass and obnoxious behavior, but continue to cut him slack for the sake of his human Stu. They all grow quite fond of the computer-consultant human, even though it was strictly against the rules to tell him about the whole vampire thing.

Although Waititi and Clement worked from a broad outline, the film is essentially improvised. It is entirely understandable if that puts you on your guard, but Shadows is consistently funny, probably because it never feels like it is trying too hard. They just let the humor flow naturally from the vampire Big Brother house situation. Whenever it starts to slacken, Waititi & Clement splatter about some blood and the film is back in business.

Waititi (a.k.a. Taika Cohen) perfectly sets the tone as the guileless and old-fashioned Viago. Despite his ghoulishly predatory nature, he is strangely likable, as is the entire film. Clement appropriately hams it up as the gothy Vlad and Ben Fransham’s desiccated Petyr is creepy as heck, but the film is really about friendship and acceptance of others’ differences.

Eventually, Wellington’s zombie population turns up, but it is really the pack of werewolves who steal the show. Just about every monster movie convention gets tweaked here and there, but it never feels like Shadows is forcing the issue to tick off another box. It is relaxed filmmaking in a way that really works. Highly recommended for vampire fans. What We Do in the Shadows opens this Friday (2/13) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

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