What We Do in the Shadows - review

by Graham Adams / 18 June, 2014
What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement


I wasn’t a fan of Taika Waititi’s 2010 coming-of-age drama Boy and its wildly uneven tone, and even less so of his 2007 oddball romcom Eagle vs Shark, which struck me as an extended piece of film-school self-indulgence. So, I approached What We Do in the Shadows warily. I was also mindful that mockumentaries and vampire films are well-picked-over genres. But Shadows turned out to be inventive, pitch perfect in tone, always amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

It centres on a Wellington flat inhabited by four bloodsuckers – Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham). They have all the problems of normal flatmates as well as more intractable ones. Dishes can pile up for five years before anyone takes lazy flatmates to task and there is also the issue of cleaning up blood on the floor (and occasionally all over the walls).

The toothy quartet also have vampires’ usual allergy to sunlight (leading inevitably to a “fatal sunlight attack”), the boredom that immortality brings and their customary inability to cast a reflection, which makes dressing up for a night on the town a hit-and-miss affair since mirrors are no use and they have to rely on each other’s assessments of their outfits.

Viago arrived in New Zealand 60 years ago, but took a year in transit to arrive since the coffin he was travelling in was incorrectly addressed. Waititi plays the 370-year-old dandy and “flat mother” with a conspiratorial, beguiling tone that functions as a dog-whistle to let the audience know that he knows himself this is all a little strange.

The flatmates’ inner circle is expanded by Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) turning into a vampire via Petyr’s attentions. His “coming out” to his friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford) – an awkward, pink-cheeked, thoroughly human computer geek – is hilarious, perfectly echoing the overly chummy melodrama of TV reality shows.

While Waititi is the standout, all the cast put in faultless performances, not least the second-stringers such as Jackie van Beek playing Deacon’s familiar. And there’s the dead-pan, dead-funny Rhys Darby as the alpha male of a pack of werewolves, who provide some of the film’s funniest scenes when they confront the vampires on the Wellington waterfront. They are fairly prissy werewolves, reminding each other not to use bad language “because we’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”, but everything changes under a full moon and the prissiness turns into pack mayhem.

Shadows is unapologetically a New Zealand film. Although the vampires have slight European accents, reflecting their Transylvanian past, the action is set in recognisable Wellington locations like Courtenay Place (complete with a debate about whether they should go to The Big Kumara or Boogie Wonderland for a night out).

And given the international pop culture obsession with vampires that the film lampoons, it should do well overseas too, if its enthusiastic receptions at the Sundance and Berlin festivals are any guide.

And in case you’re wondering how a fictional camera crew might survive an extended encounter with a group of vampires, they were given crucifixes before filming began to protect them.


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