Sunday 29 October 2017

From the archive: "What We Do in the Shadows"

What We Do in the Shadows is a very goofy way to shut the lid on a coffin. Those vampire tropes reanimated by Twilight and True Blood towards the end of the last decade have already prompted their fair share of lampooning: most prominently in 2010’s Vampires Suck (about which the less said the better) and more adroitly in the same year’s Belgian comedy Vampires, which approached its bloodsucking clan in the same way reality-TV cameras have done the Kardashians and Osbournes. (There may be something of a bloodline there.)

Here, the team behind cult TV favourite Flight of the Conchords have cobbled together the budget and effects that might have made for a modest horror show, and instead turned them to more comic ends, with a mockumentary about an undead houseshare in latter-day Wellington. Within this sitcom set-up, we’re introduced to lovelorn dandy Viago (director Taika Waititi), self-styled “Nazi vampire” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), insistently vain Vladimir (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a Nosferatu who lives in the basement.

These guys have delusions of Gothic grandeur, and a very different concept of time to you or I (“You haven’t done the dishes for five years!”), yet their nights on the tiles are decidedly humdrum. Unable to get into clubs – a consequence of the vampire lore that says they have to be invited across the threshold of human properties – they wind up mooching around the streets, getting into amusingly petty scuffles with local werewolves. This may be the first vampire film to spot a downside to eternal life: long stretches of ennui.

Thankfully, we’re never quite so bored. Stepping up from the wearyingly thin quirks of his debut Eagle vs. Shark, Waititi happily delivers full-blooded splatter – taking a bite out of Peter Jackson’s early horror comedies, Shadows isn’t shy about showing what happens when its characters make a mess of an artery, or stumble into the sunlight – alongside rather more nimble visual invention, as in a pleasingly clunky, non-CG take on Inception’s running-up-the-walls sequence.

Waititi and Clement’s script shares its consistently funny ideas among a tightly drilled team of performers: beyond the central foursome, shoutouts should go to Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue as a supremely credulous pair of police officers, more concerned with the absence of smoke alarms at the vampires’ retreat than they are by the presence of fangs, and I liked Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s long-standing, put-upon familiar, wearily noting how vampirism has become something of a boys’ club (“If I had a penis, I’d have been bitten years ago”).

At this late stage in history, it can really only be a footnote, a sharp little cocktail stick playfully pushed towards the heart of a genre that has been prone to humourlessness. Yet anyone unmoved by the Twilight franchise’s relentless romanticism may well find its bathos refreshing, to say the least: asked for early thoughts on his new vampire lifestyle, laddish victim Stu (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) shrugs, “I just thought it was some German thing these blokes do.”

(MovieMail, November 2014)

What We Do in the Shadows screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.

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