What We Do In The Shadows (Leeds International Film Festival) Review
For anyone who watched British TV in the late 90s the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary was something of a national institutional. In fact it was only due to the severely acute satire of The Office and People Like Us that the format receded from being omnipresent to just being merely popular. What We Do In The Shadows feels very much like a throwback to the heyday of those documentaries, perfectly capturing the look, feel, and inherent awkwardness of the form.
What We Do In The Shadows follows four vampire housemates living in suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. A film crew have been granted unlimited access to the vampires in the months leading up to Unholy Masquerade Ball, Wellington’s hottest undead function. As the event looms we get to know each vampire and discover just what there is to do for four undead bachelors in New Zealand.
The first of the vampires we are introduced to is Viago (played by director Taika Waititi). Viago is nearly four hundred years old and with his vague accent, foppish dress sense, and backstory built around a long lost love feels like something of a classically romantic vampire. The second vampire we meet is Vladislav (co-director Jemaine Clement), a tyrannical despot with a penchant for torture who was turned in the 11th Century. Next is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the young rogue of the group at a sprightly 183 years old and finally Petyr, an ancient, Nosferatu styled creature. Once the introductions have been made the film’s main goal becomes just hanging out with the characters as they about their (un)lives, the only real narrative thrust being the ever looming Unholy Masquerade Ball.
It is at this point that you will either engage or disengage with the film, as the film becomes essentially a collection of sketches. There is an underlying narrative which vaguely connects the different sketches, but anyone who requires at least a little momentum will find themselves becoming increasingly frustrated. What We Do In The Shadows is essentially a tapestry of a movie, each scene set up to showcase a specific joke or idea. Want to see a vampire bat fight? This film has a scene devoted to that. Want to catch a hypnotised cop be completely oblivious to the corpse of a vampire hunter crushed under the lid of a stone coffin, but be deeply distressed by health and safety violations? This film has that. You want to meet a bunch of werewolves who are trying to live with their curse by having a positive mental attitude and life coaching? This film has that. Want a vampire to wistfully remember his time as a part of Hitler’s army of Nazi vampires, with newsreel footage flashback? This film has that! The thing is that whilst the film is often very, very, funny it can sometimes lack an internal consistency. For example an early scene involving a house meeting crescendos with an argument over washing the dishes ends with two of the vampires in each others faces, but being vampires they’re both floating in mid-air. It’s a wonderful visual, and a great example of the quietly solid special effects that are found throughout the film, but the conflict between characters in that scene doesn’t show up anywhere else in the film.
At times the feel of the film is like watching a cut down season of a comedy show, which delights in callbacks but only really maintains consistency on an episode by episode basis. It is possibly a necessary evil of the mockumentary format, but What We Do In The Shadows often feels a little formless. Which is a shame as it’s exceptionally well made, with the lighting and set design creating a wonderful aesthetic, whilst the passive camerawork of the mockumentary is used to great comedic effect at times.In regards to the latter the film is very good at using the documentary as a tool of comedy without undermining the horror aesthetic.
There is also an obvious passion for vampires and their mythology which seeps into every frame of the film and if you’re coming from a similar place then you’ll find a lot to engage with. In fact the passion for and intricate understanding of the material being spoofed really does remind me of Clement’s work as part of Flight of the Conchords. What makes the songs and jokes in Conchords work is knowing the rhythm and energy that made the original successful. Stuff like ‘Inner City Living’ (a pitch perfect Pet Shop Boys parody that is able to both parody the West End Girls AND tell it’s own funny narrative) are perfect examples of this, and What We Do In The Shadows is able to walk a similar path.
My feeling is that What We Do In The Shadows is the epitome of a great crowd movie, it’s currently the top ranked movie in Leeds International Film Festival’s Audience Award, but I do have to wonder how the film will hold up away from the ebullient atmosphere of a packed screening. My feeling is that there is a thinness at the heart of the film and that it is going to end up as the kind of movie that is cannibalised on YouTube for decades to come, spawning a dozen individual scene uploads and a thousand more comments asking what the movie is.
What We Do In The Shadows is a genuinely charming exercise in what happens when smart, funny, passionate people pour all their energy into a project they really care about and it is the kind of movie that plays exceptionally well with a crowd. Despite it’s subject matters the film is exceptionally good natured and one of the distinct joys of the film is being with a set of characters who are a joy to spend time with.
What We Do In The Shadows was screened as part of Leeds International Film Festival’s Day of the Dead Programme. More information about the festival can be found here. It will open across the country on 21st November 2014