What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

“I think we drink virgin blood because it sounds cool.”

Drew’s rating: Back from the dead and loving it.

Drew’s review: Well! It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?

One hundred and eighty-three, to be exact, since Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) became undead, making him the young “bad boy” of a group of vampires who love, feast, and cohabitate in Wellington, a small New Zealand city. Deacon’s roommates include foppish Viago (Taiki Waititi), who seems like he’d rather give you a glass of milk and a hug than drain your blood (and who can never master that damned main artery); Vladislav the Poker (Jemaine Clement), feared throughout the Middle Ages for his pointy implements (he was in a dark place); and 8,000-year-old Nosferatu Petyr. In the grand tradition of mockumentaries, they’re all colossal dorks and weirdos who consider themselves extremely cool.

Because WWDITS is very much in the vein (har har) of earlier mockumentaries, co-directors Waititi and Clement do for vampires what This is Spinal Tap did for rock music or Best in Show for dog shows. The slight plot is mainly an excuse for humorous vignettes.

In brief, a crucifix-bedecked film crew documents the (un)lives of four vampire roomies in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, an annual gathering of Wellington’s vampires, witches, and zombies. Viago pines for his lost human lover and feels bad about the rich, full lives his victims were planning to have. Vladislav hopes to be named Guest of Honour at the Masquerade, but is having difficulty maintaining an… illusion ever since his humiliating battle with “The Beast.” Deacon has probably the most fertile plotlines, between abusing his put-upon human servant Jackie and feeling threatened by Nick, the new vampire who knows about computers and can actually get them into the cool clubs.

To the surprise of no one who saw Waititi’s wonderful Thor: Ragnorak, he and Clement have crafted an extremely funny film. These days, it’s not a novel approach to focus on the humanity of vampires, showing they can be just as petty, vain, and foolish in death as they were in life. (Hell, James Marsters owes his career to it.) But in most modern works, that pettiness takes the form of bloody turf wars or centuries-old grudges… not squabbles about who hasn’t done the dishes for five years, or whether dragging a corpse down the hall qualifies as sweeping it. (I say yes, but don’t tell my wife!)

The majority of WWDITS’s humor comes from mining a vampire’s traditional attributes and weaknesses for laughs. For instance, if they don’t cast reflections, why are they always so perfectly coiffed and dressed? (Our guys’ solution is to tell each other whether an outfit is working, sometimes accompanied by crude drawings on notebook paper.) If you have to be invited into every building, that rather limits your ability to hunt in the best clubs and restaurants, doesn’t it? And of course, what do you do when you’re flexing on a werewolf pack and they don’t fall for the old “pretend to throw an invisible ball” trick?

For all the laughs, though, there are a couple moments of near poignancy, even as they ultimately feed into more jokes. You actually feel a little bad upon learning Viago came to New Zealand because he fell in love with a human girl, only to arrive after she’d already married someone else. (His familiar put the wrong postage on his coffin.) And Cori Gonzalez-Macuer does a nice job of selling Nick’s mounting depression once the initial thrill of vampirism wears off, as he realizes what he’s lost: not seeing the sun anymore, watching his friends and family grow old and die, and of course, never being able to eat fries again. Truly, the curse of the undead!

If, like me, you’re a weenie when it comes to gore, fear not – despite the image above, WWDITS isn’t overly bloody. There are three scenes with fake blood spraying wildly, but it’s always played for comedic effect. Likewise, this is very much a pure comedy, not a horror/comedy hybrid. I wouldn’t watch it with kids around, but all but the weakest of stomachs should be fine.

In terms of criticisms, there aren’t a lot. The special effects are okay – most of the budget looks to have been spent on the human-to-bat transformations, leaving about $23 for the werewolf costumes. But that’s fine… you’re not seeing the movie for its groundbreaking visuals, you’re here for the humor. The bit about Deacon having been a Nazi vampire feels like an attempted joke that didn’t quite land, and probably should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. And some of the plotlines are less fleshed out, particularly Jackie’s frustration over Deacon’s dismissiveness. (Though I will never not laugh at her grousing that if she had a penis, she’d have been made a vampire years ago.)

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that WWDITS has spawned a small expanded universe, most notably a TV show that just wrapped its second season. I was skeptical upon learning it stars an all-new group of vampires (though keep your eye peeled for the occasional cameo); but that ceased to be a problem after an episode or two, because the television actors and their characters are amazing, and the show engages in the kind of long-form storytelling that’s just not possible with film. Come for the awesome theme song (“You’re Dead” by Norma Tanega, borrowed from the movie), stay for Matthew Berry OVer-enUNciating the BLOOdy hell out of every word, old chap.

So yes, definitely give WWDITS a viewing. It’s witty, well written, and isn’t afraid to take the piss out of itself when needed. And without it, you’ll forever be denied the simple joy of a BAT FIGHT! Whoo!

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