Review: What We Do in the Shadows – Vampire pastiche with limited bite

GIVEN the recent over-saturation of vampires in popular culture – perhaps second-only to zombies for most overused celluloid nasty – it was perhaps inevitable that they’d receive a lampoon that wasn’t written by faecal-obsessed manchildren.

One co-directed and co-written by the bespectacled half of Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement, is an even more enticing prospect. Teamed with Oscar-nominated Boy writer-director-star Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows should have been Clement’s riposte to bandmate Bret McKenzie’s Best Song Oscar for The Muppets.

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But that would be too simple, too Hollywood. The film thankfully avoids conventional parody, sticking instead to a fly-on-the-wall documentary style in the vein of This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show, but there really aren’t enough straight-up laughs to speak of.

Much of the comedy revolves around four (later five) vampires who, having absconded from Europe for various reasons (one for love, one for Nazism), have ended up living together in a decrepit manor house in Wellington, New Zealand.

The jokes play out like you’d expect they would. Petty domestic dramas are punctuated by the fact that, well, they’re vampires. When dandy Viago (Waititi) calls a house meeting, he admonishes Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) for not doing the dishes while Vladislav (Clement) looks on. “Vampires don’t do dishes!” Brugh replies, indignant. There’s a little too much of a knowing wink in lines like this, as if they expected the audience to uniformly mouth, “He’s right, you know, they don’t!”

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Once we get over the initial comic absurdity of vampiric housemates, there’s little left to hold on to. What made, say, Spinal Tap so good was how unsettlingly close to reality it was; the pretentious egotism of David St. Hubbins, for instance, felt uncannily close to actual rockstars of the time. Given its fictive templates, What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t quite have as solid a foundation to build upon in this regard.

This all sounds a little too negative though. The performances are great throughout, if a little broad, with all deploying a masterclass in deadpan. Clement in particular was born to do this sort of thing, but an underused highlight is put-upon familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), a human with aspirations to become a vampire who ends up “ironing their fucking frills”.

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The documentary conceit is brought up in the title cards and quickly forgotten, rarely asserting itself thereafter. An encounter with a group of werewolves (“not swearwolves”) lead by Conchords ‘manager’ Rhys Darby is one of the brighter spots, and the special effects like the levitating and the bat transformations are impressive considering its relatively low budget.

There are some neat plays on vampire lore, like when the gang have trouble getting into nightclubs because they have to be invited in. Twilight and The Lost Boys get namechecked, mainly to verify that they’re things with vampires in them.

The problem is, for all the times it’s directly amusing, the titters rarely make the leap into full-blown laughs. It feels like a patchwork of conceptually funny scenes that don’t quite fit together when placed in a sequence. There are plenty of chuckles to be had here, certainly, but What We Do in the Shadows never quite sinks its teeth into the comic jugular the way it could – and perhaps should – have done.

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