What We Do in the Shadows Review (Film, 2015) #31DaysofHorror
I have a soft spot in my heart for horror mockumentaries. There’s just something so enjoyable for me about a horror film that takes the extra step of setting itself up as an investigation of elements of the genre. I like the terrifying, serious ones like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or hybrid documentary/mockumentary S&Man. I also like the ridiculous slapstick ones like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon or even the Werner Herzog-voiced cryptid feature Incident at Loch Ness. Horror requires a suspension of disbelief to buy into the concepts. A documentary style layered on top is a distancing device that can make everything feel either more intimate or more ridiculous.
What We Do in the Shadows aims for the ridiculous and it works. Four vampires live together in a house in Wellington, New Zealand. They go through the normal struggles of having roommates—arguing over chores, finding personal space in a shared household, keeping up with agreed upon rules for guests and behavior. They also have to prowl the night, hunting for living victims to drain of blood to maintain their immortality. This vampire house agrees to let a documentary crew film their day to day lives as they prepare for an annual party for the undead called The Unholy Masquerade. Throughout their months of filming, they capture vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, succubi, human familiars, and even a computer programmer living in a tentative peace in and around Wellington.
There’s this wonderful wacky sensibility to this vampire story that makes the actual scenes of horror so much more terrifying. It really does feel like the film could fall apart at any second. Every scene is a big over the top swing towards a splatter film, a gothic vampire story, a slice of life documentary, or an over the top comedy. The comedy scenes feel straight out of a sitcom, while the horror has enough fire house sprays of blood to make Trauma seem demure by comparison. It’s an odd mix of extremes that somehow never feels out of place.
Writers/directors Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi pull triple duty, also starring as vampires Vladislav and Viago in the film. Each player has a clear character and role to the story. Vladislav is a vampire whose best years are behind him, crushed by a brutal loss to another vampire he calls the Beast. Viago is a fancy lad who tries to hold the four vampire flatmates together and maintain peace and order at all times. Jonny Brugh is the hothead youngest vampire Deacon, always ready for a fight. Ben Frashman is Peter, a Nosferatu-like figure over 8000 years old who only screams. They’re assisted by Deacon’s familiar Jackie, played by Jackie van Beek, a wife and mother trying to shake up her dull life with the lingering promise of becoming immortal if she does a good enough job. Other character rotate in and out for the rest of the film, but they bounce off of the core ensemble in unpredictable ways.
What We Do in the Shadows actually feels like a believable documentary. The story is utter nonsense and clearly fiction, but the edit, the camerawork, the sound design, and mix of interview styles and b-roll footage feel authentic. The documentary form is captured so well that the silly and the scary moments can both work without any real issues. The tonal shifts are given a sense of authenticity by how clean the style of documentary feels. I’ve seen this kind of slice of life/follow people preparing for an event documentary before and What We Do in the Shadows nails the essence of the genre.
For example, we know there isn’t a literal turf war between vampires and werewolves, but it feels like a real threat (and great source of comedy) in the film. It’s treated as a real, sincere threat even as the characters trade insults because, for the human crew, it is a real threat. The title cards even warn that the film crew is wearing crucifixes and have the four core vampires’ consent not to feed on them; that doesn’t mean that everyone else around them doesn’t want them dead. It’s a clever detail in a film built on tiny little throwaway gags actually playing major roles in the story later on.
I could rave about the technical quality of the film for pages and pages. The costumes are so unique to each vampire that you know instantly when they are from and what kind of person they are. The makeup is similarly clever, showing subtle shifts in physical condition based on age and how recently the vampires fed. Best of all is the music, an oddly satisfying mix of electronic horror scoring and vaguely Eastern European folk that feels authentic to Stoker-era vampires living in modern times. The visual effects of flying and gravity defying fights are clean and seamless. No detail was too small to be overlooked by this production team.
What We Do in the Shadows is a great film no matter how you look at it. It’s a funny and clever comedy. It’s a suspenseful and bloody vampire film. It’s a believable mockumentary. The three styles blend perfectly well to create a shocking, feel-good, inspirational, and terrifying horror/comedy.
What We Do in the Shadows is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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