For a country with a population smaller than that of most Indian cities, New Zealand has long enjoyed a disproportionately large presence in genre cinema. From the massively popular Lord of the Rings cycle to small but notable films like the cult sci-fi picture The Quiet Earth, they’ve steadily produced work that has brought much joy to genre fans the world over. Going deeper, however, a particular niche they’ve cultivated with special care is that of the horror comedy. A tradition kicked off by Peter Jackson’s hilarious and splatterific pre-LOTR output, numbering among them irreverent gems like Bad Taste and Dead Alive — and perpetuated with gusto by subsequent generations of filmmakers, the subgenre hit one of its creative peaks recently with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s pitch-perfect vampire spoof What We Do In The Shadows.
If you’re a fan of Clement and Bret McKenzie’s comedy act (and spinoff HBO show) Flight of the Conchords, you already have some idea of the deadpan delights that await you in this movie and don’t need to be sold on it. If not, you should hopefully be convinced by the fact that Clement and Waititi have taken two of the most overexposed and insufferable elements of contemporary pop culture — reality TV and the emo bloodsucker movie — and combined them into an entirely novel farce that lampoons tired tropes while still having something to say about the essential tragedy of the vampire myth. Clement plays bewhiskered East European aristo-vamp Vladislav, once the scourge of the Carpathians and now considerably mellowed by the (mostly) soporific ebbs and flows of undead existence in 21st century suburban Wellington. Vladislav and his housemates — foppish and awkward Viago (Waititi), rock-star-ish Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8000-year-old Nosferatu clone Petyr (Ben Fransham) — are being followed around by a camera crew, their lives re-edited Big-Brother-style into talking head interviews, melodramatic arguments and slow-dawning revelations.
If you’re a fan of Clement and Bret McKenzie’s comedy act (and spinoff HBO show) Flight of the Conchords, you already have some idea of the deadpan delights that await you in this movie.
Much of the comedy is derived from the unholy collision of undead mythology with modern life. For instance, when we first meet them, the three younger vampires are having a house meeting about the dirty gore-encrusted dishes piling up in the kitchen. Petyr is, naturally, exempt from household chores because his advanced age has left him too far removed from the human condition to bother with mundane conventions like hygiene. His unhelpful nature aside, the problem faced by these resolutely old-school monsters is that while they may have once been dreaded yet charming predators, they now come off like a bunch of sad, ageing Goth types moping around a decrepit house in clothes that resemble costume shop cast-offs. And what is a centuries-old immortal to do when faced with newfangled inventions like Google, law enforcement or feminism? How does one deal with a female human familiar who starts making pointed observations about gendered exclusion? Or fend off the local werewolves, a laddish pack of alphas with a penchant for marking territory in urine and making cruel mockery of undead men in frills?
The film is basically a loosely structured series of sketches and vignettes that the inspired high concept provides plenty of material for. There are numerous laugh-out-loud sequences, including every appearance by the werewolf pack as well as a scene at the annual get-together for local supernatural entities (held at a suburban bowling alley called the Cathedral of Despair) that has to be seen to be believed. There are moments of high-energy slapstick, several of which milk the vampires’ anemic flying abilities and unorthodox fighting techniques to great effect. But the element that distinguishes it from most horror comedies is the pathos that Clement and Waititi manage to excavate from the breaks in between gags. The allure of vampire movies has always been rooted in the popular image of the creatures themselves as impossibly cool, irresistibly sexual beings that lowly humans may actually want to get bitten by. In Clement and Waititi’s hands, they’re lonely and clueless just like the rest of us, muddling their way past the constant little victories and humiliations equally inherent to that singular experience of being sentient on planet Earth. Consequently, the dilemmas and setbacks endured by these hapless characters are given a decidedly human dimension, making them oddly empathetic for serial killing leeches. When they’re not busy murdering people, they’re trying to find connections to them. One can’t help but sympathise. Mostly.