Whatever It Is That You Do In the Shadows, Count Me In!

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Dir: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi
TC4P Rating: 8/9

I, like anyone else, complain a lot when films get it wrong. The perception of the slightest mistake or presumed laxity on the part of the filmmakers jolts a film downward in our estimation; several such errors, and we write the film off as if it never existed, or at least, never should have existed.

But what can we do when a film gets it right? Apart from praising it to the high heavens, what is there for the discerning film fan (that poses as a critic, but really isn't) to do? If you gush too much about a movie, your opinion becomes suspect, especially to those who are just passing by and don't know the full breadth of your choices and dislikes, of your plusses and pans. If you don't impart to your readership (small though it may be) your feelings regarding that work of art precisely, you may feel as though you failed in leading others to see a film that you believe is worthy of the attention of the masses, let alone fellow discerning film fans.

Let me make this clear. My precise feeling about the "vampires in New Zealand" mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows is that they get it almost exactly right. "It" encompasses many things. 

First, tone: on target -- playfully comic but with just the right notes of gruesomeness from the start -- and while the film builds a little bit in tension owing to revelations involving several characters, directors/writers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (who also play two of the main vampire characters) manage to keep the tone consistent straight through to the fun ending.

Second, the film embraces New Zealand as the setting. Rather than just portraying the dark alleyways of a random urban setting in which to allow the film's vampires to operate and keeping its actual location mostly hidden, What We Do lets you know where it is at all times. There is not the slightest doubt these vampires are the undead residents of the country's thriving capital city, Wellington. How such a group of vampires maintain their bloodlust over so long in a city that does not exactly have the largest populace is not really answered here, but it isn't really necessary given that the vampires and other denizens are equally prone to clumsy disaster as the regular humans in the film. The weaklings in both herds probably have the same rate of catastrophic loss.

Third, casting that works across the board. Clement is spot on as the most "Dracula"-type vampire in the "family," an 800-plus-year-old former count who is brooding in looks but is also considerate and politic when he needs to be (even, surprisingly, with humans), and who rather acts as the surrogate father to the group, if not the outright leader. Deacon, played well by Jonathan Brugh, is much younger ("only" 183) and is decidedly more brutish in his actions and emotions, and acts as the testosterone-addled idiot brother of the house. Jackie Van Beek plays Deacon's human slave, also named Jackie, and she gets a wonderful story arc showing her struggle against Deacon's refusal to finally "turn her". Rhys Darby, the cheeky manager from Clement's Flight of the Conchords HBO show, deserves special mention as the dedicated leader of a rival pack of werewolves with whom the vampires have to contend off and on throughout the picture. Best of all, co-director Waititi is endlessly cute, charming, and klutzily violent as the 379-year-old Viago, who continues to dress like the prissy dandy he was in his youth (and has horrible epithets hissed at him because of it). Despite his undead status, Viago is filled with innocent excitement and is thrilled with anticipation over every encounter, and Waititi's enthusiasm in the role is highly winning.

Fourth, Petyr. I don't know much about the actor underneath the Nosferatu makeup for the character of the 8,000-year-old vampire whom Viago locks in a closet inside the house except for his name -- Ben Fransham -- and that he also appeared in 30 Days of Night as a vampire, and has a small role in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. All I truly know is that I love the inclusion of the Petyr character in the film. Petyr's existence gives more dimension to the vampire myth, showing that perhaps the race has evolved and grown with the times. Petyr is practically pure animal in his actions and desires. He is too dangerous to let loose for too long, and even the other vampires fear him, but are somehow able to keep him contained, and thus, are rather protective of him.

Finally, well-staged hijinks. Whether they are plotting out their next kills, failing hilariously (and often bloodily) in some of those kills, throwing an awkward party for humans (with gleefully sick and ill-timed jokes) at their ramshackle home, getting turned away from the best nightclubs but always insisting they are properly invited in, hurling half-assed insults at the pack of werewolves, or just allowing their ineptness to get the best of them in any social situation, What We Do in the Shadows kept me laughing straight through the picture. 

Higher profile pictures with far more experienced pedigrees have not made me laugh so much, especially in the past year. I was only halfway through What We Do, and I was watching all by myself, and I caught myself muttering, "Dammit, I love this movie." Yes, that has happened before, and generally, the film would fall apart for me after that. Not so here. Certainly, I could nitpick about a couple of minor points in the film, but they are rather inconsequential to the general excellence of the film. 

Let me be precise again. I believe this may be the best comedy I have seen in the last couple of years. (Believe me, it takes a lot for me to lose it lately.) That it also fulfills my horror quota heightens my recommendation. What you choose to do with all of my gushing is up to you.


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