What We Do in the Shadows

Back when I was drawing my daily webcomic I was obsessed with the idea that vampires were hilarious. I drew cartoons that were just silly, like the one about Daniel Day Lewis' many befanged performances. I drew cartoons that were morbid, like the one where I tried to turn the idea of monsters eating a sack of babies for dinner into a punchline. I even had a whole series that revolved around "vampuberty", which is that time in a pubescent bloodsucker's life when they start going through changes, like growing hair in weird places while they are transforming into a bat. 

So naturally What We Do in the Shadows felt like it was tailor made for me, since it is a mockumentary that focuses on the petty day-to-day struggles that four vampires face in the weeks leading up to the big masquerade ball that is the highlight of their social year. My favorite jokes either escalate something normal until it becomes ridiculous or they explore the practical implications of some absurd concept, and this comedy's simultaneously mundane / supernatural premise allows it to toggle back and forth between both types of jokes with remarkable ease.

Let's start with the seemingly normal stuff: Vladislav, Viago, Deacon and Peter are all sharing a flat near Wellington, New Zealand, and they deal with the struggles that most roommates deal with. Viago is good natured but passive aggressive; Deacon is fun to party with but he never cleans up after himself; Peter is 8,000 years old and he would rather gnaw on a live chicken than have to attend a house meeting. They are just like people you know, maybe even people you are currently living with, except they are thousands of years old, they can fly, and oh yeah, they regularly violently murder strangers with their mouths.

All of the roommates' squabbles occupy a weird space between being petty and being ghastly. For example, Viago is always on Deacon's case about his lack of cleanliness. Which makes sense - Deacon's unwashed dishes aren't dirty with excess salsa, they are dirty with  human blood. You can't just leave uneaten hemoglobin out to spoil in the heat! Still, I kind of agree with Deacon when he argues that the undead shouldn't have to clean up after themselves. I mean, you're already an immortal murderer so fuck it, right? I don't want to imagine what sort ant infestation Deacon's slovenliness has doomed them to, but then again, I don't want to imagine having to spend the next 8,000 years doing minor chores either.

Similarly, the script does a very good job of exploring the practical implications of their ridiculous situation. At one point Viago talks about how he struggles to keep the couch clean when he's draining a victim, which is an absurd thing to worry about - I mean, who cares more about their sofa than a human life?  But then again it makes sense - it must be hard for them to shop for furniture when they can't leave the house in the daylight. Anyway, the next time we see him sitting with a target he takes the very pragmatic step of putting a dainty layer of newspaper all around his prey while she looks on awkwardly, and the disconnect between his dandiness and his dastardlyness leads to one the film's biggest laughs. (His efforts end up being for naught, by the way, but that's a sight gag that has to be seen to be believed.)

I also really like how What We Do in the Shadows engages with vampire lore, which is as full of ludicrous concepts as it is of scary ones. It might seem cool to be able to turn into a bat, but when we see a mid-air bat fight here it looks completely preposterous; bats are just too tiny to be truly intimidating, especially when they are seen against a backdrop as big as the moon. Even better, there is a running gag that revolves around the fact that vampires aren't allowed to enter any building unless they've been invited inside. You see, our heroes want to troll New Zealand's hottest clubs for fresh meat but they can never convince the bouncers that they are cool enough to gain entry because they are always wearing clothes that went out of style in the 18th century. It's a funny joke - but it also expresses their out-of-touchness in a way that's surprisingly touching.

Those little touches of pathos end up mattering a lot, actually, because they help cover up many of the movie's flaws. Although most of the film's jokes work, a lot of them also fall flat, particularly the ones that simply show one of these monsters doing a mundane act without bothering to go beyond being a mere sight gag. There are too many points in the movie's first half where the joke is just "vampires have to vacuum too!" - which is fine, but not especially funny. However, it would be stingy to complain about those uninspired gags when What We Do in the Shadows is supplementing them with real moments of heart. You end up caring about these characters, their flaws and their feelings, and that means that you can't just judge this comedy on how consistently funny it is.

A monster movie that manages to seamlessly blend wisecracks and sweetness is so directly up my alley that I almost feel self conscious about recommending it. This is not a reflection on this movie's quality - I sincerely believe that What We Do in the Shadows is really well made and very funny - but more a reflection on myself. If I was a judge I would have to recuse myself from every case where there was a potential conflict of interest; there's some part of me that feels like a critic should do something similar when the movie they are judging is exactly what they would make if they were behind the camera. However, I do think that disclosing my previous history as a vampuberty-obsessed weirdo is probably good enough to give you a sense of whether or not you should take my opinion with a grain of salt. I can't guarantee that everyone will love this very strange, occasionally very gory film - but I can say that if you are like me and you've ever laughed at the idea of eating a bag of babies for dinner, well, then you're in for a real treat. 

Winner: Me

What We Do in the Shadows on IMDB