Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2014)

3. What We Do in the Shadows
Co-directed with Jemaine Clement

As I've said in the past, Taika Watiti and Jemaine Clement go back a ways. The two have known each other since at least 1999. They have often collaborated on projects together. Watiti directed four episodes of “Flight of the Conchords,” the comedy show that launched Clement to worldwide cult fame. Another early project the two worked on together was a 2005 short film entitled “What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires.” The half-hour film was clearly something both of them enjoyed creating. A feature length version of “What We Do in the Shadows” followed in 2012. The vampire comedy would be enthusiastically received, expanding Watiti's audience by a large percentage.

In Wellington, New Zealand, there is a underground society of vampires. A group of documentary filmmakers have been invited into this secret subculture, their safety guaranteed as long as they hold on to crucifixes. The chosen subjects is a quartet of vampires living in the suburbs. Jovial Viago, edgy Vladislav, macho Deacon, and ancient Petyr squabble among themselves and prepare for an upcoming undead masquerade ball. Deacon's human familiar, Jackie, mostly provides them with food. One night, one of their intended meals – an ex of Jackie's named Nick – gets bitten by Petyr. The newly minted vampire does not have the tack of the others and quickly throws their existence into chaos.

One of my favorite styles of comedy is when the fantastical is contrasted with the mundane. “What We Do in the Shadows” is practically built upon this joke format, which easily explains why I like this movie so damn much. Within its opening minutes, we see a group of vampires bickering about washing dishes. The argument eventually escalates until they are flying in the air, hissing at each other, and bumping chests. Comparing utterly ordinary, everyday events with the vampires' nature as supernatural creatures is perhaps the film's funniest comedic streak. Viago's attempt to drink blood goes horribly wrong, leading to him wiping the mess up with paper towels. Since they have to be invited everywhere, the vampires have trouble getting into nightclubs. The process of becoming a vampire is repeatedly compared to a bad hang-over. Simple acts, like taking off a mask or playing music, seems to stymie them. Taika Watiti and Jemaine Clement found a rich comedic vein to prob by showing paranormal creatures embroiled in the pettiest of everyday concerns.

While “What We Do in the Shadows” is a collaboration between Watiti and Jemaine Clement – both are credited as writers and directors on the film – it's easy to see how this film connects with Watiti's previous two features. Much like “Eagle vs. Shark” or “Boy,” this movie is about a group of outsiders who are, to put it charitably, dorks. These vampires are not effortlessly cool and mysterious seducers, no matter how much they want to be. Vliago is still reeling from having his heart broken eighty years ago. Vladislav still thinks of himself as a Carpathian warlord but is weighed down by a massive but wounded ego. Deacon thinks of himself as sexy and dangerous but still passes most of his actual work over to a suburban mom. They use their powers as much to play juvenile pranks on humans as to prey on them. This is another subversion too, turning otherworldly vampires into very Earthly losers. But mostly it's just because these are Waititi's favorite kind of people, nerdy outcasts consumed by their own social failings.

The supernatural powers and intricacies of vampire life certainly allows Watiti to indulge in the absurd comedy he so excels at. The vampire's ability to fly are often played for laughs, a petty squabble between Deacon and Nick climbing onto the ceiling. Later, Nick's human friend Stu attempts to teach Vliago martial arts, resulting in a lo-fi recreation of Liu-Kang's bicycle kick. One of my favorite gags, also among the film's quickest, is a random appearance by Vladislav's failed attempt to turn into a cat. From Petyr's perpetually hissing visage, to a failed attempt to wearing a silver necklace, to an absolutely hysterical fight via bat transformation, Watiti doesn't so much parody vampire cliches as he uses them as a launching ground for his nutty wit.

Another way “What We Do in the Shadows” delightfully makes its vampires weirdos is by emphasizing how out of touch they are with the modern world. They all dress like goth fanboys in quasi-turn-of-the-century garb. (How the inability to see themselves in the mirror contributes to the oddness of their outfits is also examined.) They cling to hopelessly out of date rituals and habits, such as when they shame Nick out of the group. Their attempts to interact with modern pop culture, like Viago deciding to dress as Blade for the masquerade ball, are awkward. Stu attempts to introduce the bloodsuckers to the internet, cameras, cell phones, and other modern conveniences. They are largely baffled, though Vladislav likes Facebook and eBay, both amusingly small gags. As proven when an attempt to draw a victim out of his home fails, due to the man being totally absorbed by his laptop, “What We Do in the Shadows” realistically approaches how centuries-old vampires would react to the modern world.

While the film's central cast is a hugely talented collection of comedic performers, “What We Do in the Shadows” is only giving us a small peak at a much bigger world. We get little previews of other corners of this universe, featuring other really funny performers. The best of which is devoted to a group of werewolves. Like everything else it tackles, “What We Do in the Shadows” reduces the epic hatred traditionally seen between vampires and werewolves into a childish rivalry. While the vamps relishes in their own hedonism, the wolves flock together and follow surprisingly wholesome rules. We also meet a pair of beat cops. Hypnotized by the vampires, we are greeted to a hilarious sequence where the regular cops are utterly blind to the gruesome weirdness easily noticeable to the audience. Not to mention there are zombies – who are very offended by zombie stereotypes – and vampires with their own purposes, like a pair of “teenage” girls who prey on sexual predators.

As in his previous features, Watiti's goal here is not just to make the audience laugh. Though we do that a lot, there are other emotions bubbling under “What We Do in the Shadow's” surface. One can't overlook that heartbreak is what truly motivates Vliago and Vladislav. Though they are very silly characters, their endless lives are characterized by loss. This becomes especially noticeable in two scenes. When Petyr falls to a random vampire hunter, the vampires' grief is very real. At the end, after they think Stu is lost, Deacon launches into a monologue. Though it reflects his deeply dumb personality, it also shows there's a sense of brotherhood among these guys. They protect each other and are deeply hurt whenever one of their friends are taken away. Being a vampire is pretty lonely, it turns out, and they take connections where they can get it.

Taika Watiti and Jemaine Clement birthed this project both in front of and behind the camera. Watiti plays Vliago. It shows the performer's talent for extremely specific eccentricities. Though he couldn't be more different from “Boy's” Alamen, both are rule by obsessive desires. Vliago likes to keep things tidy, insisting the flat is clean or that certain rules are followed. Watiti is very good at getting laughs out of this fussy personality. Especially when it collides with his impolite desires. Such as blood gushing from a victim's neck. Or the particular way he appreciates his long-lost girlfriend's photo, a subtle dirty joke. Of course, relatable as his neurosis might be, Vliago is as much of a jerk as the other vampires. He doesn't treat his former familiar very nicely either.

As much as I like Watiti, Jemaine Clement really walks away with the show here. Like “Eagle vs. Shark's” Jarrod, Vladislav is a big idiot who greatly overestimates his own grandness. This becomes especially apparent when the truth of his often boasted about rivalry with “the Beast” is revealed. Also like Jarrod, Vlad collapses into despair when it becomes impossible to hold his fragile ego up. More than anything else, Clement's ability to make a particularly spoken line or a quizzical facial expression hugely funny is what truly drives his performance. Clement puts thought into everything his character does, finding new and exciting ways to make the audience laugh.

Rounding out the trio is Jonny Brugh as Deacon. While Vladislav at least has a broken heart under his macho bluster, Deacon is as big of an idiot as he appears to be. Young at only 183 years old, Deacon fancies himself the cool one of the group. He wares leather pants and performs “erotic dancing” for his friends. Brugh commits fully to the ridiculousness of the character, making Deacon a delightfully entertaining fool. This contrasts nicely with Cori Gonzalez-Macuer's Nick, who is very similar to Deacon. Both are preoccupied with their own power. Naturally, they come into conflict, neither aware of how similar they are to each other. This is stressed with a funny gag of Deacon accusing Nick of copying his fashion. 

“What We Do in the Shadows” was made in 2014, when found footage was still a prominent fixture in the horror genre. The film is actually a mockumentary, a similar if related genre, but utilizes many of the same tricks. Such as the unseen camera people rushing around in a panic, using dark photography to disguise a low budget. While his previous features were characterized by highly imaginative direction, Taika Watiti doesn't let the limitations of the film's format hold him back. He frequently cuts away to stationary images or old photographs, visually fleshing out the movie's world. This also keeps the film lively, never feeling weighed down by the formalities of the documentary style.

“What We Do in the Shadows” was a bonafide cult hit in 2014. Though it only grossed six million dollars at the box office, that was still a considerable profit compared to its one million budget. Mostly, the film's success would come from critics and fans. That following has led to two spin-offs thus far. “Wellington Paranormal” was made for New Zealand television and follows the pair of clueless police officers met in the film. An American television adaptation – produced by Watiti and Clement – is premiering on FX later this month. And you still occasionally hear rumbles of a sequel, which would follow the lycanthrope pack and be delightfully entitled “We're Wolves.” Whatever the quality of its follow-ups and spin-offs – pretty good, from the sounds of it - “What We Do in the Shadows” stands by itself as a hilarious and fantastically made piss-take on the vampire legends. [Grade: A]

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