Something plainly went wrong with What We Do in the Shadows: the film turned out great. The concept – a cadre of vampires from varying ages room together and struggle to adapt to the norms of modern life – is so high that it ought to lose oxygen in five minutes and induce rigor mortis. The also-concept is even worse: What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary, the hoariest cliché of the decade following television’s inability to put the format to rest post-The Office, a fact that allows the film to exploit the increasingly aesthetic-less handheld camera more common every year these days. I don’t know that Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who co-direct and co-write, single-handedly save the whole trend from a way-past-due stake in the heart, but bless them for trying. What We Do in the Shadows ought to be a mere parlour trick, but in practice it is much closer to a satanically devious nocturnal charmer.
First things first: What We Do in the Shadows actually applies the scrappy inadequacy and frivolousness of hand-held DIY camera for artistic contrast, rather than simply because it cuts costs. Slathered in monumentally Gothic mise-en-scene, the film is set in an apartment boasting a hundred caskets of vampire lore all cluttered together as if a tornado ran through the various stages of vampire history and set everything down in one place. The look of the film is profoundly weighty, suffused in thick, opaque make-up, luxuriantly baroque costuming and gravid set-design as labyrinthine and complex as any vampire film released in modern times (Hammer Horror is a significant point of reference). Yet the lumbering ostentatious ornaments of the design, seemingly stuck in time for centuries, are cut through by the punchy, spiky immediacy of the present-tense camera. In this context, the freewheeling nature of the handheld camera is disconcertingly bracing; it feels wrong, and downright heretical far more like we are peeking into a closed-off secret society we ought not understand with human eyes.
The morbid, hanging-down dread of the sepulcher visual sense is teased at every turn. Do the vampires really need all the bloody icons of dismemberment, the film asks, or are they just trying to impress the neighbors? It is an altogether betwixt, bewitching visual sense unlike anything in memory, and it proves that Clement – on sabbatical from his day job as one half of the TV and music worshiping Flight of the Conchords – knows his way around the cinematic lens as well as the guitar fret and the stumbled line reading. It is as if the film – in mixing and matching its vampire lore with all abandon – is letting us know the lore game is all a little artificial and silly to begin with.
Enough about my ever-present quest for comedies that actually rely on mise-en-scene as a pillar of laughter (an endangered species in the anemic modern era), for Flight of the Conchords is a deliciously nasty, uncomfortable work of cinematic writing and acting as well as a genuine feat of production design. The conceit – vampires struggling to find love and belonging in today’s on-the-go society – not only avoids the arid expectations it provokes, but it induces a surprising pathos as well. Mockery abounds, but the film tickles the ribs because it bruises too.
Watching the everyday pitfalls and melancholy embarrassments of its three protagonists – Viago (Waititi), the most mild-mannered and mature at age 379, Vladislav (Clement), cantankerous and barbarically over-the-hill at age 862, and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), a hotheaded Tybalt at a brisk 183 – induces pity and shame as well as humor. Although Clement and Waititi never pull their punches in having fun with the characters’ failures, they never look down on the characters; there lies a bizarre empathy at the core of the film, if not quite a sympathy, with the vampires. If all vampire fiction, and all horror fiction, is in some way a tacit adventure into the catacombs of everyday horror in human life, most vampire films today attempt to apply the vampire lore to tragedies of carnal wont and romantic wayward tragedy. We tend to depict vampires as we want ourselves to be, but in depicting them as we are – laughable, probably pitiful beings at the core – What We Are in the Shadows finds a new vein to suckle.
Still, Shadows is predominantly and primarily in the business of venomous, victim-filled humor, and it would seem that business is booming. Clement and Waititi especially have a natural ear for uncomfortable slantwise line readings just eerily off of our natural understanding of cadence and rhythm. The script itself is bursting with unstressed, almost laconic observations about vampire life – peacocking is twice as distressed for vampires as it is for your average neighborhood misogynist, for instance – that generate laughter precisely because of how fleeting and improvisational they are. Plus, through it all, it seems as though Clement and Waititi are in on the joke that all of this “vampires as symbols for human crises” shenanigans is old hat by now. They don’t rest on reminding us how the vampires are really us; they simply show us vampires, and we fill in the gaps. It’s a neat trick, and if you find yourself pouring one out for Viago’s sensible Susan routine as he struggles to find meaning around his impulsive roommates, well you aren’t alone when you feel not only undead, but unheard, around others.