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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

What We Do in the Shadows movie review: there will be blood

What We Do in the Shadows green light

An absolutely hilarious mockumentary combination of utter silliness, social satire, pop-culture cramdown, and heartfelt pathos. And vampires.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This is, hands down, the absolute most hilarious movie I’ve seen this year. And probably last year and the year before, too. I’m talking the sort of laughter that makes your face ache and your belly cramp up, before you start to cry inexplicable tears, from joy and wonder but mostly in an attempt to reconcile in your head how perfectly perfect a movie can be with being sad that all movies aren’t this good. What We Do in the Shadows — a marvelous title in a sea of generically labeled films — zooms off into utter silliness from its opening moments and never slows down, not even while doing switchbacks into social satire, pop-culture cramdown, and heartfelt pathos.

It’s kind of unholy, how much I love this movie.

Which is apropos, since this is a mockumentary look at the “secret society” of vampires in Wellington, New Zealand — home to a surprising number of the bloodsuckers, given what a small city it is — in the months leading up to their annual “Unholy Masquerade.” The unseen filmmakers get their access via a quartet of vampire housemates: 17th-century dandy Viago (Taika Waititi: Green Lantern), former medieval warlord Vladislav (Jemaine Clement:Rio 2, Muppets Most Wanted), one-time European peasant Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and the Nosferatu-esque Petyr (Ben Fransham: 30 Days of Night). (Waititi and Clement wrote and directed the film.) This is a “real” peek behind the fangs, one that smashes the “hype” around vampirism to reveal the ugly, honest truth: Vampires are just like you and me, except for the immortality and the thirst for human blood. They’re kind of dorky and awkward, they’re definitely not cool, and they do not sparkle in any way, literal or metaphorical. They can’t get their housemates to do the dishes either. They long to create some significance for their lives, and their desperation is sometimes rather forced and sad. And oh boy, do petty grievances get amplified over the centuries. What could Vlad’s (im)mortal enemy — “The Beast,” mentioned only in hushed tones by the boys — possibly have done to earn such a sobriquet?

Oh yes, we do learn this… and the moment is, like every single other moment in this movie, a pitch-perfect nugget of barely exaggerated mundanity that takes the romance and mystery that pop culture has created around vampires and destroys it in an outrageously funny way. From the spot-on aping of cheap indie documentary style — Shadows was made with the “support” of the (nonexistent) “New Zealand Documentary Board” — to the application of modern pop psychology to ancient evil, the film keeps upping its own ante and finding new ways to be surprising, even if you’ve come into the film familiar with all the many clichés of vampire stories. Of course, it’s all much funnier if you’re aware of the clichés, but they are deployed here in ways even the most devoted vampire fan will never anticipate.

This might be the most clever, most entertaining use of the mockumentary format since This Is Spinal Tap. We talk about “dying laughing.” If you could become undead from laughing, this is the movie that will do it. Except, now we know, you wouldn’t want to.

Watch the first six minutes of What We Do in the Shadows on YouTube. No, seriously, watch it.

green light 5 stars

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What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
US/Can release: Feb 13 2015
UK/Ire release: Nov 21 2014

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, bloody violence)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    wait! vampires can be seen on documentary film? or do they only appear on digital?

  • I’m not sure how the film was shot, but there is apparently at least one method that will capture vampires in a moving image.

  • Danielm80

    Peter David came up with an actual answer to the vampire photo question. In the pre-digital days, if you took a still photograph of someone, there was a mirror built into the camera. Vampires don’t reflect in mirrors, so they wouldn’t appear in a printed photo.

    Movie cameras, on the other hand, don’t involve mirrors in the photographic process, so vampires can appear in films and on reality shows.

    His explanation makes a lot more sense than mine. I would have said that a camera steals your soul, and a vampire has no soul for the film to capture. But the many vampire photos I’ve seen at steampunk conventions prove me wrong.

  • RogerBW

    Oh good! The trailer looked promising. And I can see why none of the four principals is female — that “four blokes together” feeling is clearly a vital part of the setup.

  • LaSargenta

    Shit. I gave him my e-mail…

    And what’s up with the dog attacks? They’re happening monthly now.

  • FSugino

    Be sure to stay all the way through the credits for a VERY important message afterwards.

  • RogerBW

    Just watched this today, but I don’t seem to remember much about it.

  • amanohyo

    I feel about the same — I chuckled most of the way through, but not a lot of it stuck with me. For some reason, the one scene I’ll probably always remember is Jonathan Brugh’s lengthy, presumably ad libbed ramble about the horrors of being a vampire.

    At one point he says something about “making the simple mistake of fashioning a mask out of crackers and attacking some ducks” (I’m paraphrasing) which makes me giggle just typing it. Clement’s build up of “The Beast” with its accompanying ancient depiction was a highlight for me too.

    I saw Wild Tales immediately afterward, which contained a scene that I wish I could forget and a hilarious Dora the Explorer reference, so the shock probably displaced some of my memories of this. In retrospect, WWDitS the more interesting and clever movie of the two. Unfortunately, neither has a very high WatW score.

  • FSugino

    Heh… I see what you did there.

  • RogerBW

    My post was a joke based on that post-credits scene.

    I didn’t enjoy it as much as MaryAnn did, I think because it outstayed its welcome just a bit; without any significant plot or spectacle it had to lean too hard on the thinly-drawn characters. But I did like it even so.

  • amanohyo

    Ah, I rushed out immediately to catch Wild Tales, so I missed the Easter Egg. Someday, years from now I’ll watch this again, remember this moment, and think “I don’t seem to remember much about it, now I get it!” It better be worth the wait. =)

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    That’s Jemaine Clement (on the right) from Flight of the Conchords! I love their wackiness.

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