What We Do in the Shadows (Film Review)

Oh, this movie is right on the cusp of being great. It can taste it. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have constructed a reality with endless potential, and characters with bottomless reserves of humor. In fact, the only thing that does not quite work in What We Do in the Shadows is the plot. Much like Caddyshack, the whole thing could have worked even better as a series of vignettes, without as clear a narrative direction.While Caddyshack succeeds largely by the improvisational abilities of its actors, however, What We Do in the Shadows succeeds by its economy of material. There are a lot of jokes in it, so don’t worry if you find a few you don’t like. Within the first five minutes, each central character is introduced with a joke that establishes their nature and sets up the scene’s conflict. The conflict is itself a joke, and so is its resolution. Then they did it again, introducing the characters’ relationship to vampire mythology. And so on, peeling back different layers that continue to texture their world. They create and execute an exciting template until they unfortunately abandon it for a formula. The template works when it meanders, and thankfully, it does so for most of the movie.

Shadows is a mockumentary following four vampire roommates, each with hints of famous vampires that the writers synched up with modern personality types. The Nosferatu-like roommate is the gothy recluse, the Vlad-The-Impaler roommate is the sexual deviant playboy with a dark romantic past, the Interview-With-A-Vampire roommate is a lazy slob who ironically is too concerned with the rules of what a vampire does and does not do. Our main character, the youngest vampire, is kind of a clutz. He makes awkward conversations with his victims before accidentally hitting their main artery. And he’s a people pleaser. He’s super excited, and a little nervous, to be the center of a documentary. They are all at least hundreds of years old. That’s enough to get us well into the first hour.

Part of what makes the first two thirds of the movie work so well is the handling of vampire mythology. Clement and Waititi are not concerned with strict adherence to the common tropes. Their characters have a relationship with the tropes. When the relationship is unhappy, it adds tension, which calls for a punchline, which they deliver. A perfect example: silver kills a vampire, right? But what about a tiny silver necklace? Instead of him shunning the thing, the vampire tries to wear it as long as he can, like a kid staring into the sun. He has timed himself, and he didn’t break the record this time. He laughs it off, pretending the childish record doesn’t matter to him. Their mythology is an every day part of their lives, so they have developed personal ways of coping with it. Vampires can fly, so when they get into an argument, their version of taking off the coat is soaring into the air and meeting eye to eye. But they don’t want to fight each other, so when they settle back down (slowly, as not to hit the furniture they knocked over), they gather their things and leave in silence, unwilling to acknowledge their embarrassment. They punctuate the huge punchline by underselling the tag. Perfect.

Then a bit of story kicks in, and it still seems promising. They need to feed, so they gather up a couple of strangers. One ends up becoming a member of the crew. So now we have a modern-day human vampire, too. They walk around town trying to get into clubs, but a vampire has to be invited in first, which no one does. So they begrudgingly head to their usual vampire-owned watering hole, which is a dismal bar. We aren’t shown just the lore. We are also shown its practical applications in a new way (which is a feat; vampires have been in movies for over ten years now). We see werewolves, and their rivalry with vampires amounts to nothing more than neighboring high schools. The alpha male is still asserting his power over the new recruits, and the new vampire makes a bunch of faux pas, so the whole match up is more of a chest puff between creative writing and theater students than an epic showdown between ancient races of unholy beasts. By the end, we see the universe includes witches and zombies, too. Forget a single movie; this could be a franchise or TV series about nothing; a Seinfeld for monsters.

With such a textured cast dealing with a somewhat incompatible world, I got the feeling at first that the movie makers had stacks of jokes that they simply could not fit in. The material is surprisingly well rounded (word play, physical comedy, visual gags, vocal leases, societal jabs, satire, meta humor… A ton of A-material.) Ironically, however, the more momentum the narrative has, the less momentum the movie has. Apparently they’re going to a masquerade, but someone has a bumpy past with the guest of honor. There is an uninvited guest, issues need to be resolved… It’s more distracting than important. They try to squeeze some jokes in to not disrupt the flow they created, while wrapping up a fifteen minute-old plot. Once it was over, I realized Shadows was not even an hour and a half long, which, in context, makes no sense. These guys obviously had more material for us, but wasted almost a third of an already short movie on a plot we didn’t know we were supposed to care about. Nevertheless, what did work has me more excited than I have been in years for a comedy team.

Really, you should find a way to see it. I hope they make a sequel, and if they do, that they make it about nothing. That is what the movie is. The concept is stimulating enough to rely on the juxtaposition of those people in that reality. Clement and Waititi tested the waters, and it worked. I have no idea why they got nervous. If they would just give us that little bit of extra trust! What We Do in the Shadows is a great concept, and the bulk of the movie is executed perfectly.

3.5/5

Patrick McInerney, Film writer at Seroword

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