31 (More) Days of Fright: What We Do in the Shadows

“… but will these vampire pals learn to love their Wellington flat … or will they list it?”

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film was selected by my coworker and the head of our work’s sustainability committee, Janet Joy Wilson: the very funny horror mockumentary from the director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi: What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Janet doesn’t watch horror; this is the closest she gets to scary movies. I rented What We Do in the Shadows from Queen Video and watched it with my wife Meg and friend Maximillian Arambulo, but you can also currently watch it on Netflix Canada.

What happens:

The premise of What We Do in the Shadows is that the New Zealand Documentary Board sent a camera crew to chronicle the life of four flatmates – who just happen to be vampires – in the weeks leading up to an annual celebration in the world of the undead: The Unholy Masquerade (which may or may not also be a Rasputina album). By watching the resulting documentary, viewers learn about the mundane difficulties of vampire life in Wellington, the struggles of co-habitation, and about one really great guy named Stu.

Viago (Taika Waititi himself) is a 379-year-old dandy and neat freak who travelled to New Zealand for love. He fell in love with a woman named Katherine, and followed her (Felicity-like) from Europe. However, Katherine – unaware she had a vampire admirer (try saying that out loud) – married, and Viago’s love has remained unrequited for decades. But he still sometimes wears the silver locket she gave him – for as long as he can before it burns a hole in his skin.

Jemaine Clement (one half of The Flight of the Conchords) portrays Vladislav, an 862-year-old former European tyrant who used to torture victims, hold massive orgies, and make use of his powerful hypnosis. But since losing a battle to a monster he calls only “The Beast,” his powers and self-esteem have waned. Being centuries old, he also has some outdated notions. When the flatmates argue about chores, Vlad interjects: “We should get some slaves!”

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who looks like a British rock casualty, is a mere 183. The young bad boy, he focuses on being cool and knitting (and certainly not on doing the dishes). He was sired by Petyr (Ben Fransham), the terrifying Nosferatu-looking vampire who sleeps in a stone coffin in the basement. Deacon has a “familiar” (think Renfield from Dracula) named Jackie (Jackie Van Bleek), whom he has promised to make a vampire herself. But until he does so, Jackie acts as Deacon’s servant, cleaning blood out of his clothes, mowing the lawn, and – most importantly – bringing them fresh victims.

“When you are a vampire, you become very … sexy.”

The vampires prepare for a night in downtown Wellington. To look their best, they must sketch each other (having no use for mirrors). Looking good is important: they are the bait, but they are also the trap. But hitting the clubs proves nearly impossible, as vampires have to be invited inside. Eventually, they settle on the half-empty vampire bar, where they can always get in. Jackie – now 4 ½ years into her vampire servitude and a little peeved – meets them at the club to make plans to bring victims to their flat for a dinner party.

Before this dinner party, the vampires discuss the art of draining victims. Viago is a bit of a romantic, and likes to treat his victims with wine and music before biting into their necks. The dinner party begins. Jackie has invited her ex-ex-boyfriend, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and Josephine (Chelsie Preston Crayford), a woman who used to torment her in grade school. Deacon first plays his favourite trick on the guests – turning “busghetti” into worms – and then briefly turns Nick’s penis into a snake before the two victims decide to leave. But it’s too late – they’ve fallen into the trap. Nick races around the apartment as Josephine is messily drained by Viago, but can find no escape. He eventually finds an exit, but as soon as he leaves the house, he is attacked by Petyr.

The film cuts ahead two months. Surprise: Nick is a newly minted vampire thanks to Petyr, and he awkwardly flies into the vampire flat through the upstairs window. He describes the transformation process to the camera crew as “a hangover times ten,” during which his eyes bleed “heaps.” While Deacon clearly doesn’t get along with Nick, since he has replaced him as the youngest in the group and shares his penchant for My Chemical Romance-style marching jackets, Nick does get them into bumpin’ club Boogie Wonderland, so it’s not all bad. Nick also starts bringing around Stu (Stu Rutherford), one of his old human friends. Stu becomes a great running gag, as he remains steadfastly unperturbed by all things supernatural. Though he barely says three words the entire film, everyone thinks he’s the greatest guy.

After a night at the club, the vampire entourage come across a pack of werewolves (in human form), and try to start a fight with them. Their alpha male (Rhys Darby) is having none of it, though, reminding his friends to breathe deep, control their anger, and – most of all – not swear: “We’re werewolves. Not swearwolves.” The next day, Nick comes out as a vampire to Stu. Stu, as usual, is unfazed. The other vampires love having Stu around “with his big, red cheeks.” From him, they can learn all about computers, whether it be finding pictures of virgins online, Skyping with old servants, or poking people on Facebook.

The werewolves, doing alpha stuff.

The camera crew catches Viago, still the hopeless romantic (or stalker, some might say), outside the Rita Angus Retirement Centre, where the nonagenarian Katherine now resides. But that plot point is brushed aside when a bigger problem becomes apparent: Nick has been telling literally everyone he meets that he’s a vampire – cute girls, cashiers, some dude in a bar who responds by claims he’s a “vampire hunter.” Nick’s loose lips lead to a fight – a BAT fight – with Deacon. Hurt feelings follow, all around. Nick eats a chip as comfort food and spends the night vomiting blood. (Being a vampire isn’t everything it’s cut out to be: it’s ruined his favourite food for him.)

Following the blow-out, Deacon goes to Jackie’s house and informs her that, tragically, it will be a long while before he can make her a vampire. After all, Nick just became a vampire – he jumped the queue. Jackie grumbles about a “big homoerotic dick-biting club,” noting that if she had a penis, she probably would have been made a vampire a long time ago. Viago then talks at length about his old crush, Katherine, and his decision not to murder her husband. Clearly her husband made her very happy, and he didn’t want to affect that. (It’s a nice sentiment only slightly undercut by the following scene, in which he masturbates in his coffin to a printout of Katherine’s picture.)

Then, tragedy strikes: the vampires are awakened by screams and the smell of fire. Somehow, Petyr (in the basement) has been exposed to sunlight and he’s going up in a blaze. The others try to help, but going into the basement would set them on fire, as well. Petyr, quite literally, is toast. That night, the surviving vampires analyze the aftermath of the tragedy and try to figure out what happened. It would appear a vampire hunter broke in through the basement window, causing sunlight to flood the room. Petyr crushed the vampire hunter with the tomb door, but was incinerated. Nick recognizes the vampire hunter: it’s the guy who claimed to be one in the bar. The vampires are outraged he led a vampire hunter to their apartment. “I just gave him my email!” he protests.

Deacon can’t handle Nick anymore – the two of them begin to fight, flying up the walls and onto the ceiling as if they were in a Sugar Ray video. Their anti-gravity fisticuffs are interrupted, however, by the arrival of two police constables who hear reports of a fire and a significant amount of “shrieking.” Viago hypnotizes them not to see any vampiric shenanigans, so the cops don’t see the dead vampire hunter and incinerated corpse. Just the lack of smoke detectors and poorly stored flammable adhesives.

Wellington 5-0 arrives on the scene.

The police leave the vampires with only a warning, which leaves them free to undertake more important business: the Trial of Nick. Nick has committed many treasonous crimes, the most heinous of them being telling people he’s a vampire, wearing the same jacket as Deacon, and bringing a human into the house. Though Vlad, Viago, and Deacon agree Stu is cool, so they’re not so upset about that offence. For his misdeeds, Nick is banished from the apartment – though Stu can visit whenever he wants – and is subjected to the procession of shame, which consists of the other vampires walking around him in a circle, shouting “Shame!”

Later, our vampire flatmates receive their invitation to The Unholy Masquerade, which will take place at The Cathedral of Despair at 6 PM on June 6 (get it?). It’s a swanky gathering of vampires, witches, and zombies. Every year, a guest of honour is chosen, and Vladislav believes this will be his year. To his great dismay, the guest of honour is instead his arch-nemesis: The Beast! Vladislav flies into a rage. The others work on their costumes – Viago decides against dressing as Blade – but can’t convince Vladislav to join them to the party. He stops feeding, which makes him look his 862 years. Instead, he wants to be left alone do his “dark bidding” (on eBay).

The night of The Unholy Masquerade arrives. Deacon is disappointed to learn that his familiar, Jackie, is in attendance because someone else has already turned her into a vampire! Nick! Nick is there too, of course, and has brought Stu with him. We also meet the guest of honour, The Beast (Elena Stejko), who is not a manticore or some Lovecraftian demon, but an attractive vampire named Pauline, who just happens to be Vlad’s ex. As Vlad notes, “we had an intense … sexually explosive relationship.”

The assembled vampires and zombies can’t help but notice Stu’s warm hands and rosy complexion. After a while, the guests ask Nick if he’d mind if Stu was killed. The Beast’s new boyfriend, who looks a bit like a damper version of Meat Loaf (which is difficult), leads a confrontation with Stu, where the guests demand to know what he is. The answer – “software analyst” – doesn’t abate their bloodlust. That’s when Vlad shows up in a white mask, announcing himself as The Beast’s former lover, and challenges The Beast’s new beau to battle. But Vlad has a difficult time besting the new guy until Stu stabs the other vampire through the chest with a massive pole. Our heroes have to exit quickly after that party faux pas. “We both equally destroyed that guy,” Vlad reminds Stu as they race through a park .

While on the run, the vampires again encounter the werewolf pack, who are preparing for the full moon. Their alpha male has provided them with chains and locks to bind themselves to sturdy trees. He’d suggested wearing loose-fitting track suits to grow into, though some of the pack didn’t get the memo. “You’ve lost those trousers, guys.” The vampires try to start another dust-up, and the werewolves aren’t able to restrain themselves. The moon turns them into snarling beasts, and the best vampire-werewolf battle this side of the Underworld series ensues. Human Stu is torn apart by the werewolves before the fracas subsides.

Nick is crestfallen that his human friend has died. Deacon makes amends with the younger vampire and tells him that’s what being a vampire is: watching your friends die. Whether through old age or wearing a mask made of crackers and being attacked by a bunch of ducks – all your human friends eventually pass away. The police arrive on the crime scene, having been notified of a dog attack. They find the body of Stu, but also an innocent spaniel they pin the mauling on who will have to be destroyed. (Wrong place at the wrong time.)

The film’s final scene is a surprise reveal: Stu didn’t die in the werewolf attack. He turned into a werewolf! Sure, he has claw marks across his face – “You look like Seal!” – but he’s otherwise the same old Stu. Stu acts as a bridge between the vampires and werewolves. Mortal enemies before, they now become friends. And Viago ends up reconnecting with Katherine, turning her into an elderly vampire. He doesn’t care one bit if people stare because a 96-year-old is dating a guy four times her age.

Masquerade! Paper faces on parade!

Takeaway points:

  • What We Do in the Shadows works brilliantly because the makers know their vampire lore and use that deep knowledge for comic effect. They can’t get into the best nightclubs because they have to be invited in – that’s a great gag, and something that only come from (a) doing your vampire research, and (b) thinking long and hard about the mundanities of daily vampire life. All the best jokes come from that melding of wry observation of life with wry observation of, well, vampires.
  • My friend, Maximillian, who watched What We Do in the Shadows with us, called it “a movie about 800-year-olds being mid-thirty-year-olds.” And he’s right. If What We Do in the Shadows is about anything, it’s about men coming to terms with their age a bit later in life than they should. What are vampires if not the worst case of arrested development? They spend their evenings attempting to get into clubs, starting fights, avoiding household chores – essentially acting like undergrads through much of their adult life. Just like, well, a lot of dudes. As Vlad says, “I became a vampire when I was sixteen. And that is why I always look sixteen.” The arc of the film is these centuries-old men moving on and growing up. By the conclusion they reconcile with the werewolves, and Vlad and Viago have made decisions to reconnect with old lovers.
  • After watching Mr. Vampire a couple days ago, I am eager to see a similar mockumentary, only about jiangshi flatmates living in modern Hong Kong or Beijing. Maybe it already exists and I’m not aware of it! Such imagine the hijinks those vampires would get into: hopping around their apartment, avoiding sticky rice at restaurants, losing track of the human friends when they hold their breaths.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: No scares, but lots of laughs. What We Do in the Shadows is essentially This Is Spinal Tap for vampire fans, and who doesn’t like that?

Vladislav, looking like a cross between a Russian tsar and Tilda Swinton.

Best outfit: What We Do in the Shadows decks its leads out in a series of excellent looks – many of which appear in the sequence when our flatmates prepare for a night at the club. My favourite look, however, is probably the “dead but delicious” all-white (and largely fur) outfit Vladislav wears for The Unholy Masquerade. Runner-up is Deacon’s hand-knit moon sweater.

Best line: “If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” – Vladislav, explaining the vampire’s preference for virgin blood

Best kill: Viago laying down newspaper under his date, then accidentally biting into a main artery, manages to be both gruesome and stellar physical comedy.

Unexpected cameo: It’s not so much a cameo, but Rhys Darby, probably best known as The Flight of the Conchords’ hapless manager, Murray, plays the alpha male werewolf.

Unexpected lesson learned: Wellington basements get a surprising amount of sunlight!

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Lower Hutt Vampire Witch Club.

Next up: Noroi: The Curse (2005).