What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows is probably one of the best-known vampire films of recent years. It is a New Zealand mockumentary and is directed and co-written by Taika Waititi, who also stars as one of the protagonists, Viago.

The “documentary” introduces us to four vampires of widely varying ages who share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. Through interviews and witnessed social interactions, the audience gets to know these four protagonists (and others) and learns about their past and their backgrounds.

The film looks great and is certainly well-produced. The sets, the costumes, the practical effects are all good, as are the (few) special effects. The achievements in cinematography and acting are also good. The problems that I have with this film arise from its use of the mockumentary format and the question what best to do with it and how to deal with the difficulties this format brings with it. And a mockumentary-style film is always going to run into difficulties. In this case, it seems odd that third parties do, at times, not address the fact that there are cameras around (though they mostly do); and it is equally odd that the vampires’ victims do not appeal to the camera crew for help.

There are also many strong elements that outweigh these minor flaws. The style of documentary filmmaking is copied very well: the interchange between real-life documentation and one-on-one sit-down interviews; or the inclusion of things like intertitles or like superimposed names and identifications for the interviewees. And the actors are very good at adapting to the role of documentary subjects: they look awkwardly into the camera, they try to present themselves in a good light, they are slightly insecure in front of the camera, etc.

Add to that the camera work that imitates the documentary style very competently as well: “boring” fixed-frames for the on-camera interviews; shaky-cams when walking (or running) with the vampires, etc. Cuts and changing angles are enabled by establishing the cop-out premise that the documentary team has more than one camera rolling at the same time.

There are, however, still a number of things that I wish would have been done differently. Some things in this film feel over-blown, or even over-produced. The film looks great, but at times you ask yourself if it is not looking a bit too good for a supposed documentary. Also, every aspect of the vampire household and the undead community is very much over-the-top. The blood, the masquerade ball, the zombies, the witches, the werewolves – it is all too much and takes the fun and the special character away from things like the protagonists’ clothing. I also did not like the inclusion of the character of Nick, which opened up the story and the environment.

In other words: it seems to me that too many elements in here are padding the story in order to add running time, while these elements at the same time take the focus away from the core story, which should be character studies of the protagonists. That is a question of quantity, but also one of loudness: as I said, I found many things in the household to be over the top. It would have been more enjoyable had the film started out like a documentary about housemates living together, with the weird vampire elements creeping in slowly, as counterpoints.

So while this film has a slicker look and a slightly tighter narrative than its Belgian counterpart Vampires, it is still not tight enough, and there is not as big of a difference in quality between this film and Vampires as I had anticipated.

The actors are all very good, but the film’s style reduces many of the characters (including most of the protagonists) to caricatures, who, at their worst, are not even 2-dimensional any more. The fact that the fake accents get a bit tiresome after a while may add to that. A character that I particularly enjoyed is that of the “familiar”, Jackie, and the actress Jackie van Beek does an outstanding job in this role.

With a mere 86 minutes running time, What We Do in the Shadows still seemed too long to me on more than one occasion. While watching, the thought popped into my head that this material might have been better served as a slick web series than as a feature film. So it came as no surprise to me to learn afterwards that this film is actually based on a 2005 short (What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with some Vampires), which, like the feature, was written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. I intend to see this short film, which is included in the extras of my DVD, soonish. [EDIT 2017-04-11: I’ve now seen the short film, and posted a few thoughts here: https://vampirefilmreviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-interviews-with-some-vampires-2005]

 

As I pointed out, What We Do in the Shadows is amusing and enjoyable, but with the talents of Taika Waititi and the cast at its disposal, the film could have been so much more. While I have no problem giving this film a 7 out of 10 rating, I must add that it is, in my opinion, definitely no masterpiece.

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