Vampires ain’t cool no more. They used to be so and, as happens to everything trendy, they kind of got old. Then came the whole teenage-sexy-cheesy “Twilight” saga (with every twitched creature it spawned, monstrosities such as “Vampire Academy”) and sucked the genre dry. Vampires thus lost any bit of credibility they had left, and resignedly retired to the sad graveyard of prime time television.
Something similar happened to reality TV, with the difference that it never had any credibility whatsoever. There was a time in which it was extremely popular though, until, of course, it wasn’t. This happened quite quickly, as the fates of spoiled youths or problematic families became, expectedly, more and more tiresome. As happens with every taboo, once it entered the mainstream voyeurism became boring. It rapidly showed that a good voyeur is constant in their looking, but fast in their finishing — and they’re ready to abandon the site as expressly as the site makes them come.
This explains why the whole “what if we put a camera in . . .” premise has become as ubiquitous as it has proven ephemeral. In theory, almost any ending to this idea (“. . . in the mansion of hot heiresses; . . . in the trailer of reckless rednecks; . . . in the hot tub of swirling swingers; . . . in the sacristy of kinky clerics; etc.”) sounds like something that would attract and amuse audiences. In practice, it is boring as hell. Most tropes of reality TV have in consequence become inconsequential, and the gratification that we used to derive from them (i.e., letting our inner voyeur out of the closet) gradually proved too inane to keep our attention for more than three episodes for most of us. The “real world” once promised, wherein “nice people” became “real,” and therefore naughty, just became too real for us to care about.
Such exhaustion provides the perfect breeding broth for satire. Thus we get to the perfect place at which these two exhausted genres collide, the hilarious and roaringly intelligent What We Do in the Shadows (by the way, sorry about so long a detour). New Zealand comedians Jemaine Clement (“Men in Black 3”) and Taika Waititi (director of the very compelling coming-of-age film, “Boy”) teamed to bring a fresh look to two nearly rotten genres. The result is a witty, penetrating and often touching commentary on today’s world.
Viago (Waititi), a 379 year-old vampire who was originally an 18th C. dandy, does his best to keep a tidy household with his three long-time friends and flatmates: Experienced but “a little bit of a pervert” Vladislav (Clement), a medieval, old school 862 year-old vampire; rebellious but kindhearted Deacon (Jonathan Brugh, “How to Meet Girls from a Distance”), a 19th C. peasant turned vampire turned Nazi vampire who fled Germany after they lost the war (“I don’t know if you know”) and who, at 183, is the youngest of the four; and the elder but tired patriarch Petyr (Ben Fransham, “30 Days of Night”), an 8,000 year-old vampire who looks the way the original Nosferatu would look like today.
Other than petit quarrels about neglected responsibilities (like leaving dirty dishes for five years because “vampires don’t do dishes”), they live an organized, steady life, searching for food at night and trying to look nice so as to lure their food source. They, in addition, count on some human help, provided by Deacon’s servant, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who runs all kinds of errands (mainly their laundry) and occasionally finds victims (out of vindication) upon Deacon’s promise to give her eternal life. But, ten years later, she’s still shifting her responsibilities as a wife and a mother with Deacon’s demands — ten years later she’s still stuck “ironing their fucking frills.” It is through Jackie that Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) enters the vampires’ guild, as Petyr, out of pity, ends up giving him a gift he didn’t want — thus moving Jackie one step down the ladder. At first, Nick is thrilled with his new “powers,” but he quickly finds out the many quirks and downsides entailed by vampirism (“I cannot even eat a fucking chip”). Through Nick though the vampires meet Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a regular guy who’s neither demon nor vampire nor professional actor — when asked what he is he replies, with all sincerity, “a software analyst.”
The guys are fond of Stu, and that’s mainly why they tolerate Nick’s dumb exhibitionism (“you know the main guy from ‘Twilight?’ that’s me”), which is as irritating as it proves dangerous. It is Stu who introduces the vampires to the many advantages of the modern world and, more specifically, of the world wide web. Google images proves a tailored tool for them to search for virgins and a great source to feed their nostalgic yearn for sunrises.
All this is told by a courageous crew who (wearing crucifixes at all time and having their safety granted by their subjects) went on to document the daily lives of this singular, secret society. It is through them that we have access to all the other “post-deceased” dwelling the streets of Wellington; other vampires, demons, witches, succubae, zombies, and, more importantly, werewolves, with whom vampires have and keep a long-standing feud. This is why they’re left out of the annual masquerade ball that congregates la crème de la crème of the underworld and wherein we meet Vladislav’s nemesis, the one who(?) sucked most of his former power, a being only referred to as “The Beast.”
This crew takes the “what if we put a camera in . . .” premise to its last consequences. And it is phenomenally funny to be able to see the mundane lives of mythical creatures . . . and to see how banal and ultimately boring they are. The unintended consequence of said premise was that it showed that everybody (or anything), insofar as it exists, has an everyday existence. And it proved that everybody’s daily life is, all in all, unexciting. All routines are bound to boredom, particularly for those who do nothing but looking at them. This premise was based (and is still based) on the idea that there are extraordinary people (or ordinary people subjected to extraordinary circumstances) whose everyday lives are worth watching. What the premise ended up bearing out (must convincingly) is that they are not. Not even the amplification, the systematic exaggeration of the ordinary can save these routines from certain humdrum. And that is what keeps us laughing during the entire film.
What We Do in the Shadows confirms that over-ritualization is the key of ridicule. All those menial things we do in life (but that we do every single day), ritualized by the lens of a camera and by the massive transmission of an image, are thereby rendered ridiculous; for we cannot ritualize what is, by definition, ordinary. Most shock jokes wear out very soon in the movie (i.e., how to look good when you don’t have a reflection), and it is only during the third act that the film reaches its full potential as a satire. It is after we have adapted to the vampires’ routines and habits that we are able to see how insignificant these rituals are when they are compared to what really matters to us all: Our close relationships. It is here that the characters become relatable, mainly because they are flawed. Viago, in particular, slowly grows into us mainly because he’s as innocent as he’s mischievous. He’s like a little bear cub who, even though we know it will ineluctably harm us, we want to keep in our backyard. This film largely succeeds because it manages to make you care about the characters (and their relationships) way better than any reality show has managed to do to date.
For some reason What We Do in the Shadows has been regarded more as a mockumentary than as a reality show — even though its tropes correspond much more with the latter than with the former. And not only that, it is presented as a horror found footage film, which is yet another exhausted genre. But the movie doesn’t play those cards. It is presented as if it had been sponsored by the New Zealand Documentary Board, but it doesn’t feel that way.
Perhaps one of the greatest inspirations for this film, Peter Jackson (who, among other things, lent the headquarters of his studio for the exteriors for the vampires’ house) once did that in such a way that he (and co-director, Costa Botes) had to apologize to his audience due to it. The 1995 groundbreaking “Forgotten Silver” was a joke so well-played that many New Zealanders thought they were bearing witness to history in the making: The discovery of a forgotten New Zealand polymath who very much invented almost everything the 20th C. values so much and who did so two or three years before the known inventors did.
This is the sense that documentaries are supposed to give, that we’re watching history in the making. And this is exactly what (good) mockumentaries mock. This is not, however, what What We Do in the Shadows does. Rather, this film shows us what reality TV (unwittingly) discovered: That it can give us the sense that we’re watching mythology in the breaking. And this is what this film gives us: Old, burnt out, exhausted tropes trying their best to live in the real world.