I’m kind of done with vampires. They’re the “Stairway to Heaven” of monsters, overplayed until you don’t even register them as anything but ambient noise. They’ve been stripmined for symbolism and fracked for frights. There’s really nothing left even remotely interesting to say about them, partially because they don’t really mean much anymore. They’ve been adapted and re-adapted so many times, you can almost give them any traits you want. Only the blood-drinking is necessary, and even that changes with every interpretation. Vampires have gone from the defining marquee monster of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the exclusive domain of the hack.
Pop culture has entirely defanged the vampire. They’re about as scary as baby bunnies dressed in tuxedos and about as likely to cause squees in the same demographic. So what’s left? Should we lock them up in the coffin and wait a hundred years for them to become relevant? After all, we should be in the midst of the never ending resource wars that will tear the planet apart by then. Makes sense we’d be scared of creatures who would drink our precious, precious veinwater. That’s what we’ll call blood then. You just watch.
The last stop for any former bogeyman still lingering in a room whose metaphorical lights have been turned on is parody. The same ubiquity that’s robbed vampires of their power to frighten has also made the tropes that built them common knowledge for even the most cave-bound among us. Everyone’s seen at least one vampire movie, even if it was an entry of Twilight, when the understanding of vampires is sort of like what you thought ninjas were back when you were a tyke. The language of the vampire is universal enough for comedy to dwell in the cracks. It’s not like you’re joking about the themes in a few of Virgil’s minor works. You’re talking about vampires, the things that at least one person in your life masturbates to. That shit’s known.
Granted, it helps if the people behind it know comedy. Taika Waititi, owner of my favorite name and director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok for some reason, is one half of the writer/director/star duo. The other is Jemaine Clement, familiar to most from Flight of the Conchords and any other time you need a perfect delivery of a deadpan joke in a loopy Kiwi drawl. They play two of four roommates living in contemporary Wellington, New Zealand. And as you probably guessed from the extensive introduction, all four roomies are vampires.
The roommates, cleverly, are from the various eras of vampire entertainment. The oldest is basement-dwelling Petyr, who looks like Count Orlock, spends all his time in a stone crypt and communicates entirely in hisses. Oh, and he refuses to sweep up the skeletons of his victims that accumulate down there. Clement plays Vladislav, the 800 year old Dracula stand-in, but diminished from a run-in with another vampire known as The Beast. Waititi plays the fussy, frilly Lestat equivalent Viago, who really is a sweet, decent guy once you get past the mass murder. Lastly, there’s Deacon, the young (not even 200!) vampire who feels like he could have stepped out of Buffy’s rogues gallery.
The roomies have your standard roommate problems, exposed in a meandering mockumentary format. They argue about chores, who made messes, whose turn it is to bring virgins in to be killed and drained of blood. They also suffer with uniquely undead-related issues. Because they have no reflections, they resort to sketching one another when it’s time to try on outfits to go out. And getting into nightclubs is hell because they have to be specifically invited in. The first half hour is the film’s best: a shaggy, meandering wander through the nightly unlives of four mismatched friends.
Like many comedies, it slows a bit as the machinations of plot take over. Petyr turns a man meant as a meal into a vampire, and this new vampire, Nick, promptly goes around town telling everyone what he is (specifically, the guy from Twilight). In the film’s most inspired running gag, he also introduces the gang to Stu, his mortal pal who teaches the vampires all about the modern world. They all fucking love Stu, a man so pleasant, soft-spoken, and mild you can’t help but love him too.
Okay, maybe the second-best running gag. The werewolves are pretty great as well, with their catchphrase being one of the most inspired pieces of wordplay I’ve heard in a long while. They’re supposedly getting their own spinoff, We’re Wolves, and if it’s half as fun as this one, you’ll be reading about it here. Waititi and Clement are both good enough that I can’t wait to see whatever else the two of them plan to do.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is how intentionally shabby it is. The vampires are lurking in Wellington. Not one of the great, gothic cities of old Europe, or the neon-drenched postmodern hellscape of New York or Macau. The Unholy Masquerade, the event of the year (featuring not just vampires but witches, zombies, and possibly demons… and this year, Stu) takes place in a bland ‘70s-decorated boxy meeting hall with scratched linoleum floors and plastic chairs. The house the vampires live in is large but dilapidated, with water-stained walls, piles of filthy dishes, and the odd collection of old newspapers. It’s never over-decorated in that Rob Zombie way, where a house that should feel accessible is instead a near parody of a haunted house, but a believable dwelling for a group of ageless bachelors whose idea of sweeping is dragging a body down a hallway.
The impressive thing about the film is that we spend ninety minutes with a group of unrepentant murderers and end up kind of loving all of them. Deacon spent the ‘40s as a Nazi. Vladislav thinks the solution to all his problems are slaves and torture. Even sweet Viago can’t eat without turning a room into something out of Kill Bill. But we don’t hate these characters. We’re not rooting for their deaths. Mostly because of how goddamned funny they all are.
What We Do in the Shadows is a worthy companion piece to the similarly-themed Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. While it’s billed as a horror comedy, it’s more accurate to call it a comedy designed specifically to appeal to horror fans. There’s nothing scary about it, but the portrayal of the vampires is reminiscent of the time when vampires were supposed to be frightening. We might not get vampires back as proper monsters, but in this context, they’ll more than do.