Since their quiet hiatus from performing live and making their hilarious HBO TV show a few years ago, many have lamented the loss of New Zealand folk music comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords.. Whilst one half of the cult show went on to superb success writing music (and winning an Oscar!) for The Muppets reboot, Jemaine Clement has popped out occasionally in cameos and notable bit parts in western cinema mainly with his distinct look, but he is a talented comedy writer still, and now brings us a New Zealand based mockumentary comedy/horror offering about the trials and tribulations of old fashioned vampires today in What We Do In The Shadows.
Sharing a house together in modern day Wellington has it’s ups and down for four vampire flatmates. Baby-faced Viago (Taika Waititi, Boy/Green Lantern) tries to keep the peace whilst Vlad (Clement) is still struggling to get over the dampening of his formerly great powers, wild child Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) hasn’t done his dishes in five years and 8,000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham) in the basement is a social recluse. The more communal three make the effort to go out into the city to get fresh blood but 2015 often gets in the way of their ancient ways & the boys have more misses than successes. That all changes when Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) accidentally gets turned into a vamp & starts hanging around with them, along with his human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford). As the pair introduce the others to the 21st century with technology, style and entry into modern society, there’s tension which comes to a head with the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.
Considering this is the first time in awhile a film or TV property has gone nuts and embraced the traditional vampire aspects, I’m more than happy with what’s on offer here. The idea to chuck it into a comedic playpen without cutting back on the horror elements is a nice antidote to what passes for real vamp material nowadays – here’s looking at you Twilight! No these are the vampires who fully can’t go out in daylight, bite & suck blood of virgins for substance and can transform to all creatures of the night. The balance between comedy and horror is handled very nicely, drawing some good gags out of a vampiric situation, like when Viago brings a lady back to feast on – he lays down some newspaper to save blood flying everywhere on his couch, only to hit the main artery and blood flies everywhere in a great running joke. The house the vampires live in is wonderfully gothic on the inside with an archaic look which bleeds through to their sense of style. It’s possibly the film’s highpoints seeing how well the set dressing goes in making the cast look the real deal as old age eastern Europe influenced creatures of the night. The trope where the vamps can’t see their reflection in mirrors is skated around by one another appallingly drawing one another to see what they look like on paper in a glorious gag. For those looking to a classic take on vampires but with a modern day twist, this is perfect. The way they react to seeing things like a sunset (and the internet & computers in general) is like when a caveman first create fire – a sense of awe and wonder despite it being fairly available to them. It’s wonderful stuff to see. Overall, you’re left in a very comfy surrounding of a humorous yet traditional take on the classic vampire and its as snug as a velour felted coffin.
What We Do includes some of New Zealand’s top comic talent, and the performances all round are quite impressive. Waititi as Viago has a look and similar attitude of younger brother as he annoyingly wakes up everyone else and has a near-permanent smile in front of the camera as he doesn’t quite know how to react to this camera crew. As usual, Clement does not disappoint and plays up to his sexy man in real life tag, as the failing in power Vlad. Whilst shunted to one side later on, there’s enough in Brugh to leave an impression, and it’d be great to see these three come together again and do similar projects. In a good way, Gonzalez-Macuer is awfully plain as Nick. He gets over being a normal kiwi guy transforming into a vampire and the problems which comes with that quite well.
To a point though, the humour lacks any real bite sadly. The script and dialogue is definitely witty and there are one or two moments of good physical comedy, but there are no real defining gags to make this a contender. I will concede I was focused on Clement throughout and any hint of a reference to Conchords so I lost myself with the running joke that he can turn himself into any animal except his face would stay the same. Even when Conchords alumni Rhys Darby turns up as the head of the local Wellington werewolf society (“We’re Werewolves, not Swear-wolves!”), I paid more attention to that than the film was offering laugh wise. Not to say that this is unfunny at all but the comedic situations are just nice with no real sharpness. The silly side of the humour takes over from any real satire of the current nu-vampire craze which is sorely missing from this mockery of it. Instead of doing anything meaningful, aspects still appear with no real relevance, i.e. Petyr is a pastiche of the Count Orlok/Nosferatu type of vamp with pale white skin and hanging fangs and long claw nails – he just hangs out without any comedic impact apart from “haha he’s cranky and old”. There’s enough material made from playing about with vampire tropes but it’s hardly groundbreaking or essential.
My big downer from What We Do comes from about the halfway point. After an initial big burst of manic playing about in that vampire play pit with some new ideas, we get away from the engaging section of the film and as the plot kicks in over the concept, it becomes a slow and uninteresting crawl. Bear in mind, that this is a less than 90 minute movie. It shouldn’t really feel like that at any period. Without giving too much away, the on-off relationship with Nick, his mate Stu & the other vampires takes over (or the real plot) and its this spoiled budding friendship for drama, which you know that they are going to meet again, that drags this film down. Especially worse when they meet at an annual vampire/zombie/witch masquerade ball which is interesting and you want to see explored but it’s shunted to the side for something you’ve seen before. The jokes from the half way point are laboured also. The police come around to the vampire’s house and they hypnotise them to not notice anything vampy but, oh hilarious, they notice something else instead. They do that three times in a row. With some retooling, the thought occurs that this may have worked better as a television series rather than a movie with an opportunity to reposition events and jokes for a nicer spread.
Considering this has the growing-in-reputation production name of ‘Wellywood’ behind it, this is maybe a slight disappointment. The look of the film is not terrible but good lord is it a dark film to watch. Sure it’s part of the “real” mockumentary film style and fits in with a vampire lifestyle but a spot of lighting would have gone a long way. Some of the practical effects look fine but again because it’s quite dark in visibility and as much as I like the scenery and set dressing, it does appear cheap. It’s the problem with a Blu-ray transfer in which it is such a high quality picture it highlights the quality of such aspects, although that’s not exactly the focus of making a movie like this.
Be warned, there be problems here that not even Van Hellsing can resolve. The sound mixing suffers quite dramatically in places. They are fairly complicated to be fair but it’s ear damaging when we have to suffer through a few minutes of the vamps partying in a night club and the audio craps itself with the club music and cast dialogue clashing. There is worse but there’s no attempt to go back and tidy it up. Its a blot on an otherwise fine audio production. There doesn’t seem to be any impact behind any of the sound effects used however, and there’s no great additional horror or emphasis placed on comedy when the moment comes along. Fair enough this is a reasonably priced production, but the lack of 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (it only goes to a reasonable 5.1) adds to the audio disappointment.
A 17 minute ‘Making Of’ documentary is more like a ‘Behind the scenes’ highlight package or an informative gag reel cum production diary – which is fine, but there’s hardly any insightful commentary. It’s pretty neat though to see how they pulled off some of the movie’s production tricks, like the ‘rotating room’ fight scene and one of the vampires being set alight by sunlight. I do like the inclusion of in-character interviews keeping the mockumentary style and joke up. It’s like we’ve got this additional cutting room floor with a few more okay gags chucked in. The best of these is Deacon going on about what his age really is and forgetting.
There are tonnes of promo videos or trailer-like shorts which contain some purposefully shot footage and jokes. To cap off a pretty funny but uninformative extras, we get a nice selection of extra videos of random stuff shot, like the full Deacon erotic dance, with the gem being Waititi & Clement’s original short of the concept of the film. What We Do is the only home media release since the Blood & Cornetto series where I’ve actually wanted to go see all the extras as it’s more of the same humour and jokes which is reflected on the additional content from the main feature. Good choices and value for money.
The Bottom Line:
If you have a Conchords shaped heart that needs spiking, you can do alot worse than this. For those not in the know of the niche subject of the New Zealand comedy scene, What We Do In The Shadows does offer a welcome look at traditional vampire tropes with a comedic edge. The sound mixing could have really been looked at again given that Wellington as a film production is carving out it’s name, but I cannot fault the scene dressing of ridiculous out of time vampires in the modern day or the value for money in watchable extras. Bit of a shame though that comic edge it’s going for doesn’t really puncture the skin. Mild recommendation.