Vampires are arguably the most attractive classification of monster. They may want to kill people because they need our blood to live, but that is the lethal end of their powers of human seduction. They are often beautiful, frozen in the prime of their youth. They are wealthy, as their immortality grants them the ability to live long past their mortgage and student loan payments. They are learned and worldly. Authors from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice have recognized this innate sexiness, which has then been brought to screen by actors from Bela Lugosi to Brad Pitt.
Though vampires are bloodsucking monsters, their appeal often overshadows their hazard. Much was written about the ways that the TWILIGHT franchise robbed the vampire of their threatening roots, but the vampire had been turned into a fangless lover long before Edward Cullen came on the scene. This is why WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is such a refreshing take on the vampire mythos. Not only does the film correctly assume that we already know a lot about vampires, but it also does its best to reaffirm that vampires are a risk to human life.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is a mockumentary following the daily lives of a flat of vampire roommates. These four vamps show the full range of vampire archetypes from our literary and cinematic history. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is 8000 years old and lives in a sarcophagus in the basement. He looks like a double for Murnau’s NOSFERATU- bald, multi-fanged, mute. Vladislav (co-writer and co-director Jemaine Clement) is the classic Dracula stand-in. He is sexy and brooding, but does not quite grasp that he is no longer the object of most modern women’s desires. Vladislav is hung up on his ex-girlfriend, but aside from that he exudes confidence. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the next youngest, and he fashions himself as the bad boy of the group. He wears furs and leather pants and loves to discuss how alluring vampires are to unsuspecting women. Finally there is Viago (co-writer and co-director Taika Waititi); as a self-described dandy, he favors tidiness and lace rather than Deacon’s rock and roll lifestyle.
Most of the film is following these undead flat mates as they deal with day-to-day life. It plays out like MTV’s “The Real World.” These guys argue about who will do the dishes, what they should wear, and how to keep the house clean after draining a victim of their blood. The mundane topics juxtaposed with their long existences and giant personalities craft the film’s best jokes Being a vampire gives each of them a unique perspective on the household chores, which is pretty darn funny.
All of the comedy plays on our preconceived notions of the sexy and exotic vampire. Without the anticipation of a suave killer, the presentation of these bumbling and delusional vampires would not catch us off-guard. The friction between what we expect and what we get is hilarious, but it also mocks the vampires and removes their threat of death. It is difficult to be afraid of Viago after we see him get nitpicky over Deacon’s vacuuming. It is hard to find these creatures sexy after a brilliant but silly dressing room montage, where the roommates get ready for a night out on the town. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS initially removes the threatening nature of these bloodsuckers.
The film is very aware that it is de-fanging the vampires with all of its jokes. The humor is almost always at their expense, partially because they each take themselves quite seriously and are easy targets. But just as WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS systematically makes a farce of these monsters, it also takes us by surprise by later showing what a threat vampires can be.
Without denying that WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is a comedy, there are some significant reminders near the end of the film that vampires are not simply here for our laughs. From turning a human into a vampire against his will, to nearly killing the one human ally the group has accumulated, the film does bring the story back to the very real threat vampires pose towards human life. Rather than focusing exclusively on demystifying the vampire, the film also takes its time to remind us that we should be scared, too.
It is this reminder of a threatening vampire that made WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS such a success for me. Lately, vampires have been boiled down to either a teen heartthrob or soap opera hunk. Though these representations have their place, the horror fan in me wants a refresher in the dangerous vampires.