Wednesday, October 28, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 23: What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

What would being a vampire really be like? I don't mean in a scientifically realistic sense, I'm not asking about how a vampire would realistically exist. I mean, what would it be like to actually be a traditional vampire?

It's not exactly a question that has gone unanswered in the annals of vampire lore. Anne Rice's answer may be often derided by horror fans, but it's at least an attempt. Yet a lot of vampire films don't really get into it, or if they do it's often to take one side. Either that being a vampire is an eternal torment, or being a vamire is awesome! (And sometimes sparkly)

It's also not a subject that has never been exploited for comedy, but I'm pretty sure I have never before seen it used as fodder for a mockumentary. Thankfully, a bunch of New Zealanders decided that was an oversight that neded to be corrected.

We open with a title card explaining that there is a secret society that regularly holds a get-together known as the Unholy Masquerade. The filmmakers have been granted a window into the world of this secret society. All of their crew wore crucifixes at all times and were guaranteed protection.

Thus we are introduced to a flat in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. An alarm clock goes off, annoucing it is 6PM, and Viago (Taika Waititi, co-writer and co-director) awkwardly rises from his coffin after snoozing it. As he excitedly explains to the camera--and Waititi's sing-song line delivery will prove a delight throughout the film--this is the most nervous time of day for him, as thanks to time changes you can never ell if the sun has fully set. To his relief, when he opens the curtains, it has.

Viago, aged 379, explains that part of why he agreed to do this documentary was to dispel some of the public conceptions of vampires--even if most are true. He then goes about waking his flat mates, starting with Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), aged 183, who sleeps hanging upside down in a closet. He then wakes Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, the other co-writer and co-director), aged 862, whose room first appears as what is clearly an illusion of him engaged in an orgy. The final flate mate lives down in the basement and sleeps under a heavy slab. Viago has to take a live chicken with to wake said flat mate, Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000--who is a non-verbal, feral vampire and dead ringer for Count Orlock of Nosferatu fame. Even Viago is frightened of Petyr, so the vampire is not really invited along to the flat meeting Viago has organized.

Time has not been good to Bat-Boy.
The issue of the meeting is basically that Deacon is not pulling his weight in the flat. His chore is dishes, and a huge pile of literally bloody dishes has piled up over the past few years. Viago, the full-on dandy of the group, is also annoyed because his flat mates aren't more careful when they're eating victims. For instance, one of them ruined his antique couch ("The red one?" "Well, yes, it's red now.") and he would just prefer if they would put down towels and newspaper before feeding.

We're then introduced to a bit of what live is like for a vampire in the modern world as they go out for the evening. They meet some fellow vampires, inluding a pair of vampire girls who are maybe all of 12-years-old in appearance. They happily explain that they've arranged to meet a pedophile in order to kill and eat him--which I imagine describes what most of their meals are like.

Unfortunately, being a vampire isn't really all that easy. For one thing, none of their fashions have evolved with the times and before they go out, they have to get each other's opinions on their outfits--no reflections and all. You have to be invited in to any club or bar in order to go inside. So the only place they usually can go, since it's vampire friendly, is largely devoid of any people to eat. They certainly manage, though--as we see Viago bring a victim back home, put down newspaper and towels before biting her, and then he hilariously puncturse her main artery by mistake, spraying blood everywhere and barely getting any in his mouth.
"Well, I guess I can compare notes on cleaning this up with Bruce Campbell..."
We get a better feel of the backstories of each vampire. Viago is the youngest and thus the most rebellious, who was turned by Petyr after he strayed too close to a creepy castle. He was also a nazi vampire during World War II, so naturally that ended badly. Vlad used to be called "Vlad the Poker," and has been an expert in torturing for centuries. He shows the crew his torture chamber, which he doesn't use all that much nowadays--except when he's in a bad place. And Viago fell in love with a human in the early 20th Century and tried to follow the girl when her family emigrated to New Zealand, but his human servant botched the postage and by the time his coffin made it to New Zealand she had married another. He thught about killing her husband, but he wanted her to be happy so he stepped aside. Viago did get a locket from his beloved, and put his own face inside it opposite hers--but it's pure silver, so he can never wear it because it will burn him horribly.

Vlad's life has been far from charmed as well. He used to be a flawless shapeshifter and mesmerist, but then he faced defeat at a foe he only refers to as The Beast a few centuries ago. Now he can't ever get the faces right when he turns into animals, and his mesmerism is hit or miss.

Luckily, Deacon has somewhat of a solution to some of their woes. He has a human servant, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), who refers to herself as his "familiar" and only does menial tasks for the vampires (like taking their clothes to a dry cleaner and explaining the blood away as her husband being a hemophiliac) because Deacon has promised he will turn her into a vampire. Deacon enlists her to find him a woman and a man, both virgins, to bring to their flat under the guise of a dinner party.

Vlad explains the virgin obsession vampires have by likening to preferring to eat a sandwich that you know nobody has had sex with. Well, Jackie brings the vampires a woman named Josephine (Chelsie Preston Crayford) who mocked her once in school, and an old ex-boyfriend named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). It turns out in conversation that neither of them are virgins, of course, but that's apparently not a dealbreaker. The vampires have Jackie feed the guests cold spaghetti from a can, so that they can play one of Deacon's favorite games--making Nick think he's eating worms. Deacon admits he stole this from The Lost Boys, but puts his own spin on it by then making Nick think his penis is a cobra.

Nick has finally had enough weirdness and decides to leave, but after he sees that Jackie is driving off, Vlad and Deacon begin chasing after him. (There's something exra hilarious about remembering that this whole chase requires a cameraman and a guy with a boom mic to be chasing Nick, too) Nick sees Viago devouring Josephine, then sees a cat with Vlad's face, before having Deacon climb out of Nick's own backpack to attack him. Nick finally finds the door out of the flat as they float after him--but he only gets a few yards from the flat before Petyr tackles him. "Who let Petyr out?" Viago wonders.

Three months pass, and then we discover that Petyr actually turned Nick into a vampire. We see some of the footage of him turning into a vampire, including the neat bit of his reflection moving separately from him and then disappearing totally. We quickly learn Deacon resents Nick for replacing him as the youngest member of the group, and for being the most modern. Nick, meanwhile, is eager to prove himself to the others and introduces them to club where he knows the bouncer so they can finally be invited in.

Nick also introduces them to his friend, Stu (Stu Rutherford). Stu is a human and Nick has no intention of eating him, but hilariously the other vampires--even Petyr--are also on board with not eating Stu. In fact, they love Stu. Not only does he not seem remotely surprised by them being vampires--Stu doesn't seem surprised by much--but he inroduces them to modern technology like cell phones, Google, and Skype. (You can imagine Vlad's delight when he learns about a certain Facebook feature) Viago is able to Skype with his old servant, but the man is 90 years old and feels sad and vaguely betrayed that Viago never made good on the promise of turning him. So that call ends quickly.

As it turns out, Viago's lost love Katherine (Ethel Robinson) also still lives--in a rest home in Wellington, which Viago often waits outside to stare forlornly at her window.

After another night at the club, the group--including Stu--ends up running afoul of a pack of werewolves. This starts a brief Jets vs. Sharks stand-off, but the pack leader, Anton (Rhys Darby), does everything he can to keep his pack from wolfing out and attacking the vampires. It's hard to decide what's funnier, him advising them to, "Count to ten, human again," or forcing them to repeat that are, "Werewolves, not swearwolves." The pack and the vampires end up going separate ways without casualty, since it's not a full moon.

"Wait, I distinctly remember being told I had the Mark of the Swearwolf."
Of course, while Deacon may have it in for Nick because of jealousy, his concerns about how trustworthy the new vampire is aren't unfounded. Nick goes around gleefully telling everyone that he's a vampire. Including a cashier he terrifies by morphing his face and a man in a bar who claims he's a vampire hunter (Brad Harding). Deacon gets so incensed by this that he and Nick get into a bat fight. After the others break it up, they lecture Nick about telling too many people about being a vampire while sitting in a fast food joint, as Stu eats chips. Nick tries the worm thing on Stu, but the others explain it only works on food that already looks like worms. Then Nick makes the mistake of eating a single chip. It seems that eating actual food makes vampires projectile vomit blood.

So Nick is already disillusioned with being a vampire before tragedy strikes. The other vampires are awakened in the middle of the day by Petyr screaming. they open the cellar door and discover sunlight has gotten in and Petyr is burning to death. Unfortunately, they can't do anything to save him. Examining the scene after dark, they discover the body of a man adorned with a vest full of homemade stakes and a crucifix. He must have broken in through the window and awakened Petyr, who killed the intruder by snapping his head 180 degrees before the sunlight killed him in turn. Turning the guy's head around, Nick recognizes the vampire hunter from earlier and sheepishly admits that he gave the guy his email address because he assumed the guy was joking about being a vampire hunter.

Deacon is interrupted in his attempt to kill Nick by the arrival of Officer O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue), responding to the calls from neighbors reporting a break-in, screams, and smoke. Viago hypnotizes them into seeing nothing, but he adnits his hypnotism is not great so by the time they finally get the officers out of the flat, they've had several close calls--that turned out to just be the officers noticing fire hazards.

Viago, Vlad, and Deacon vote that Nick be indefinitely barred from the flat for his crimes. Things have mostly gotten to normal by the time the invite for the Unholy Masquerade arrives, inviting all vampires, witches, and zombies. (werewolves are apparently not invited) However, the invite comes with some awful news for Vlad. He had been expecting to be the guest of honor, but the invite declares the guest to be none other than...The Beast. This masquerade might be a bit more intense than usual...
Their album drops Tuesday.
It's hard to find anything to say about What We Do In The Shadows, because this film is amazing and it's always a bit tougher to write about films you love than those you hate. Coming into the film, I had only a passing familiarity with Jemaine Clements' work and didn't even remember seeing Taiki Waititi in Green Lantern. I knew it was a mockumentary about vampires and the trailer looked at least somewhat fun, but I kind of expected that it would end up not being as clever as it thought it was. Hell, for all I knew it would turn out to be as disappointing as WolfCop.

I am so glad to discover that I was wrong.

The simple fact that I haven't given away the entire plot alone should tell you how much I loved this movie. Even movies I'm hugely fond of I might spoil, but I feel this one needs to be experienced as fresh as possible.

There's a multitude of factors at work to make this movie so great. The cast are wonderful and all play off each other beautifully. There's not a weak link in the bunch, even though Viago, Vlad, and even Deacon would be one-note characters in less capable hands, they are constantly funny and compelling. The direction hits the perfect notes for a mockumentary as well, and it never forgets that the camera is diagetic--characters react to the presence of the documentary crew many times. And while a lot of the dialogue was improvised, the writing is another place it shines.

For one thing, as my girlfriend observed, this movie was clearly created by people who knew a lot about vampire lore and wanted to show off their knowledge. More importantly, they wanted to explore what being a vampire means. There's a lot of fun had with the characteristics and weaknesses of vampires in this film, as well as actually toying with the idea of how creatures who never change handle a world that changed without them.

The movie also never forgets that we're looking at a world of monsters. We find the vampires and werewolves charming, but the film also remembers that they are frightening. The film is definitely heavier on the comedy than horror, but unlike the worst horror comedies it doesn't completely forget the horror in favor of the laughs. Mainly because it doesn't feel to soften its monsters just because it's making them funny. Those not-swearwolves still tear people apart when the count to ten fails, the vampires play mind games with their victims before killing them, and Vlad tortures people when he gets depressed. Just because it's funny in this context doesn't make it less explicitly horrifying. That's the way dark comedy should be.

Even the bits of this movie that aren't as well thought out are still great. While there's a certain predictability to the way it ends, and it should be obvious early on what the real identity of The Beast is--that doesn't lessen the quality of its ending, nor the reveal of the Beast any less amusing.

Bottom line, this film is a delight from start to finish. I would definitely say it's one of the best films I've seen all year, and this is the year Mad Max: Fury Road came out so it has serious competition. It's always nice to have a completely unqualified recommendation for HubrisWeen, and this is definitely that. Rent it or buy it, but defintely see it post haste.

And for those who have seen it: yes, it's true. That is the way that I would have wanted to go out--disemboweled by werewolves.

Today's review brought to you by the letter W! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for W!

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