Monday, January 18, 2016

What We Do in the Shadows / *** (2014)

There’s a challenge at the start of “What We Do in the Shadows” that supplies audiences with a fascinating quandary: what kind of lives would vampires lead if they were not privy to the glitzy glamour of gothic romance novelists or horror film architects? For most, the implication might not have involved something so tongue-in-cheek. But here is a movie that suspects there would be no other option beyond characterizations so seemingly absurd; caught in a world that recognizes their elaborate curses from a place of silliness, it tells the story of a group of close-knit bloodsuckers who engage in wild nightlife antics that are neither strategic nor threatening, and often culminate in elaborately disastrous consequences. Beyond the gruff exterior of pale skin, sharp fangs and insatiable bloodlust, these are beasts that possess none of the preconceived characteristics of a vampire and simply emerge as nocturnal simpletons. If only their appetites – and their decision-making skills – were as sound as the legends painted them to be.

The movie, a mockumentary of wacky motives, is at first an attempt to correct those notions. Then it becomes an all-out descent into cheerful chaos. Told from the perspective of faceless filmmakers who have been hired by four of these beings to chronicle their routine in modern society, the movie engages them at first with mystification, then cautious delight and ultimately admiration. Contrary to their intentions, it is impossible to see them as serious representations of their monstrous family. And when you come right down to the core perspective, what is a vampire, really, other than just a lowly soldier of night who can only indulge in the nature it has been cursed to? And isn’t it possible, behind all of the devious impulses and questionable moral character, that they simply want find some level of happiness and comfort like all of their inferior peers? If Anne Rice and Bram Stoker suspected that the souls of famous vampires were always meant to be tragic, then here are their greatest counterparts: lively sorts who are as saucy as they are infectious.

What a charming and humorous endeavor it all amounts to. Penned and directed by a duo of filmmakers from Australia and New Zealand (who also take on key leads in front of the camera), “What We Do in the Shadows” is an endearing romp through gothic nonsense, a movie that had me laughing out loud as frequently as a teenager hearing a cluster of good dirty jokes for the first time.  That has just as much to do with the subject matter as it does with the sense of comedic timing, I would gamble; yes, there are some flawless setups and precise tonal shifts that help propel some of the gags, but how many of them would work in material that wasn’t so off-the-wall? The premise is just as much of a conduit for their inspiration as the base expectation of lighthearted amusement. And it doesn’t try too hard to achieve those goals, either, which gives the movie the kind of laid back edge that recalls many of the early Harold Ramis comedies.

The movie opens with the awakening of four quirky vampires, who have huddled together in a tight and dark flat for so long that they regard one another’s presence with bemused ambivalence (apparently, centuries of immortality is all that friends need to have in common). Among them: Viago (Taika Waititi), a shy and scrawny figure constantly grinning in anticipation of a long-lost lover that may never come; Vlad (Jemaine Clement), a skilled veteran of the vampire legacy forever scarred by an encounter with “the beast” (one of the film’s most precious jokes); Deacon (Jonny Bruch), an egomaniac who shows off abundantly for the camera; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a vampire so old that his interactions are reduced to piercing stares and defiant hisses (his resemblance to Nosferatu is, I suspect, a wink at genre buffs). Apart they each partake in nervous anecdotes about their experiences up to this point, and together they interact with all the strange chemistry of a college dorm room filled with the socially awkward – frequently uneasy and abrupt, even when attempting to pass off as something more grounded.

Their nightly encounters consist of the same dreary routine: they awake in the dead of night, wander the cityscape, seek out new prey and utilize the influence of a human female slave desperate for immortality to lure new victims back to their flat. There, dressed up in garments that make them look displaced in time, they offer refreshments to guests and then consume them, often without effective strategy. One of the best gags involves Viago wooing a female on his couch while setting up newspaper and towels around her feet, all to her ambivalence; when he bites her neck, he misses his target and instead pierces her artery, causing blood to spray across the room. Later, when two other guests are invited over and one of them named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) attempts to flee, he is ambushed by Petyr and turned rather than eaten, inspiring added dilemmas; because he doesn’t grasp the gravity of his curse, he brags about it out in the open and puts the others in danger, especially when his words catch the attention of an apparent vampire hunter.

A plethora of sight gags fill the screen with a kind of morbid enthusiasm but do not derail any the momentum. Among them are threatening encounters with werewolves, an uneasy friendship with a silent human, uncomfortable exchanges, odd manners of dress and conversation, awkward encounters with police officers, ambitious sales pitches derailed by embarrassing situations and observations into the complicated nightlife of these four misfits, which isn’t so much a lonely existence as it is a deluded one. In the wrong hands much of this could have just been seen as a forced mandate to propel falsified enthusiasm, but both Clement and Waititi, the filmmakers, have a distinct panache for setting up scenarios and allowing behavior to dictate their direction. One gathers that the story wasn’t so much drafted in a screenplay as it was committed to memory; like children absorbed in playtime, they have studied the details of this premise and seem as if they are simply improvising the specifics, which are always straightforward. That impression does wonders for some of the more complex scenarios, especially as the characters inevitably must wind up at a masquerade ball for famous monsters in the third act and must deal with the unease of inviting their human friends into the mix, including the cameramen (who must wear crucifixes to protect them from their menacing subjects, of course).

The trick is in the approach. A more mainstream Hollywood yarn would not bother with coloring the edges, nor would it stop at just showing us these characters in a sweep of quirky routine. Some filmmakers would even resort to more dubious obligations of action and macabre levels of violence. But the charm of “What We Do in the Shadows” is that it sees its characters as eager instruments of self-destruction, and finds great fun in exploiting their predicament to the favor of big laughs, consistent smiles and all-around joy. For all that they do, they’re as sweet as the blood they drink. If the acting filmmakers of the documentary within the film have learned anything by the end of their experience, it’s that their own danger is dealt out in much smaller morsels than what their subjects willingly place on themselves. Somehow, centuries worth of awareness brings you no closer to the truth if you were never that bright to begin with.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy/Horror (US); 2014; Rated R; Running Time: 86 Minutes

Taika Waititi: Viago
Jemaine Clement: Vladislav
Jonny Brugh: Deacon
Ben Fransham: Petyr
Cori Gonzalez-Macuer: Nick
Stu Rutherford: Stu

Produced by Emma Bartlett, Jemaine Clement, Pamela Harvey-White, Emanuel Michael, Taika Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley; Directed and written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

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