Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monster House: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS


If you think there’s nothing new a vampire movie or a mockumentary could do, you might be right. The last 10 to 15 years of pop culture – from Christopher Guest and The Office to True Blood and Twilight – have certainly wrung just about all the novelty from those subgenres. But What We Do in the Shadows combines the two and finds the result an amiable and enjoyable 90 minutes. Written and directed by stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, two of the creative forces behind such cult comedy classics as Flight of the Conchords, create a deadpan doc inquiry into the lives of modern vampires in New Zealand. For a horror comedy, it’s neither laugh-out-loud funny nor edge-of-the-seat scary. It simply slides between mild smiles and mild chills with an even-keeled sense of comfortably dry silliness.

It imagines an almost entirely off-screen documentary crew getting the chance to hang out with vampire roommates for a few months, leading up to Wellington’s foremost supernatural ball, the highlight of the monsters’ social calendar. We spend most of our time with the vamps at home in a crumbling old building with blackout curtains, coffins in the bedrooms, and the occasional blood splatter on the walls. Viago (Waititi) is only a couple hundred years old, a fastidious rule follower, responsible for managing the domicile’s upkeep and calling for house meetings. Older is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was a Nazi vampire and fled Europe in the war’s aftermath. There’s also pompous Vladislav (Clement), who once was a more medieval presence – his violent temper earned him the nickname “Vladislav the Poker” – but now he mopes around. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is their oldest roomie, a Nosferatu recluse who lives in the basement.

Clement and Waititi take the familiar details of vampire lore and think through comical modern day implications. It finds vampires not as mysterious old predators or monstrous heartthrobs, but as vaguely pathetic, average dudes. They sleep all day, argue over chores, reminisce about old times, and prowl the streets at night looking for mortal women to prey upon. They’re not so different from any group of guys bumbling around the world. The exception is, when they invite someone over for a drink, they’re the only ones sipping. There’s a droll wit to the matter-of-fact violence – one vampire accidentally bites into an artery, forcing him to drink from a victim like a water fountain.

If that sounds funny to you, then you’re the target audience for this clever blend of horror violence and improvisatory mockumentary amiability. It finds its humor in making vampire tropes, like asking to be let in, allergies to sun and wooden stakes, turning into bats, hypnotizing victims, and hating werewolves, quotidian. After all, these guys have been doing this for centuries. It’s not new to them. When a heated argument over who has to do the dishes results in two vamps floating mid-air hissing at each other, there’s an amusing sense of here-we-go-again from everyone involved. Later, we meet a young convert (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), mild-mannered human helpers (Jackie van Beek and Stuart Rutherford), and an agreeable werewolf alpha-dog (Rhys Darby). Everyone greets monster madness with unsurprised shrugs.

It’s a terrifically underplayed high concept, all the better for never seeming to push too hard to achieve its charm. The cast has excellent, expert timing across the board, making details of their characters alternately sad, silly, and scary. Hilarious performances mix convincingly with terrific stunt work, ghoulish makeup, and seamless(ish) special effects. There’s not too much to sink your teeth into, but it’s bloody enjoyable while it lasts. It’d make a good double feature with either of the other fine recent indie vampire efforts, Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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