What We Do in the Shadows

Movie Information

The Story: The film invites you — and a never seen documentary crew — to spend some time with a houseful of old-school vampires who are trying to be modern. The Lowdown: Surprisingly fresh and funny — despite its dubious mockumentary approach — and blessed with appealingly goofy characters and even a few bona fide thrills.
Genre: Faux Documentary Horror Comedy
Director: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Starring: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford
Rated: NR

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Imagine my delight at finding Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows thoroughly entertaining, amusing and even charming. By all rights of logic and history I should have hated it. The mockumentary format is paired with the shaky-cam “found footage” horror movie, two things I most hold in contempt about modern cinema. Both are cheap and easy ways to avoid having to actually bother with a solid screenplay or marginal filmmaking skill. And while this is a mockumentary, it’s a mockumentary with a difference. It has wit and style — and a story arc. Plus, it has characters it’s hard not to care for — despite the fact that they “eat” people. That seems to be their term of choice, even though only one of them — the 8,000-year-old Nosferatu-looking Petyr (Ben Fransham) — actually appears to ingest anyone.


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Now, I’m not cutting this slack because of some fondness for the film’s creators’ association with the cult TV show Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve never seen and know very little about. No, I came to this cold — and when I realized it was in the mockumentary form, I groaned and swore. But I quickly realized something else — apart from providing a means for our vampire heroes to directly address the audience, there’s really not much mockumentary here. In fact, I often forgot what I was seeing was supposedly — and preposterously — captured by a documentary crew, apparently festooned with crosses and garlic and having been promised they’ll not be eaten. It mostly just doesn’t matter, feeling more like a look in on a small group of vampires coping with life in modern day New Zealand — and coping with each other in a house-sharing situation.


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Part of what makes this work is that it’s the creation of a couple of guys who obviously love and know the genre they’re spoofing. Though vampire mythology has a certain amount of variables to pick and choose from, everything in the movie has a sound basis. It also touches on various aspects of vampire lore — both from legend and cinema. I already mentioned that Petyr is made up to resemble the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), but there’s also the implication that 862-year-old Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) might be Vlad the Impaler. (He excuses his torturing past as a time when he was “in a bad place.”)




The whole idea is predicated on a group of vampires living together in a rundown house in Wellington. Besides the aforementioned Petyr (who at 8,000 doesn’t really interact with anyone) and Vladislav, we have 183-year-old Byronic troublemaker Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 379-year-old fussy, dissipated dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), who, despite his relative youth, is more or less in charge of keeping things in order. Viago is also the sweetest and most lovable of the characters — anxious to please, easily embarrassed and generally affable (even if he does kill people). He’s a thwarted romantic still pining for the girl he lost (thanks to a magnificently stupid “familiar”).




A great deal of the humor stems from this aged collection of the undead bickering among themselves over petty matters, searching for virgin blood (though they’re not sure why) and trying to adjust to the modern world, which they only vaguely understand. They seem oblivious to the fact that their situation has been significantly degraded and their powers diminished. (That their annual vampire, witch and zombie ball is actually taking place with the Victoria Bowling Club standing in for the awesomely named Cathedral of Despair seems completely lost on them.) This may be what makes the film slightly sweet and sad as well as funny.


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What’s surprising is that What We Do in the Shadows actually manages to throw some moments of genuine horror into its goofy mix — all thanks to Petyr. In fact, it has a couple of shock effects that are more effective than those found in many supposed straight horror pictures. It also doesn’t shy away from the goriness of its vampire premise, though the use of gore for comedic shock is over 40 years old at this point, so that’s hardly groundbreaking. There is a plot, but I think that’s best left to the film rather than a review. All in all, I highly recommend it — unless horror pictures are just generally off-putting to you. Not Rated but contains scenes of bloody comic horror, adult themes and language.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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31 thoughts on “What We Do in the Shadows

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    searching for virgin blood (though they’re not sure why)

    Well, Vladislav does offer up the sandwich simile…

      • Ken Hanke

        I thought you (Chris) were enthusing over Wild Canaries and were guarding your expectations for What We Do in the Shadows because Waititi’s last film “was good at best.”

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          That’s pretty much what I thought Chris was saying.

          For the record, I think Boy is better than good. I have not seen Eagle vs Shark, though it’s sitting high in my Netflix queue…err “My List.”

          • Ken Hanke

            I think I have/had a screener of Eagle vs. Shark, but nothing ever compelled me to watch it.

          • Me

            Haven’t seen Boy, but Eagle vs Shark was on the movie channels all the time several years ago and it was a little to quirky.

        • Me

          I haven’t seen Wild Canaries yet, but I liked that filmmakers first film. Just to clarify I was talking about my comment in the other thread where I said you were in for a treat and its going to be hard to top What We Do In The Shadows for the funniest film of the year.

  2. Xanadon't

    The second screen shot is enough to convince me. Despite trying to appear modest, he looks quite pleased with himself. As well he should be from the looks of things. In case you were at all curious at I’d warn against allowing this successful found footage effort to sway you toward giving Willow Creek a watch. I didn’t realize that’s what it was until after I hit Play. It actually follows the rules– it’s just not a terribly compelling film. Someday someone somewhere will make a top shelf Bigfoot movie. I just have to remain patient.

    • Ken Hanke

      This isn’t found-footage, just mockumentary. I had been considering Willow Creek — not sure why, who made it? The double mickey of found-footage and Bigfoot will keep me away. Maybe it’s because Bigfoot was unheard of in my childhood, but I don’t see how you can make top shelf movie about a bottom shelf monster. In your vernacular, it’d be like ordering Scotch and just taking on faith it’s going to be Glenfiddich.

  3. Xanadon't

    Bobcat Goldwaith directed- he gave us World’s Greatest Dad and, arguably more interestingly, God Bless America, which if I remember correctly was a Magnet release and felt everybit like one. Darkly comedic, over the top, and ultimately more flawed then the best titles to come from Magnet.

    Bigfoot is no 18 years aged single malt as far as monsters go to be sure and I have no real fascination with the myth, but there’s potential for a fun treatment there, no?

    • Ken Hanke

      God Bless America‘ problem was that it basically had one to thing to say. It said it early. And then it said it over and over and over.

      Generally speaking, once monsters become the province of yahoos in camouflage wandering around the woods, my interest vanishes. I remember seeing a Yeti movie back in the early ’60s on TV (this was before Bigfootomania) that I thought was pretty good. I was quite young, too.

  4. Xanadon't

    Trying for the 3:50 show. Mondays are the only days I’m able to get to the theater as of late.

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, you certainly don’t get out on Tue or Thu night. Your job or your life or both play hell with your moviegoing.

  5. Xanadon't

    The correct answer is both– my job accounting for Thursday nights and various life stuff Tuesdays, the most recent culprit taking the form of dog obedience school held Tuesday evenings. But really that’s just incidental, as getting out for movies on Tuesday nights simply hasn’t been a workable option for a while now. I do plan on making a happy exception one of these weeks, but it won’t be this month.

    Like you, I have no familiarity with Flight of the Conchords which I’m guessing only benefited my opinion of Shadows in the sense that I couldn’t bring any cynicism with me to the viewing. Oh, maybe Conchords is great small screen fare, but I’m guessing the more I knew of it the more time I’d have spent waiting to be annoyed by this movie. As is I thought the movie was delightful and just shy of brilliant in a lot of ways. Certainly it was the most consistently and genuinely funny thing I’ve watched in a spell.

  6. Xanadon't

    Not sure if you’ve seen Doug Lyman’s Swingers, but it’s clear that these guys have in the way it influenced how things shake out between the vampire and swearwolf gangs.

    • Ken Hanke

      I will refrain from asking why you needed to attend obedience school. Some things should not be pressed.

      I am, however, delighted that you got the good out of What We Do in the Shadows. And, no, I’ve never seen Swingers.

  7. Xanadon't

    Well that’s twice now this week Swingers has come up in the comments section– maybe you should take it as a sign? Though as well as I once liked it, I can see how Vince Vaughn has poisoned the idea by this point. Either way the film is, much like this one, about the various natures and dynamics of assorted male friendships more than anything else.

  8. Harry Long

    >>>>Maybe it’s because Bigfoot was unheard of in my childhood<<<<

    Jeez, Ken. You clearly weren't paying attention. I first read about Bigfoot no later than when I was in high school (and more likely while I was still in junior high). And your several years younger than I am.

    • Ken Hanke

      You musta been at the tabloids early on. Or maybe it’s geographical, since I am unaware of any Bigfoot legends in Florida.

  9. Harry Long

    Actually it was books on “odd phenomena.” I was never a tabloid reader.

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