Home / Lounge / Features /  Opinion | A few good vampires

Once every 11 or so years, when the moon gets a touch too ripe and turns werewolves particularly ticklish, comes a film too funny for our own good. In 2014, two gifted comic writers and performers from New Zealand, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, co-directed and starred in the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, without question the funniest English film this decade. It is a film about four vampire roommates in Wellington, standing outside doorways waiting to be invited in.

Now it has become a television show. Much has changed in five years. Those artists are, justly, a massive deal. Clement, so good in the fabulous Flight Of The Conchords (Hotstar), shone on Legion and Divorce, while Waititi, who made the brightest Marvel film, Thor: Ragnarok (Hotstar), happens also to be the nattiest film-maker in the universe. They reunite now with a serialized revamp of their beloved comedy. What We Do In The Shadows (Hotstar) is awkward and nutty, true to the prickly spirit of the original. It feels like a bloody gift.

The show is set on Staten Island, New York, featuring obscurely European vampires played by British actors. There is the theatrical Nandor The Relentless (who has to be rescued from his coffin with a butter knife), played by Kavyan Novak from another spectacular comedy, the jihadi idiot film Four Lions. There’s Laszlo Cravenworth, a former nobleman who may have been Jack The Ripper, played by Matt Berry (of The IT Crowd and Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace), an actor who deadpans daft lines with plummy magnificence. Laszlo’s amorous and disdainful wife, Nadja, is played by Natasia Demetriou with a preposterously thick accent. The look Nadja often gives Laszlo is a thing of beauty: Wordlessly, she channels Oliver Hardy telling Stan Laurel what a fine mess he has gotten them into, merely by narrowing her heavy kohl’d eyes.

This is par for the Shadows course—out-of-time maniacs caught in a world that doesn’t heed them—which is why the first standout in the TV adaptation is an energy vampire. Colin Robinson, played by Mark Prosch, wants to be duller than ditchwater. He prattles on about the banal, fatiguing his audience and supping on their energy. This less-overt vampire is both suitably modern, and, going against all pop-culture depictions of vampires, entirely uncharismatic, commonplace enough to remind us of bores we know—who may, it is suggested, be immortal. Groan.

The show has a similarly casual air. The original film was staged as a revelatory documentary about these amaranthine creatures, but the camera crew now—normalized by sitcoms featuring characters talking to camera—is more ubiquitous, less urgent. The gloriously stilted comic rhythm remains the same, but if the movie aimed for Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the show feels a lot more Modern Family. Modern-ish, at any rate.

Waititi and Clement dial up the spectacle, freed from indie limitations to let characters change whimsically into bats—Laszlo shouts “Bat" whenever he changes form, as if addressing a supernatural Siri—and for more ambitious set-pieces involving radical projectile vomiting. The cinematography is gothic and shadowy, its beauty often eclipsed by the constant visual and verbal gags. This is a world of cubicles and bus rides, but also a world where ladies float on the front porch, alongside gardens of excessively erotic topiary. The humour comes largely from the world-weariness of the vampires, doomed to eternal life, making trouble out of boredom.

The mission given to our vampires is loosely enforced but incredibly uphill. “Vampires taking over all humans? Oh, that’s a cool idea," Nadja said when she first heard of it, only to reflect a bit and wonder: “Sorry, why are we doing this?" Disinterest outweighing significant incompetence, they cut an unimpressive figure in front of the Council of Vampires, the all-stars of the game.

In episode 7, Waititi and Clement bring out the big fangs. The Council includes the original trio from the What We Do In The Shadows film, with actors who have played on-screen vampires: as if vampiric scripts work like bites. Evan Rachel Wood of True Blood is around, as is Danny Trejo of From Dusk Till Dawn. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt of Interview With The Vampire aren’t available, Robert Pattinson of Twilight has left the bloodsucking behind, but half-vampire Wesley Snipes of the Blade films joins in via Skype. It’s a delicious highlight for any fan of the fanged, the meeting presided over by the one and only Tilda Swinton, of the sublime Only Lovers Left Alive. I daresay the late David Bowie (of The Hunger) would approve.

What We Do In The Shadows is not a reboot but an extension, a unification of vampire movies and tropes we love, a union of lore and intricate observational comedy. It is deeply silly and offhandedly revolutionary, made by creators who play by no rules—even though their vampires are expected to. For instance, it is considered unforgivable to turn a baby into a vampire and damn them to a life of perpetual infancy. To paraphrase another Rob Reiner movie: They can’t handle the tooth.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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