September 2014

Arts & Letters

More human than human

By Luke Davies
Taika Waititi’s ‘What We Do in the Shadows’

Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010) was a simple tale, beautifully told. Eleven-year-old James Rolleston was raw and authentic as the eponymous Boy: fierce at times, a vulnerable child at others. Waititi’s performance as Boy’s hopeless, fantasist dad, recently released from prison, only added to the film’s disarming charm.

Waititi returns as the co-director, co-writer and a co-star of the sweet, funny mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (in national release 4 September). (Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame, is the other co-director and co-writer, and also a co-star.) Waititi is Viago, a 379-year-old vampire flatting in suburban Wellington with three other vampires. Clement plays 862-year-old Vlad (“Vladislav the Poker”); Ben Fransham is Petyr, an 8000-year-old Nosferatu lookalike with limited social skills; and Jonathan Brugh is Deacon, who at 183 is the youngest of the group.

The premise is that the friends have allowed a documentary crew to follow them around, reality TV–style. (The crew have been given crucifixes, as well as an undertaking from the vampires that they will not be killed.) What follows is a comedic ramble whose occasional seat-of-the-pants sloppiness is more than made up for by the pleasures of its absurd humour and the playful warmth of its cast.

“He was an 18th-century dandy,” says Vlad of Viago, “so he can be very fussy.” These days, the fussiness mostly makes itself felt in house-pride: Viago is the one who calls the house meetings and puts up complex charts of chores on the wall. (“If you’re going to eat a victim on my nice clean couch, put down some newspaper on the floor, and some towels. It’s not hard to do.”) He’s also the sweetest vampire you’ll meet. As for Vlad, he keeps a torture chamber, but these days only uses it when he’s in a “bad place”.

Jackie van Beek is excellent as Jackie, Deacon’s human “familiar”, who organises victims and carries out chores such as mowing the lawn or taking Deacon’s bloodied shirts to the drycleaners. (“My husband’s a haemophiliac.”) She’s enthralled by her master’s world one minute, prickly and neurotic about his treatment of her the next. “The deal is,” she says, “that he’s going to give me eternal life.”

When Petyr turns Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), one of the victims, into a vampire, Jackie sees it as queue-jumping. As she puts it, “If I had a penis, I would have been bitten years ago. They’re like one big circle, biting each other’s dicks.”

Nick’s best friend is Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a quiet computer-tech guy who brings the internet to the Luddite vampire household. The flatmates take a great interest in watching sunrises on YouTube, and Stu shows them the ins and outs of Google: “See, if we press ‘images’, we can see images of virgins.”

Stu becomes everyone’s favourite human. An honorary kind of dispensation is called for. Nick even puts in a special request to ancient Petyr: “Maybe don’t [kill] him. He’s a vegetarian – last thing he’d want to do is eat blood or eat meat.”

The film’s most pleasant surprise is the appearance of Rhys Darby (Murray the clueless band manager from Flight of the Conchords) as Anton, the uptight leader of a thick-headed werewolf pack. On a full-moon night, he chides one of the pack who has forgotten to bring his tracksuit pants: “When your legs expand, they grow into your tracksuit. You’re going to lose those jeans!” And then, to the pack at large: “Take all your clothes off that you want to keep, everyone!”

Nick, the newest vampire, finds the transition is not without its ups and downs. On the one hand, there are the newfound powers. “Probably the best thing about being a vampire is flying,” he tells the documentary crew. “I’ve always wanted – well, everyone wants to fly – and now I can do it.” On the other hand, he’s devastated when he realises he can’t eat chips anymore. “I’m over it,” he laments. “Chips are my favourite food.”

The light, throwaway scene harks back to a more measured and heart-wrenching moment in another eccentric vampire film whose defects of execution are made up for by its heart and quiet humour: E Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000). The film supposes that Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu in FW Murnau’s German expressionist classic Nosferatu (1922), was really a vampire. Willem Dafoe, as Schreck, speaks to another character about his experience of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“It made me sad,” he says. “Because Dracula had no servants.” When told that he’s rather missing the point of the book, Shreck indignantly proves that he is not, explaining the problem more clearly.

“Dracula hasn’t had servants in 400 years and then a man comes to his ancestral home, and he must convince him that he is like this man? That he has to feed him, when he himself hasn’t eaten food in centuries. Can he even remember how to buy bread? How to select cheese and wine?

“And then he remembers the rest of it. How to prepare a meal, how to make a bed. He remembers his first glory, his army, his retainers – and what he is reduced to. The loneliest part of the book comes when the man accidentally sees Dracula setting his table.”

The two films are tonally different: Shadow of the Vampire is more poetic, an arthouse oddity, What We Do in the Shadows more of a simple idea, hilariously executed. But the intersections occur at these moments of tenderness, where the vampires – and even the werewolves – seem more human than the humans.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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