What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘New Zealand’? If you are thrilled by the overstated, perhaps director Peter Jackson springs to mind; he is rather popular. But fans of the understated may well favour Flying Nun Records, The Chills, Split Enz or New Zealand’s greatest comic export, TV series ‘Flight of the Conchords’.
Fans of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ will rejoice at the arrival of ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, an awkwardly named but highly acclaimed horror comedy/mockumentary. ‘Flight of the Conchords’ cast an absurd, often surreal look at the day-to-day activities of two flat-sharing New Zealanders trying to make it in New York’s music scene; the deliberate misspelling of ‘Conchords’ suggests that each chord is part of an absurd musical con.
‘What We Do in the Shadows’ casts a similar eye on the daily mundanities of misfit vampires sharing a flat. The film stars Jemaine Clement and Rhys Darby. The omission of fellow Conchord Bret McKenzie (now an Academy Award winning composer) is somewhat alleviated by the addition of Taika Waititi, who wrote and directed some ‘Conchords’ episodes. Recent interviews with Clement suggest a ‘Conchords’ reunion is more likely than Peter Jackson directing a sequel to his ‘Meet the Feebles’ – a twisted take on the Muppets. Apparently, a ‘Flight of the Conchords’ reunion tour, featuring new material, is a possibility for late 2015. The Holy Grail for diehard fans, a ‘Conchords’ movie musical, is still being discussed.
Despite the tired mockumentary structure, ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ succeeds via comic DNA inherited from ‘Conchords’. Shared traits include juxtaposition of the mundane with the fantastic; droll, deadpan delivery; and a genuine affection for naïve, somewhat innocent outsiders and eccentrics trying to make it in an alien environment. The latter may stem from the perception of New Zealanders – as satirised on the ‘Conchords’ – as isolated, struggling for significance and behind the times. Of course, New Zealand really is isolated, which probably explains why Clement and Waititi’s humour usually revolves around outsiders trying to assimilate into a new environment. However, their shared affection for outsiders may also be attributed to their part-Maori upbringing, affording them unique perspectives on the land and the people around them.
In ‘Shadows’, the eccentric outsiders are flatmates Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav – three vampires trying to make it in the modern metropolis of Wellington, New Zealand. They face a variety of seemingly insurmountable hurdles including paying rent, adhering to the chore wheel, trying to get past bouncers, and improving household safety. Lesser trials and tribulations include being immortal, feasting on human blood and battling fashion-challenged werewolves. Further trouble arises when flatmate Petyr, the old-school Nosferatu of the group, turns unreliable hipster Nick into a vampire; it’s up to the guys to show him how to be a proper vampire, while not attracting attention to their existence. Nick’s human friend, Stu, challenges the vampire’s world view; in a key scene, they decide not all humans are bad (only 98% of us are no good) and fight to protect him from other bloodsuckers.
The film has been met with almost unanimous critical praise, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the quiet, understated moments that really shine – and there are many of them. Clement, in particular, is in fine form; his slow, careful approach, favouring silence over ostentation, combined with his smooth, deadpan Transylvanian delivery kept me chuckling. On the other hand, some attempts to build up to more elaborate comic payoffs fell into cliché and obviousness; for example, a costume ball for the living dead didn’t live up to its potential. To some degree, these minor concerns are due to the over-familiar mockumentary format.
A few minor quibbles aside, this is a must-see for fans of quirky comedy and, needless to say, for fans of ‘Flight of the Conchords’… “It’s business. It’s business time.”
The film is screened by Rochester Film Society on Tuesday 19 May 2015 at Rochester Picture Palace, Princes Hall, Corn Exchange, Rochester ME1 1LX. £5, £3 NUS. Bar/refreshments available.
Cameron A Straughan is a Canadian writer, photographer, teacher of science and member of the Rochester Film Society. He operates Kadath Press and has recently published two collections of absurd short stories. He resides in Chatham – Jewel of the Medway. cameronstraughan.wordpress.com. facebook.com/kadathpress