Fangs Ain’t What They Used To Be.
Tom Bielby looks at the problems facing the modern-day vampire about town.
Ever since Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula established the foundations of vampire folklore back in 1897, storytellers who revel in exploring the lives of these nocturnal, blood-sucking creatures have embellished certain aspects of their supernatural abilities and weaknesses. This is not just to terrify those of a nervous disposition but also to entertain those who delight in the horror of such macabre tales. An unauthorised film adaptation of Dracula was the first to commit the frightening imagery of a vampire to celluloid, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu still retains the power to shock and astound audiences almost a hundred years after its initial release. Whereas Stoker’s incarnation of Dracula was mostly unhindered by daylight other than being incapable of using certain powers when exposed to the sun, Murnau’s version introduced the idea that sunlight would cause actual bodily harm to a vampire.
We have recently been inundated with films that continue to stretch the boundaries of vampire folklore to new lengths (these days it is not uncommon for the skin of a vampire to sparkle in the sunlight) and in turn distance their creations from the established rules which have proved so successful in the past. Strangely enough it is a comedy, not a horror, that has returned to the roots of vampire folklore to provide audiences with a refreshing insight into the lifestyle of these fanged fiends by documenting their attempts to co-exist peacefully (relatively speaking of course – they still need to feed) alongside humans.
Written, directed by, and starring Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi of Flight of The Conchords and Eagle Vs Shark fame, What We Do In The Shadows is a hilarious mockumentary that follows the lives of four vampires living in a houseshare in Wellington, New Zealand. The duos screenplay expertly subverts vampire folklore into a mechanism for humour instead of the expected horror, whilst still conforming to the established rules of the genre. Some of the most inspired moments from the film are twists on the popular tropes that are normally utilised as an instrument of terror in more serious approaches to the vampire legacy, and this ensures that What We Do In The Shadows will resonate with audiences who have an affinity with creatures of the night.
Acting as our guide around their house is Viago, (Waititi) who introduces us to to Vladislav (Clement) & Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) before nervously approaching the basement where we meet his final housemate Petyr (Ben Fransham); a dead ringer for Max Schreck in Nosferatu, who is far from pleased to be disturbed. Not all vampires appearances are as much of a giveaway as Petyr’s dishevelled and anaemic body, but there are other methods of spotting those vampires who could easily pass as humans.
A sure-fire way to identify a vampire is by noticing their lack of reflection in a mirror, much to Professor Van Helsing’s horror in Dracula (1931) when he stumbles upon the Count’s true identity during a haunting scene in Tod Browning’s film adaptation of Stoker’s tale. Shortly after this revelation Van Helsing shows the mirror directly to Dracula who recoils back, fearful of its gaze, and offers a vague explanation to his inherent hatred of reflective surfaces.
As we are well aware from the outset that the main protagonists in What We Do In The Shadows are vampires their lack of a reflection does not incite horror but is used to demonstrate just how tricky it can be for them to pick a suitable outfit for a night out. These vampires are not afraid of mirrors but are frustrated by their lack of a reflection, and they must rely on each others judgement that their choice of attire will not draw unwanted attention when leaving the house. That they have no reflection becomes a recurring joke throughout the film, including scenes where the group play with various objects in front of a mirror and a stand-out scene at a party where the majority of guests are vampires.
One modern film that elaborates on vampire folklore is the excellent Swedish Horror Let The Right One In; its title referring to the notion that vampires are unable to enter a household until its occupant gives them permission to enter. In Let The Right One In a young boy Oskar befriends a seemingly innocuous girl Eli who later turns out to be a creature of the night. When Oskar refuses to give her permission to enter his home we are given a glimpse of the cruel fate that awaits those vampires who enter uninvited. In one of the film’s most intimate yet shocking moments Eli begins to bleed from every orifice, forcing Oskar to invite her in to prevent further suffering.
In What We Do In The Shadows this same situation is utilised for comedic effect when Viago, Vladislav and Deacon venture out to experience the local nightlife. They struggle to locate a nightclub that will accommodate them, not just because of their questionable outfits but due to the fact that bouncers have to verbally invite them in before they can enter. Despite the group’s best efforts of persuasion their pleas fall on deaf ears and they resort to attending one of the only bars where the bouncers are happy to extend an invitation for them to enter, even if they would much prefer to be spending the night in one of Wellington’s premier nightclubs.
Being a vampire also has its benefits and these supernatural creatures often use their shapeshifting abilities to transform into a variety of animals. In From Dusk Till Dawn Seth Gecko battles with a vampire that takes the form of a large rat, in Fright Night we see a defeated vampire taking on the form of a werewolf in a last-ditch attempt to survive, and in almost all vampire films they turn into bats ether to flee from danger or to sneak up on unsuspecting victims.
When Vladislav and a newly turned vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) end up bickering in What We Do In The Shadows a ‘bat-fight’ ensues as they both transform and fly off into the night sky to do battle. Far from being an impressive display of their fighting prowess – as you would expect from two ancient and powerful creatures – this scuffle has more in common with a cat fight, and their ineffectual squabble becomes a source of much amusement to those nearby.
Thanks in part to the playful manner in which its writers adapt key elements of vampire folklore, What We Do In The Shadows succeeds both as a homage to vampire films that have laid the foundations of the genre before it and also as a riotous comedy. We have only scratched the surface of the vampire character traits that are exploited in the Flight of The Conchords team’s debut feature film, and hope that you too will enjoy this wickedly funny subversion of vampire folklore in What We Do In The Shadows.