The uproarious vampire indie-comedy What We Do in the Shadows has just been added to the Netflix roster, and so I’ve just watched it again for the third time. It put me in mind of a really odd coursework assignment I ended up slapping together for a module on the origins of the Documentary film. The coursework was about documentaries, mockumentaries, and all of the slight variations on that sliding scale. The finished version was 4,000 words of proudly uninformed garbage.
The final section, though, might be of interest to those who have seen and enjoyed What We Do in the Shadows, for it presents an academic, jargonistic reading of the comedy (best of 2014 in my opinion) in the context of actual documentary filmmaking techniques and crossovers between that world and the realm of fiction and fake-reality television. Note the disgracefully amateurish tone, replete with puns, of this final year university work. This is the only part of the essay with any merit, too. Honestly. There’s six hundred words on why the Discovery Channel failed to prove the existence of mermaids.
But I digress. Here it is. Minus the citations. Here. Beginning now.
Actually, you could listen to the film’s full soundtrack on YouTube because that might make the reading more jolly and not as arduous. Here it is.
For good measure I’ll chuck in stills from the film, to break up the monotony. Now it starts.
Released in 2014, What We Do In the Shadows (WWDIS) is one of the most recent entries into the fantasy/documentary category. Its fictional subject matter trivialises popular culture and pronounces some inherent fallibilities of entertainment documentaries. The film blends horror and comedy with a documentary approach to present a deadpan examination of modern day vampirism in Wellington, New Zealand. A generic, formal introduction from the non-existent ‘New Zealand Documentary Board’ establishes the officious and professional tone. According to the inter-titles, a covert team who were ‘granted protection by the subjects of the film’ followed a ‘secret society’ of vampires over a period of months leading to the annual ‘Unholy Masquerade’. The mockumentary approach is fairly unusual for the story setting, as most fantasy/horror mockumentaries fall into the now widespread sub-genre of found footage (e.g The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity).
WWDIS main characters are four undead flatmates: Viago is 379 years old, Petyr is 8,000 years old, Deacon is 183, and Vladislav is 862. Two of the leads – namely Jonathan Brugh and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer – are little known beyond their home country of New Zealand, but WWDIS’ writers/directors/actors Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement (more so the latter) are renowned for their comedic film and television work, Clement for Flight of the Choncords (2007-2009) and Waititi for Boy (2010). This presents a limitation of the mock-documentary film: (Schaper, 1978: 31) if an audience member recognises a performer it places additional strain on their ‘willingness’ to suspend disbelief.
Displaying unconcealed self-awareness WWDIS ceaselessly satirises both distant and modern culture, targeting ancient mythology as well as a massive roster of vampire-based films and television series: Twilight (2008), True Blood (2008), Let the Right One In (2008), Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), and the original Dracula (1931) – plus a host more. Recent cultural touchstones are directly referred to, such as when Viago dresses as Wesley Snipes’ character from the Blade (1998) trilogy for amusement, or when a human shows the vampires a virtual sunrise on YouTube a la Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994). In another scene a demonstration is given of a hypnotism trick involving ‘bisgetti’ and worms: ‘we stole that idea from The Lost Boys’ (1987).
The writers tap into this rich vein of what is essentially bastardised folklore to produce excellent comedy material , applying it to the real world with all the ugly impracticalities (procuring human victims, sleeping upside down, being allergic to sunlight etc.) which that entails. All these things are captured using documentary techniques; the film is a combination of talking head interviews, archival footage/photographs, and ‘raw’ footage of the struggles of the characters’ daily lives. Almost every scene begins with a recognisable domestic situation which turns supernatural without losing its kitchen sink appearance, such as a when, in the opening minutes, an argument about washing up rotas (also rather kitchen sink) explodes into a flying battle between two hissing vampires.
Vampire Mob (2010), a little known web series which began four years prior to the release WWDIS, is an independently made low budget production claiming to use a mockumentary style. Initially, writer/director Joe Wilson takes pains to ensure that each episode is shot from a single perspective, using just one camera. This carefully established aesthetic is shattered when the film begins to jump around in multi-shot without explanation or additional camera crew. Vampire Mob thus fails to qualify as mockumentary , drifting into the realm of non-fiction drama.
Another common documentary technique parodied in WWDIS is the reconstruction, or ‘re-enactment’, in which an already fictional event – how a human character became a werewolf – is dramatically re-imagined, with all the hallmarks of a Crimewatch UK (1984-) instalment. (Hennes, 1994: 2129) When presented as fact, reenactments are notorious for distorting the truth and subverting judicial decisions using circumstantial evidence. Owing to a reliance on witness accounts and professional actors there is a risk that information will be lost in translation, something WWDIS’ docufiction parodies. As the vampires get dressed in preparation for heading into town, there are several painfully botched attempts at spontaneity which are evidently scripted, parodying the awkward, obviously pre-planned structure of lifestyle programme Jersey Shore (2009), among its many copycats. The ‘getting ready’ scene elaborates upon innumerable tropes from this genre, deriding their hyper-edited (Beck, 2012: 7), over-produced ‘qausi-reality’ (Narsey and Russell, 2011: 235).
‘The trouble with being a vampire is that you have to be invited in’. A few gags in WWDIS are reminiscent of the prank style seen in Trigger Happy TV (2000) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006). Shot by a single camera from across the road, the fully costumed actors are seen imploring unmoved club doormen to explicitly welcome them into various venues – without express invitation vampires, according to WWDIS’ lore, cannot cross a threshold to claim victims. It is unclear whether this is unscripted footage or if the bouncers agreed to be in the film beforehand, which adds another layer of fact/fiction for the audience to decode.
Reflexivity between the filmmakers and the subjects of WWDIS is constant. The alleged secrecy of the vampire cult, paramount to their way of life, is undermined continuously both in public displays and through the very fact that they are being filmed. When Deacon admonishes new blood Nick for attracting attention by flying outside, the accused glances from the camera to Deacon, replying, ‘You’ve got a whole documentary crew following you around’. Later, a clash with a group of ‘actual werewolves’ nearly turns violent; the altercation carries the bearings of a tense moment from a Ross Kemp on Gangs (2006) episode. Despite the aggression no fighting ensues after the ‘alpha male’ werewolf says, ‘You’re on camera mate, don’t. Don’t do it’, – this is a perceptive parody of Kemp-esque gangland documentaries in which hoodlums wave weapons and posture aggressively during interviews, without actually breaking out into violence.
The climax of The Unholy Masquerade in WWDIS highlights the difficulty of achieving anonymity in a filmmaking situation. At first all non-human guests seem oblivious to the cameras. That is until Vladimir’s nemesis points them out, at which stage the cameras begin to roam erratically while Vladimir tries to protect them: ‘You will not eat Stu and you will not eat the camera guy’, then turning to another camera, ‘Maybe one camera guy’. Their very presence alters the environment. What they capture is not therefore the true face of the ancient Unholy Masquerade tradition. In this scene directors Clement and Waititi are emphasising the inherent struggle of maintaining objectivity in the documentary film. (Nichols, 1991: 122) If a camera crew changes the outcome of a scenario, then their representation of the subjects cannot be anything but subjective.
That’s that, that is. Did you enjoy it? Leave a comment. Don’t forget to rate, like, subscribe, sign up to the newsletter, add me on LinkedIn, and donate to an organisation of your choice dedicated to the ending of animal enslavement worldwide.
On an unrelated note which writing this has just reminded me of, I will be cancelling all payments on my Netflix account. This is because a leech has begun figuratively sucking out my warm, precious, AB blood. Look back to the picture above for a visual representation of what is happening to my honest self. I’m the dead one. Anyway, someone, or something, has made themselves – or itself- a username on my main account. Complete with an avatar, that smiles and winks and me. Who they are or how they got in I do not know, but only four people are authorised to binge watch Arrested Development five days a week and Archer on the remaining two using my paid account, and this parasite isn’t one of them.
Not that the others aren’t filthy bottom feeders either. Oh no, they very much are. They’ll probably read this. They’ll probably be the only ones reading this. So yes, your days of endlessly re-watching the spectacular David Attenborough BBC Earth anthology, comprised of the Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, and Planet Earth series, are numbered.