[Guest review by Nadine West @andiekarenina]
There is a very specific Taika Waititi humour. If you’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok, you already know it. It revels in incongruity, wordy monologues that reveal more than the speaker intends, occasional pratfalls and the thwarting of best-laid plans and, if you like it, it’s entirely addictive. Call it a Kiwi thing; in the land where no tall poppy is safe from culling, prodding at the pomposity we all try to hide in our dark hearts is a sure-fire comedy winner. When the protagonists are immortal vampires, and the setting is the meek streets of Staten Island, What We Do in the Shadows comes dangerously close to being a comedy masterclass.
The FX TV series is based on, spun off from or otherwise riffs upon the 2014 film of the same name starring Waititi and his co-creator, Flight of the Concords’ Jermaine Clement. This original vampire-in-the-city film was set in Wellington, became a cult hit as a result of its dry humour and faux-documentary style, and seemed destined to remain yet another in the long list of underrated NZ films. (Full disclaimer – I used to teach several Kiwis who now work in the film industry and I am biased as all hell. Pay more attention to NZ creators, you fools.) When Waititi smashed Thor: Ragnarok out of the ballpark and had his moment as the darling of Hollywood, however, studios asked him what he wanted to do next. His answer? I’d like to make What We Do in the Shadows again, please. And I’d like to make it BRILLIANT.
And it is brilliant. Perhaps it’s just a happy coincidence of my humour and theirs, but I have not guffawed this much for years. The series is a single-camera reality documentary parody (and without going too full-film-nerd, the camerawork and lighting are impeccably 1992’s The Real World, with amateurish lighting, camera-swing and dodgy focus-pulling, but at night) following three house-sharing vampires, Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja, as they attempt to co-exist, dispose of corpses, host high-pressure orgies and, just perhaps, take over the world.
The burden upon vampire-kind to take over the world – or at least the New World – leads us straight to one of the pilot episode’s classic lines: Matt Berry’s Laszlo contemplates this sacred task. He is dressed in a black cape. His fangs glisten. He furrows his brow and waves one laconic hand – “Yes, conquer the New World…but as you can see…it’s fucking massive.” This series likes bathos. They like it a lot. Undercutting is what they do: every time Laszlo transforms into a bat the CGI is movie-standard and the magic is real, but Matt Berry has to awkwardly shout “BAT” each time, in the tones of a cricket umpire calling “out”. When Nandor decides to launch his dominion over humankind by controlling their leaders, he ends up at a Staten Island Borough Council meeting, trying to hypnotise grey, earnest bureaucrats who ignore him in favour of a discussion of zoning regulations. (“They cannot be hypnotised,” he notes, aghast, “because they no longer have souls.”)
The cast is uniformly excellent. Once again, a little bias creeps in, because the unimpeachable and glorious Doug Jones is here as Baron Afanas, a recurring guest starring role which allows Jones to flip-flop between deeply creepy and deeply silly, often within the same line of dialogue, whilst giving us one of those physical performances that no one does better, because Doug Jones is a god who can do no wrong and this is a hill I will die on. In the main cast, Kayvan Novak makes a delicious Nandor – slightly haughty, slightly baffled – longing for a homeland and delighting in glitter and “creepy paper”. Natasia Demitriou is a cheerfully demented Nadja, and Harvey Guillén gets huge mileage and moments of genuine pathos out of Guillermo, Nandor’s long-suffering familiar whose only wish is to be “turned” by his master.
There are, inevitably, one or two nit-picks. The energy vampire idea – despite the character of Colin being very well played by Mark Proksch – wears out by episode three and stays threadbare. (He doesn’t feed on blood, he feeds on energy! Like that awful guy at your office! And he wears a grey cardigan! Yes, still the same single joke, over ten episodes!) The “LARPing as a rich mine of virgins” joke is old, so old, pretty offensive, and hit repeatedly with a mallet for diminishing returns. And, well, I don’t get on with vomit humour in any form, never have, never will, and let’s just leave that one there before I go green again.
But overall, this is a genuinely brilliant tv show. It is knowing – the use of vampire lore and canon is impeccable – but it is not self-satisfied. It slips in cinema-quality effects that you will barely notice happening, because it gets mundanity so very, very right. It makes you laugh out loud, not just once, but repeatedly. It will make you want to take up a VERY specific kind of gardening.
What We Do in the Shadows has, cheeringly, already been recommissioned for a second series. FX has a winner on its hands, and we can only hope that this one runs and runs.