115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Coming Out of the Coffin: The Humanizing Effect of Documentary on the “Other” in What We Do in the Shadows

Lauren Kelley Bond, San Bernardino Valley College

This presentation will discuss how the 2014 mockumentary about vampire flatmates living in modern-day New Zealand—What We Do in the Shadows—uses the form to modernize the vampire as Other by humanizing him. The film accomplishes this: a modern audience learns what it’s like to live as a vampire, we grow to love or at least better understand the undead whose stories are no longer untold, and we laugh at and relate to the idiosyncrasies and misadventures of the characters.

Proposal: 

In his albeit mixed review of the 2014 mockumentary about vampire flatmates living in modern-day New Zealand, What We Do in the ShadowsFilm International’s Matthew Sorrento notes that “like the mock-doc tone, the vampire parody feels worn out.” And yet, he continues, the film at many key moments demonstrates a fun and nuanced “affection for the tradition and insight about the recent genre.” Sorrento argues, for instance, that the eldest vampire in the film, the 8000-year-old Petyr, is oddly enough kept in the basement, appearing as “a double of Count Orlok—the onset of the actual vampire tradition onscreen, of course—that’s repressed by the current craze.” So, what are to make of yet another vampire film? While the film has had its share of critics, it was still relatively successful in the New Zealand and American box offices, and has received many positive reviews and scores, including a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes (not too shabby, I would say). And in the works is a sequel mockumentary in which camera crews will follow around the small group of werewolf friends who appear in the first film several times as, of course, a rival gang to the vampires; originally named What We Do in the Moonlight, the film will now premiere as We’re Wolves.

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of four vampires who live together today as flatmates in an old Victorian home in Wellington, New Zealand. The eldest is 8,000-year-old Petyr, who as mentioned before, now spends most of his days—or nights, rather—at home not doing much, it seems, aside from the critical moment when he turns the 20-something hipster Nick into a vampire, thus forcing a new person into the flat and into a completely new lifestyle. Then there is Deacon, 193 years-old, who enjoys knitting and erotic dancing, and keeps a human servant named Jackie who aspires to be turned herself and therefore does Deacon’s dirty work, like finding him victims to feast on at night and then cleaning up the mess after. The suave Vladislav, aged 892, has certainly softened up in more recent years, no longer using his torture chamber on victims; his nickname is “Vlad the Poker.” And finally there’s 379-year-old Viago, the unofficial leader of the group, a friendly dandy who originally immigrated to New Zealand to unsuccessfully follow a mortal woman he had loved.

The film playfully includes common vampire tropes and iconography, such as coffins; werewolf enemies; the troubles of silver, crucifixes, sunlight, and vampire hunters; and the need for fresh human blood. And yet, the movie adapts the old for something much more original. Despite Sorrento’s belief that both the mock-doc tone and vampire parody are worn out, I argue that What We Do in the Shadows does both genres justice, while commenting on the humanizing effects of documentary on the “Other.” The film’s premise is simple: a modern audience can now know a bit of what it’s like to live as a vampire. With this mockumentary, we grow to love or at least better understand the undead whose stories are no longer untold. And we laugh at and relate to the idiosyncrasies and misadventures of the characters, who indeed grow over the course of the few months of filming. The vampires learn how to get along with werewolves, use the internet, and also enjoy the presence of at least one “pre-deceased” human, specifically their beloved Stu, a software analyst and friend of Nick. My presentation, for which I would like to a couple of short clips, will discuss how the film uses the mockumentary form to modernize the vampire by humanizing him.

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