There are a lot of things I love about What We Do in the Shadows. I adore the great comedic performances, its hilarious subversion of the vampire subgenre, and its subtle worldbuilding. But more than anything, what I really admire about What We Do in the Shadows is how co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi use filmmaking in clever ways to create comedy that is truly cinematic.
What We Do in the Shadows is about four centuries-old vampires — Vladislav (Clement), Viago (Waititi), Deacon (Jonny Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) — who live together in a house in Wellington, New Zealand. A documentary crew follows them as they try to show a new vampire named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) the ropes of being a member of the undead.
There have been a lot of modern movies in the comedy genre which fail to use film form to tell visual jokes, as writer/editor Tony Zhou once noted. This is a mistake which Clement and Waititi never make. You can tell they’ve got good visual imaginations from the second shot of the film. From the perspective of a medium shot, they film an ordinary alarm clock blaring next to Viago’s coffin. His hand shakily moves forward until it finally turns the alarm clock off. This joke does a variety of things at once. It establishes the film’s narrative subject (vampires), part of the setting (present day), as well as its tone (comedic yet supernatural). The fact that they do this in under 30 seconds shows off their knack for shot economy, too.
What We Do in the Shadows goes on to tell great visual jokes. They’re related to everything from their characters’ ineffective supernatural powers (my favorite of which is Vladislav’s glitchy shapeshifting) to battles between them and their werewolf nemeses.
Clement and Waititi use the perfect types of shot to use to tell these jokes, too. They know exactly when to zoom in on a detail to make it funnier, or when to pan from a shot of vampires dancing to a mirror which only shows non-vampiric characters dancing. This film is very quotable, but its directors never forget to neglect their ability to tell jokes with just images.
Another thing which makes this film innovative from a visual standpoint is its use of the mockumentary format. Many comedies have used this format, such as This is Spinal Tap and most of the films directed by Christopher Guest. But Clement and Waititi make it their own through their excellent use of archival images. They frequently cut to shots of old photographs and drawings to add extra emphasis to a joke or to add greater scope and scale to its story. In addition, the sheer strangeness of the images helps give the film a unique character all its own.
Sometimes I like to watch movies with the sound turned off. It allows you to focus more on the visual side of movies and can teach you a lot about blocking. I haven’t done that yet with What We Do in the Shadows, but I easily could and get a lot out of it. The directing and cinematography are so well-thought out and confident that you could laugh as much with the sound off as you could if you had access to the music and dialogue. It remains the type of cinematic comedy that more people should emulate.
IU Cinema will be screening What We Do in the Shadows at Memorial Stadium on October 14 as the conclusion to this semester’s IU Cinema Under the Stars series. All tickets have been distributed for this event. There will be no standby line for this sold-out screening.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.