What We Do in the Shadows (film) – Review

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films.jpg

2014’s New Zealand-based vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was something of a cult hit, and with good reason. It’s largely the brainchild of Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, who appear in the film in lead roles as the vampires Viago and Vlad.  The script has a distinctive take on the vampire genre, following the escapades of an ineffective and neurotic group of vampires who live in a squalid houseshare in Wellington, New Zealand. Although the vampires are ancient, ranging from several hundred to many thousand years old, and have conventionally super-human powers, their indolent and impulsive lifestyles prevent them from leading fulfilling lives as they try (and fail) to keep up with the modern world.

What We Do… is filmed in a faux-documentary style, and although the whole thing is executed with tongue firmly in cheek, the film’s unique setting and genuine good-humour set it apart from much of the tediously self-referential horror emanating from within the Anglo-Saxon world in recent years. The fact that Clement and Waititi appear in prominent roles also helps the film, as they are able to bring the right kind of energy and register to their performances; I’m not sure a film of this budget could have secured the right calibre of actors otherwise. Indeed, if you want to be picky (and isn’t that the point of a culture blog?) then you could say that the film’s cast is one of the things that holds it back: a higher budget could perhaps have allowed for more charismatic actors to appear in a wider range of roles. As it is, Clement’s delightful chewing of the scenery carries much of the weight of the film.

The vampires find a lifeline to the contemporary world in the form of Stu, the friend of recently sired vampire Nick. The actor who plays Stu gives an exceptionally naturalistic performance which really helps put across the idea he’s an unusually down-to-earth and nice guy. The film also features some entertaining exchanges between the vampires and a pack of local werewolves, which plays with familiar tropes in the same way as the main story. The werewolf scenes are memorable highlights, and apparently a spinoff centred on this community is in the works, which has some potential.

Werewolves aren’t the only creatures depicted in the film, and one of the central events  is the “Unholy Masquerade”, a supernatural ball held in a seedy community centre which is convened by vampires, witches and zombies. The film certainly succeeds in divesting supernatural entities like vampires of their glamour, but at the same time, it also makes them feel strangely sympathetic. Much of the film’s appeal surely resides in that, for a film about the supernatural, its subjects often come across as distinctly human.

8/10

Stake Land 2: The Stakelander (film) – Review

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2010’s Stake Land was a refreshing take on the vampire genre. It went against the grain at a time when franchises like Twilight and True Blood were going all-out to make bloodsuckers teen-friendly, glamorous and sexy. By contrast, the vampires in Stake Land are a brutal, feral breed with low intelligence but unmatched viciousness and ferocity. Set in a world ravaged by the vamp-ocalypse, Stake Land was a flawed but effective film that brought to life the sort of world familiar to fans of Fallout, The Last of Us, and The Road. The story was derivative, but felt substantive and well-paced enough that it made you care about its characters, and the end result delivered scares but also reflected on human relationships. Specifically, the film was a moving tale of the difficult necessity of maintaining links with other people even if the world is dying around you.

Stake Land earned a solid reputation and a decent following, and so a sequel was always a possibility. The daftly named Stake Land II: The Stakelander was duly released earlier this year on video-on-demand, and now finds its way to Netflix. Sadly, it turns out this is one of those cases where a sequel wasn’t really needed. The writers don’t seem to have anything new to say, and the film mainly consists of an inferior re-hashing of the events of its predecessor. The first big problem is that Stake Land 2 immediately negates the upbeat ending of the first film, callously killing off Martin’s family again in an apparent effort to recreate the dynamic between him and his erstwhile mentor. Hoping for revenge against the vampires who killed his family, Martin seeks out the vampire-slayer and general badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici). The script suggests the world is an even more hopeless place than it was a few years earlier, but the disappointing cinematography doesn’t really bear this out. Cannibalism is now rampant, and the closest thing to an organized human force is The Brotherhood, a far-right Christian outfit who are in cahoots with the vampires, who they think have been sent to “purify” mankind or something.

Mister has continued his one-man crusade against vampires and the Brotherhood since the first film, but it’s a losing struggle. Moreover, vampires themselves now seem to be developing a knack for organization and strategy which bodes ill for the few remaining human settlements. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take this anywhere. Although in the first film the vampires felt tough and menacing, they don’t have the same effect here, partly because of how they’re filmed. They hardly ever go straight for their prey: normally preferring to knock people over, then scream in their faces for a few seconds, or however long it takes for someone to stab them in the back. Doing this once or twice is fine, but when it happens over and over again, it becomes really annoying. The lead vampire also makes liberal use of the head tilt, surely one of the laziest and most overused horror gimmicks around. In fact, the look and feel of Stake Land 2 reminded me of nothing more than 30 Days of Night, which is not a flattering comparison. That film was shit.

One of the big dangers in making a sequel like this is that it brings to light latent problems you couldn’t quite see in the well-liked original. As well as ruining the ending and sullying fond memories of the first Stake Land, Stakelander also has some troubling implications for its treatment of women. The main female character here is probably the vampire leader, who doesn’t have any lines, and who spends most of the film screaming and head-tilting; and, well, you can probably guess her fate. The other female character is an improbably well-groomed and attractive feral human who was supposedly raised in “the wild”. Mister and Martin sort of adopt her after rescuing her from some cannibals who were treating her as a pet/slave; she then bonds with Mister like a cat would with its owner. She doesn’t have any lines, either. The actress isn’t exactly given much to work with, but even so, it’s a pretty cringeworthy performance in a pitifully bad role.

One of the only things that Stake Land 2 has in its favour is its short length. It would be wrong to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because the film doesn’t have a good reason to exist at all. But a run time of 85 minutes goes by pretty fast. Even so, this is a hard film to recommend. Fans of Stake Land will likely be disappointed, and could find that this outing mars their enjoyment of that far superior film. And if you weren’t a fan of the original, why would you consider watching Stakelander in the first place?

4/10