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Love in the time of vampires

Wednesday 25th June 2014

As I was leaving the cinema, a man in front of me told his friend, “It’s so Wellington. It’s so Wellington. It’s just... it’s Wellington.”

The national discussion about What We Do In The Shadows has gotten to the point where I’d be adding jack-all by actually reviewing it. There have been heaps of reviews out of Sundance and SXSW calling it a cult classic in the making. There have been heaps of reviews from local outlets calling it a cult classic in the making. There’s been a ‘viral’ marketing campaign so inescapable that even the marketing director has been interviewed on TV, like they’re trying to Stockholm Syndrome us into liking it.

We all know it’s funny. We’ve been told that a million times in the last month.

To international viewers, The Big K’s a simple punchline to a montage of failed bar-hopping - the only bar the vampires can get into is a scuzzy, near-empty dive that’s half-heartedly capturing a Southern Man/Texas cowboy aesthetic.

And it is funny. It’s a bit slow to start – a gag about Nazi vampires feels like a tasteless setup looking for a punchline, while an early flat meeting skates by on awkwardness and incongruity before lurching into a conclusion. But the film finds steady ground quick, the improv getting tighter as the film progresses and narrative strands become more apparent.

The loosely-episodic structure serves it well, too, wringing as many jokes as it can out of each premise before moving along to the next. The film gets a lot of mileage out of newly-turned vampire Nick, played by Cori Gonzalez-Macuer with a characteristic dead-pan at odds with everyone else’s theatrical self-absorption. It really sells him as a bird tumbling out of the nest, all shitty flying and clumsy explanations to his mates.

But you don’t need me to tell you that. There’s literally a poster with heaps of reviewers saying exactly the same thing (“hilarious!”).

At one point in the film, Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Deacon (Johnny Brugh) hit Courtenay Place. They sing the praises of The Big Kumara, a scuzzy, near-empty dive bar, half-heartedly capturing a Southern Man/Texas cowboy aesthetic, that’s “run by vampires” so the bouncers know to invite them in.

VATCH ‘Getting a good soundbite’, where Viago and Vladislav hold a press conference under the Vellington sign. 

To international viewers, The Big K’s a simple punchline to a montage of failed bar-hopping. But to me, it’s bittersweet. The Big K closed up in 2012, and while I don’t remember it fondly (I doubt anyone does), it’s an integral part of ‘my’ Wellington. I paid my respects on its final weekend. They had Monster on tap and drunk teens were making good use of the stripper pole on the stage. I ran into friends and we talked about how sad it was, the death of this bar we’d not gone to in years.

And throughout What We Do In the Shadows, this keeps happening. Nick discovers why vampires only drink blood at the year-dead Yeung Shing Restaurant, down the road from the iconic Shalimar dairy in Aro Valley. The vampires get excited for Boogie Wonderland in a way only first years get excited for Boogie Wonderland. I’m pretty sure one of the bars the vampires try to get into is the dearly-departed Rain, where Scribe and Savage used to play before they got shuttled off to Public and Mishmosh.

The film finds its heart in the universal experience of loss. The fear of it, the hope that it can be avoided, the joy when it is.

Taika and Jemaine can’t have known most of this was going to happen, obviously. What We Do In The Shadows was filmed in September 2012 – two months before Big K closed, at least half a year before Yeung Shing shut, probably about a year and a half before Rain kicked the bucket. But that doesn’t stop the film feeling like a snapshot of a Wellington past.

There’s a sense of loss there, sometimes made explicit by intermittent shots of Viago standing (or floating) outside Rita Angus Retirement Village, in the dead zone of Kilbirnie. He is pining for a lover he lost in the 1930s, a woman he’s convinced no longer remembers him. She’s 92 now, and Viago stares at her window from under a lonely street light.

There’s a lot of this melancholy. Deacon, the self-styled ‘bad boy’, reacts angrily to Nick’s turning, scared that Nick will replace him, that Nick has already replaced him. Vladislav, once a powerful conjurer, doesn’t have the confidence or the skills he had before his battle with ‘The Beast’. Deacon’s familiar, mortal housewife Jackie (a wonderfully vain Jackie Van Der Beek), is staring down the barrel of aging and freaking out.

For all the flatting vampires gags, the film finds its heart in the universal experience of loss. The fear of it, the hope that it can be avoided, the joy when it is. It’s the thing that keeps the jokes human, grounded in our own world. It gives the comedy some permanence, some bite.

Yeah, it’s a Wellington film, in the same way Scarfies is a Dunedin film, or Fantail is a South Auckland film. It captures the transient parts, the parts you lose when you’re away from a city for a while – the shops, the hangouts, the pedestrians and public figures. But it also catches the energy of the place, that intangible quality captured in those places and people. The thing that makes Wellington different from Dunedin different from Palmerston North. For example.

I left Wellington 18 months ago. Not that long ago. But What We Do In The Shadows made me kind of homesick. It feels like the place I left.

It’s a great film. But it gains something if you come from where it’s coming from. I think most things do.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

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Adam makes a living at the Dunedin District Court, but makes a life as a playwright, director and writer. He writes The State of Things with Judah Finnigan.
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