“What We Do in the Shadows” Pilot Review: Bloody Brilliant!
When I heard the news that one of my favorite films of all time, 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, was being given the television treatment by its creators Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement for FX, I was insanely excited – followed immediately by anxious trepidation. After all, not every film to tv show (and vice versa) has survived the transition with its spirit, humor, and greatness intact (*cough cough* Heathers *cough cough*). But I am glad I put my faith in the almighty Waititi because the pilot episode of What We Do in the Shadows is bloody brilliant. And I don’t feel bad for that pun, not even a little bit.
In this new world of WWDITS, we have literally been transported to “the New World”…..of Staten Island. (The original film takes place in the suburbs of New Zealand.) Our vampire roommates being followed by our mockumentary crew are: a former warrior of the Ottoman Empire – Nandor (played by Skins‘ Kayvan Novak), lusty but long married couple Nadja and Laszlo (Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry), Nandor’s human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), and the “energy vampire” Colin (Better Call Saul‘s Mark Proksch). They were sent to this “New World” by their master (the ominous Baron) in order to conquer it for vampires. Unfortunately, the new world is “f*cking huge” and they never made it past the town where the boat dropped them off. This proves a problem when the Baron (Doug Jones!) comes to visit and check on their progress.
They parallel the archetypes put forth in the original film with some slight variations. Nandor’s appearance is similar to Clement’s Vladislav, but his personality is a bit fussy, like Waititi’s Viago. Nadja and Laszlo’s relationship calls back to Vladislav’s tumultuous affair with “the Beast,” but also has a hint of Deacon’s rakish recklessness. The series really gets a chance to expand the universe of WWDITS with Nadja and Colin. We finally get a female vampire in the house to follow around! (After all the film’s familiar, Jackie, doesn’t get turned into a vampire until the very end.) And with Colin, the audience learns that there are other types of vampires in the world, not just your garden variety bloodsucking kind. “Energy” vampires (“the most common type of vampire”) suck the life force out of their victims by either boring them to death or enraging them. They are also the only type of vampire that can exist in daylight and feed off of other vampires. Proksch’s Colin is pitch-perfect, his office scene feels both very specific and universal (we all have several “energy vampires” in our lives), and his “feeding face” is hilarious.
From the loose documentary style cinematography, the frequent and perfectly timed carotid blood sprays, the cutaways to old paintings and wood cuttings during interviews, and even using the song from the film’s opening credits (“You’re Dead” by Norma Tanega) for the show’s as well, the pilot (written by Clement and directed by Waititi) perfectly captures everything about the original film while giving the characters room to make the world their own. The delivery is deadpan but perfectly timed, so that even the broadest jokes (“I was the most handsome man in my village,” declares Laszlo. “Yes his village was devastated by leprosy,” replies Nadja) land like gangbusters.
The costuming is also spot on (the giant lace collar worn by Berry is probably now my most favorite of things), and by having their wardrobes stuck in the time period in which they were turned, it really serves to highlight the absurdity of vampires trying to exist in an increasingly modern world. Nandor’s billowing cloak as he walks down the office and craft supply aisle of the local grocery store (“Creepy paper!” “It’s crepe paper” “Creepy paper!”), Nadja’s overly wrought curls, even the Baron’s armpit flaps and lack of genitals (“His lack of genitals is what makes him such an excellent lover.”) are all just so freaking perfect and hilarious. Even when Nandor tries to make a topical joke for the Baron (he covers his face in glitter “like Twilight!”), it’s still over ten years out of date and only highlights how out of touch he is. However, the best (and most meta) gag of the episode, for me, was when the Baron was delivering his epic and bloodthirsty monologue about conquering America, when he stops dead and looks right at the camera in shock. He hadn’t realized there was a camera crew present, or probably even what a camera crew is/does.
The performances of the entire cast are, you guessed it, fantastic. I’m excited for American audiences that have not yet been exposed to Berry’s signature cadence and line readings. But the stand out for me is Guillén. As the earnest and often beleaguered Guillermo, he brings a wonderfully subtle and complex vulnerability to the role. You can see the range of emotions at work as he displays a photo of his idol (Antonio Banderas in Interview with a Vampire) or lures some LARPing virgins to their doom, striving so hard to please his master so that he can be granted immortality, only to be constantly disappointed by Nandor’s obliviousness and shutdowns.
He also nails what I will call “the Viago” after Waititi’s vampire originator – nervous glances directly into the camera. He has been expecting that for his tenth anniversary of serving Nandor that he will finally be turned, and even though the audience (being familiar with how vampires operate) knows that won’t happen, when he receives a glitter painting instead of his heart’s desire, it is both hilarious and devastating.
Overall, the pilot delivered everything I wanted and more. I am very curious to see how the world expands and shifts as different writers and directors tackle the coming episodes. Will the vampires be able to shake off the smaller horrors of daily life and finally begin their take over of Staten Island and the rest of the country? Will Nadja and Laszlo have a sexy and horrifying threesome with the Baron? (They are both his ex-lovers after all.) Will Colin eventually drain the life forces of his roommates? What other kinds of vampires might be out there? And most importantly, will they come across other supernatural creatures like my beloved Swearwolves?
What We Do in the Shadows airs at 10 p.m. on FX.