In 2014, Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, Legion, Tongan Ninja) and Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok, Boy) released What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary comedy film that followed a group of vampires in a house share in Wellington. Clement and Waititi wrote, directed and starred in the film, which was based on a much earlier short subtitled “Interviews With Some Vampires,” was a popular and critical hit. It spawned a couple of further shorts shot as promos, and a New Zealand-based spin-off series, Wellington Paranormal, yet to reach the UK and only recently aired in the US.
Finally, in 2019, a full TV version of What We Do in the Shadows debuted, building on the concept and world of the film and taking it to new, ingenious comic heights. Filmed in Toronto, set in Staten Island, New York, and with a mix of American, British and European leads, the new Shadows is a heady mix of the weird and wonderful. From the opening titles, showing portraits of the main characters through the centuries to the backing of Norma Tanega's sumptuous “You're Dead,” the series is captivating but never serious.
The series runs with the basic idea of the film: a group of vampires in a house share in the New World, but plays with it by creating a truly hilarious and weirdly adorable group of new characters. The nominal head of the household, due his advanced age, is Nandor the Relentless. Played by Iranian-British Kayvan Novak (Fonejacker, Four Lions, Thunderbirds are Go), Nandor was once the warlord of an ancient kingdom in southern Iran and a vassal ruler of the Ottoman Empire, who cut a swathe of murder and mayhem across central Eurasia. Now, though, he's an absolute kitten, an anxious and pernickity old man who likes everything just so and absolutely relies on his familiar, Guillermo. He's completely lost in the 21st century and relies on Guillermo for even the most basic interactions with modern society.
Matt Berry (Toast of London, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh) plays Laszlo Cravensworth, the youngest of the traditional vampires of the house. Berry's unique and unmistakable voice is perfect for that of a pretentious English nobleman. Utterly self-assured, obsessed with sex and devoted to his wife/sire Nadja, Laszlo is the most likely to get into a fight with another creature of the night, but also the most likely to run away. His main mode of travel is as a bat, although he can't seem to transform without shouting “BAT!” at the top of his voice. He was allegedly Jack the Ripper, but you can't believe everything he says.
Nadja of Antipaxos, played with perfect disdain by Anglo-Cypriot actress Natasha Demetriou (Stath Lets Flats, This Time With Alan Partridge), is a Greek Romani vampire who turned Laszlo, later marrying him. She's very much in love with her husband but despairs of of both him and Nandor, continually berating them for their stupidity. She's the most capable of the three when it comes to the modern world, but that's not saying much. She's often nostalgic about her pre-vampire life, and has been having an on-off affair with a man named Gregor (Jake McDorman – Limitless) who has been reincarnated over-and-over after carelessly getting himself beheaded in each of his lives.
The final vampire of the household is Colin Robinson, played by American Mark Proksch (The Office, Better Call Saul). Rather than a blood-sucking true vampire, Colin is an energy vampire, who drains the life force of others through his sheer, relentless dullness. Unlike the proper vampires, he can go out in daylight, enter buildings without invitation, and make it to the dry cleaners without hopeless confusion. He doesn't generally show any special powers, with the exception of during the episode “Colin's Promotion,” where increased influence in his drab office job elevates his energy-draining to such a level that he can fly and multiply himself. Unfortunately, nobody likes him and the other residents prefer to avoid him.
Mexican-American Harvey Guillén (The Magicians Thunderman) plays the lovely Guillermo, the put-upon familiar of Nandor who acts as a general dogsbody for this master and the household in general. While the others treat him quite poorly (usually referring to him as Gizmo), Nandor is clearly very fond of him, and the two have a rather sweet if unequal friendship. Guillermo has been Nandor's familiar for eleven years by the time we join the series, and is still holding out hope that he will be turned into a vampire (something that rarely seems to happen to familiars before they die or get dumped). Constantly frustrated with his lot in life and appearing unassuming, Guillermo is hyper-competent, and discovers that he is, in fact, descended from famed vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing, something he tries to keep secret from the vampires of the house. Guillén's performance is impeccable; among an exceptional cast, he's stand-out, providing many of the biggest and best laughs.
So far, the series has completed two seasons of ten episodes, with a third currently airing in the US and a fourth already ordered. Officially created by Jemaine Clement, he and Waititi share directing duties with several others, with Clement writing and co-writing some episode alongside a roster of writers that includes Paul Simms (Flight of the Conchords) and Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners). The result is a hilarious, clever, joyfully rude and unabashedly silly series that combines horror and humour to perfection. The supposed documentary film crew follows the vampires and Guillermo through their lives, seeing the reality of undead existence with these washouts. The episodes affectionately mock the tropes of horror films and television, while building an ongoing drama from the relationships of the characters and the askew world they inhabit. The series is unapologetically gory as well, with lashings of blood just like you'd expect from a vampire drama.
The esteem that Clement and Waititi command also means that big name stars are lining up to guest or cameo on the series. Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery, Hellboy, Hocus Pocus), the greatest monster actor of the generation, appears several times in the first season as the ancient, emaciated Baron Afanas, who comes from the Old World to stay in the house and orders his underlings to conquer the Americas. Unfortunately, they can't even influence the Staten Island local council. Vanessa Bayer (Saturday Night Live, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) guests in the episode “Werewolf Feud” as Evie, an emotional vampire who becomes Colin's rival then lover. Mark Hamill (the greatest Joker ever, and he also did that Star Wars thing) appears in “On the Run,” an absolutely brilliant episode in which he plays an eccentric vampire swearing vengeance on Laszlo, who goes into hiding as a barman in a bar in Pennsylvania (because it sounds like Transylvania).
The most star-studded episode is “The Trial,” in which Laszlo, Nadja and Nandor are summoned before the Vampire Council. Clement and Waititi, plus their co-star Jonathan Brugh, resume their roles from the film, along with half a dozen superstars who appeared as vampires on other films and series. For copyright-avoiding purposes, Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Wesley Snipes (Blade), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood) and Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) all play vampires who happen to share their first names. Other stars who make guest appearances over the course of the series include Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Hayley Joel Osment and Scott Bakula, as himself.
Each episode, although no more than thirty minutes long, is packed with plot and incident, with some wonderfully absurd horror stories unfolding. “Ghosts” and “Witches” in season two are among the best episodes. In the former, the vampires come to the realisation that, since they are dead, their own ghosts must exist and can be summoned. Nandor is unable to communicate with his ghost since he has forgotten how to speak his native language (actually Novak speaking fluent Farsi) while Nadja befriends her own ghost, who sticks around inhabiting a creepy doll. In the latter, Nandor and Laszlo are kidnapped by witches, led by the wonderful Lucy Punch (Hot Fuzz, A Series of Unfortunate Events), who want to harvest their vampiric “seed.”
If there's a central character to the series, a hero even, it's Guillermo, who gradually grows in confidence and becomes such a skilled vampire hunter that he can barely meet a vampire without accidentally slaying them. All under the others' noses, of course. A brilliant balance of thrills and laughs, What We Do in the Shadows has rightly won a slew of awards for design, casting and multiple best series, along with a whole run of Emmy nominations. Undoubtedly the best horror comedy in years.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on October 21st, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.