How ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Made Vampires Cool Again

‘Twilight’ almost killed off vampires for good, but a group of weird New Zealanders resurrected the undead.
What We Do In The Shadows
By  · Published on June 13th, 2019

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“Vampires have had a pretty bad rep. We’re not these mopey old creatures who live in castles. And while some…most of us are – a lot are…but…there are also those of us who like to flat together in really small countries like New Zealand.”

In 2012, Twilight ended its reign of terror. Since 2008, the films, based on the infamous young adult book series about a group of very pale, very annoying and mostly dead people, had been the scourge of cinemas everywhere for some (this writer included), but a beacon of genuine fictional romance and hope for others. Twilight planted a fervent idealistic seed that someday, somehow, a select, lucky few of us could find the brooding, Robert Pattinson-adjacent vampire of our dreams. But, after four years, the four-film saga of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan (and also, Jacob… Something? The werewolf?) was complete, and Robert Pattinson was finally free. Free to pursue his real passions as A24’s new white boy of the month.

But while an era had definitively ended, the effects on the world of vampires post-Twilight were clear: vampires weren’t cool anymore. Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly, brooding boys had lay to waste the hard work that Nosferatu, The Lost Boys, Kurt Barlow, and Chris Sarandon had cultivated years before her. And while vampire films persisted in Twilight’s destructive wake – the Let Me In remake, Dark Shadows, Only Lovers Left Alive – there was still a cinematic cloud hanging overhead. Vampires Suck came out as a Scary Movie-type parody film to capitalize off of the rabid anti-Twilight sentiment. Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” spoof “Robert Pattinson is Bothered,” and other bits ranging from “SNL” to “Funny or Die” and “Robot Chicken,” had taken Twilight jokes and wrung them dry. Gags about vampires sparkling and brooding were played up over and over, in the media and throughout the halls of high schools.

Many of these parodies were only focused on the absurdity of Twilight itself, rather than on its creatures, but Twilight’s stranglehold on pop culture had seemingly overshadowed all other sources of vampires in entertainment for four years. The films had, thus, become interchangeable with the mythic creatures attached to them. Vampires existed long before Twilight, but Twilight consumed them. Making fun of vampires seemed like the only panacea to an endless and insidious cinematic pandemic.

That is, until two years after the conclusive Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s New Zealand-based mockumentary, surrounding the day-in-the-life of four blood-sucking flatmates, struck out onto the vampire scene in 2014 and changed the game for vampires in film. In What We Do in the Shadows, vampires somehow seem so decidedly fresh. With only one Twilight joke to found in the entire hour and twenty-seven-minute runtime – a funny one at that, and which doesn’t once mention glittering in the sunlight – the film did something a little different with the worn-out route of Twilight comedy: it turned it strictly into vampire comedy.

What We Do in the Shadows is a horror-comedy which treats its horrific subjects with, somehow, the utmost respect and seriousness, while still playing up the stereotypes that make vampires naturally funny, to begin with. The key to the film is that we’re laughing with the vampires instead of at them. Vampires are funny, but they’re not necessarily the butt of the joke. Sure, classic archetypes are played up, such as the aversions to silver, crucifixes, and sunlight; then there’s that melodramatic hissing, the lack of a reflection, sleeping upside down and bat transformations. What We Do in the Shadows goes back to the basics of these classic Hollywood bloodsuckers, taking their inherently hilarious traits and flipping them on their heads.

Vampire flatmates Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), engage in your typical vampiric shenanigans (well, not Petyr – I mean, he’s eight thousand years old): they draw each other’s appearance before going out to clubs because they can’t check their hip outfits in a mirror; they jerk off in their coffins and go after virgins because, to quote Vladislav, “If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” They might nick a pair of pants off a victim right after draining their blood because, well, they’re dead – why waste a good pair of pants? Then there’s the assimilation into modern society, which (to this writer’s knowledge) Twilight never really touched on, despite Edward Cullen being hundreds of years old but perfectly suited for modern-day high school. Even in the 21st century, the vampires of What We Do in the Shadows are insistent upon bringing back the ruffled blouses and extravagant coats from their bygone eras, while off-limits human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford) teaches them how to use cellphones and Skype.

At one point, newly-turned vampire, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), goes out with the rest of the gang for a night on the town, touting to everyone he comes in contact with that he’s “Twilight.” “The movie. Twilight. Have you seen it?” he says to a group of strangers at one point, “Okay, I’m the main in Twilight. You know the main guy? Twilight? That’s me.” Eventually, the other vampires catch wind of what he’s doing and scold him for going around calling himself “Twilight” and exposing his true nature to regular people. And that’s it. That’s the only Twilight joke in the whole film as if the creators want you to understand that they acknowledge the damage done by a certain aforementioned film series but are intent on keeping their vampires entirely separate. “Shut up, Nick! You’re not Twilight!” Deacon yells at him. Indeed, vampires are not Twilight.

But there’s also a touching scene towards the end of the film, in which Deacon sits down and explains to Nick the inherent tragedy of being a vampire. You live forever, sure, but you have to watch all your human friends grow old, get sick and die. It’s a moment offset by humor, but it’s a moment that still feels quite heartbreaking. Despite the fact that almost the entire film was improvised, there’s an obvious level of care given to the characters, and real heart anchoring the film at its core. It’s clear that these are characters we’re meant to empathize with, and that the comedy is not strictly hinged on vampire jokes but also finding the relatable humanity in them.

We’d been conditioned for years to laugh at vampires. Vampires were funny because Twilight made them ridiculous, but it almost entirely ruined them – for a while, it felt like it really did. Vampires were annoying to many of us, something we’d prefer to leave forgotten because of what pop culture had turned them into; a result of Twilight’s interpretation and the laughingstock that that interpretation made way for. But there was only one way to make vampires cool again, and it wasn’t by welcoming an entirely new, deadly serious horror-drama film like Only Lovers Left Alive or Let Me In, no matter how good they were. We were tired of melodrama, of reiterations of why vampires are so special. It was by reminding us that vampires have always been inherently silly, but that that’s what makes them so great in the first place, and that if you saw one walking around tomorrow night, he might just be heading to a bar to hang out (and hopefully, he’d be invited inside).

Vampires are just like you and me: they room together and assign chores, they ring in the new year, they go to parties thrown by demons and zombies and they get into arguments with passing werewolves. The vampires of What We Do in the Shadows are not special, sparkling boys like Edward Cullen. They’re just a few dudes lost in time trying to survive the 21st century, like most of us, are already trying and failing to achieve. Sometimes, they have three-ways while floating on the ceiling, but at the end of the day – literally, they can’t go out during the day – they’re just looking for a fresh meal. And, really, what’s so funny about that?

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.