Jonathan Brugh, Taika Waititi, and Jemaine Clement in “What We Do In The Shadows”

The often horrifyingly unnatural and bloody representations of vampires can hardly predict some of the more modern takes on vampirism. Whether it is actor Tom Hiddleston playing the ancient vampire Adam, who muses on his distaste for the advance of computer technology, or the vampire myth parodying roommates in the film “What We Do In The Shadows,” who argue over the fact that the roommate responsibilities have not changed in hundreds of years. The passage of time has opened up the possibilities for adaptations of the vampire myth, and while fear and anxiety certainly remain an aspect of the myth, more often today the vampire has come to represent those who live on the fringes of society. They are individuals who have become disenfranchised, whether by their fading interest in the direction of society, or sometimes by their own social ineptitude.

The vampires of “What We Do In The Shadows” fall into the latter category of individuals who are simply not as socially relevant as they once were in the past. The film follows a group of vampire roommates in New Zealand who have been living together for hundreds of years. Each of the roommates represent a different mythological vampire concept. Vlad, played by Jemaine Clement, is a take on the legend of Vlad the Impaler; Deacon, played by Jonathan Brugh, is a parody of the “cool” and “sexy” vampire; Petyr, played by Ben Fransham, shares a striking resemblance to classic-film vampire Nosferatu; and Viago, played by Taika Waititi, is the naive and impressionable window by which the audience views this world. Through each of these characters the film is able to confront multiple aspects of the vampire myth and place them into our society, where they awkwardly try to find their place among us.

Viago, played by Taika Waititi

The roommates, each with unique personalities, defeat the idea of the modern vampire by the simple act of portraying them in a modern time and playing into that absurdity. During the events of the film it becomes clear that the vampires are grossly outnumbered in society by humans and, as such, the world is no place for them. When a botched “feeding” inadvertently leads to the creation of a new vampire, Nick, this becomes even clearer. Though Nick does his best to enjoy the life of being a vampire, he admits that he “misses daytime television.” Later in the film, the vampires attend a masquerade ball for the local monster population, which looks a lot less like the bombastic and sexy rave seen in 1998’s Blade, and more like a local church’s bake sale (“Blade Rave Bloodbath Scene”). Still, the vampires are not without their admirers. One such devotee, Jackie, performs banal tasks for the vampires under the promise that they will one day turn her into a vampire (hopefully soon, she hopes, as she doesn’t want to be old for all eternity). This plays directly into Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Seven Monster Theses,” in particular thesis six, which states that the fear of a monster is actually a kind of desire. He writes, “the monster also attracts … we distrust and loathe the monster at the same time we envy its freedom” (Cohen). Eternal life is an attractive concept to many, although, as we will see in the next film, it is a double edged sword.

The vampires in the film “Only Lovers Left Alive” similarly approach society, if on another spectrum. They aren’t feared, or even necessarily noticed, by the general public. Instead they live on the fringes of society, though slightly elevated above the rest of us. Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, lives in a dilapidated house in a borough of Detroit where he fiddles with analog music equipment, unable to cope with the direction society is taking. His lover Eve, played by Tilda Swinton, finds it easier to live among us humans, another category of monster which they sourly refer to as “zombies.” When the movie starts, Eve is Tangier with her friend Christopher Marlowe, the real life Elizabethan author whose mysterious death in 1593 has spurned endless conspiracy theories. Eve heads to Detroit to be with her long time lover Adam who is becoming suicidal and has even gone as far as to have a friend find him a single bullet made from wood.

Tilda Swinton as Eve, eating a blood popsicle

“Only Lovers Left Alive” plays with the myths of the vampire and places them into a modern perspective. The ages of Adam and Eve are ambiguously ancient, with each of them at various points in the film referring to moments in history for which they were personally present. Eve chastises Adam for who he has chosen for company in the past, specifically the romantic era poet Lord Byron, “among other assholes,” she says. Vampires, after all, have the burden of eternal life, but rarely does an audience get to see a less melodramatic portrayal of the curse. The vampires in the film are not drowning in sorrow over the commonly used trope of having seen “all of their friends and lovers pass before their eyes;” instead they are weighed down by overwhelming knowledge and the frustration of seeing us “zombies” slowly destroy the world. These vampires truly dwell at the gates of difference, one of Jeffrey Cohen’s seven monster theses. Adam and Eve, by having experienced the course of history before their eyes, have a much broader understanding of humanity than any person alive and as a result have come to loathe it. This perspective shatters the human perspective of society and the futile attempts within it to categorize history and justify behavior, and, as Cohen explains, it reveals that our rules are “arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential” (Cohen). They are a threat to our society as we have come to know it.

Adam and Eve

The vampires in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” as well as the vampires in “What We Do In The Shadows” contribute some very essential pieces to the vampire mythos by imagining their place in modern society, not as the comically terrifying and villainous monsters of past, but as individuals on the fringes of society coping with their differences and their desires. The parodistic assault on vampire myth provided by the New Zealand vampire roommates allows us retrospect on the often silly tropes of vampirism while still offering a sincere take on modern vampires. Adam and Eve, the decidedly uncomic vampire pair, offer us a real perspective of the eternal life of a vampire. They are never frightening monsters on the prowl for blood, instead they are mostly just bored. In A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of “Only Lovers Left Alive” he is quick to criticize the “generational protest” put on by Adam and Eve as being “musty” and “conservative,” ignoring that these are the symptoms to eternal life. After all, one can only attend so many blood raves over their thousand year lifespan before it gets boring and they begin to dig a little deeper into society, art, and culture. For me, the vampires in these two films are absolutely essential to the future of the vampire myth, contained within highly competent and artful filmmaking, which are easily are among the better films of the last decade. I award each film three and a half stars out of four.

Works Cited

“Blade Rave Bloodbath Scene.” YouTube, uploaded by Monsters and Critics, 2 July 2016, https:// http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_VT8c31vRo.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).

Only Lovers Left Alive. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, performances by Tom Hiddleston, and Tilda Swinton, Recorded Picture Company, 2013.

Scott, A. O. “Art and Style Are Their Lifeblood.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Apr. 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/11/movies/only-lovers-left-alive-jarmuschs-vampire-malaise.html.

What We Do In The Shadows. Directed by Taika Waititi performances by Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, and Jonathan Brugh, New Zealand Film Commission, 2014.