Monster Cards

The disgruntled vampire roommates of What We Do in the Shadows expertly thread the needle of horror-comedy.

Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows.

Photo by Kane Skennar

When I was a kid there were these cards, like baseball cards, about eight to a pack sold with a stick of powdery pink bubble gum. Instead of ballplayers, they had monsters on them. That’s the only reason I know about them: the monsters. I didn’t care about baseball when I was small; the only sport I liked was boxing, which nobody else cared about and which had no cards. But I did like monsters. All the monsters. I didn’t have a favorite. Then, as now, I did not believe in the primacy of any one monster type.

Not many stores stocked monster cards, and you only saw them around every so often. Whenever I did get my hands on a pack of them, though, the cards would invariably be a source of mild vexation, because these cards played everything up for laughs. Within horror fandom they were part of a long tradition of captioning stills from movies with time-seasonsed, Borscht-belted one-liners. The Fly saying, “I only have eyes for you,” say. It bummed me out. 

What I wanted from horror was the uncanny, the otherworldly, the portal into the dark realms. I had specific needs from horror: I wanted and sought out lines of demarcation, firm boundaries. I still tend to prefer my horror full strength. My favorite movies of the last several years are The Innkeepers and Here Comes the Devil and a small, brilliant indie called Found. When a movie starts stage-winking at me—and I feel like stage-winking is more the norm now than the exception—I take it at its word: If you want to be both of the genre and above it, you get judged twice. Temporary relief from the tyranny of the stage-wink is one of horror’s virtues. I need that relief.

Of course, there are exceptions. When I was maybe 20 years old, I saw Evil Dead 2, and a light went on in my head, and I thought, “Young child J.D., you may have had your own reasons for these straight, bold lines you want to draw between comedy and horror, but, you know, what if.” Movies that hit that sweet spot are few and far between; Shaun of the Dead is kind of the gold standard, though zombie movies have always felt somehow apart from other horror movies via some undefined self-corralling impulse. (Lines of demarcation, again.) John Dies at the End does the trick. So does Rubber. The vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows—written by, directed by, and starring Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi—threads that same needle, and ends up landing very close to home.

Vampires are interesting creatures. They have to drink human blood to survive. They only get to really be themselves after dark. They can shape-shift. And they’ve all experienced what’s essentially a redemption narrative in reverse: once they were young men or women with hopes and dreams. Now they’re damned, and they can’t go back, and life isn’t just long, it’s eternal. 

Ostensibly a government-funded documentary about the lives of four vampires living together in Wellington, New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows is a little short on plot. Scares are incidental here and mainly limited to a few brief but jarring visual reveals; laughs are central. The vampires riff and parlay with a lived-in ease that’s inviting and warm and feels improvisational. Their jokes are monster card–level stuff delivered with keen comic timing: bloody dishes in the sink, fashion concerns of the modern vampire, etiquette questions for the newly turned. It’s genuinely and consistently funny, and I recommend it for the laughs alone.

But beyond the laughs (or behind them, or inside or underneath them—I’m not exactly sure which, and I kind of feel like it matters, or is worth thinking about parenthetically, anyway) lie some of the most adept uses of the vampire metaphor to come along in some time. “This is what happens when you’re a vampire: You have to watch everyone die,” one remarks; the vampires show one another sunrises on YouTube, gazing in wonder at a thing they can never look directly at again. The vampire dandy Viago (Waititi) tells the story of the one who got away—his lost love, who’s grown old even as her onetime suitor remains ageless—with the sad resignation of a person who’s learned over the years that eventually, they all get away, lovers or no, one way or the other. 

It’s a movie about aging, in other words, and the things you lose as you go: your youth, even if you still maintain its appearance; your edge, even if you remain a legitimate threat. Your life, eventually, if somebody who doesn’t know any better leaves the drapes open while you’re sleeping in your coffin. For me the most poignant among the movie’s lightly developed subplots is the story of Jackie (Jackie van Beek), the “familiar” to one of the vampires—she secures him victims and washes his clothes. She’s been waiting for years for the gift of eternal life; she’s a suburban mom now, feeling herself get older as she waits to get bit. But her vampire, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), toys with her, putting it off. She’s resentful, but what can she do? A vampire’s familiar has no will of her own. She can only hope that her time to become immortal will come around before she’s too old to enjoy it. Over an ironing board where she’s working on Deacon’s frilly blouse, she voices her displeasure at her lot to the documentary lens. It’s funny, but her bitterness resonates a little. If you know where to look, light comedy has its own portals into the dark realms.

And out of them, as What We Do’s light, wonderful, and warm ending suggests. This is a horror-comedy fit to stand near the best of them, because it never oversells its depths: They’re there, the depths are always there. You can’t miss them, whether you seek them out or not. Maybe you stage-wink at them because you know you’ll be seeing them again: first as tragedy, then as farce, you know, for all of us, given enough time.