In New Zealand cinema, the “man alone” represents humanity’s dominance over nature. Over the centuries, that dominance comes in the form of expanding urbanization, reducing societal identification with the ethos of a colonial past. What We Do in the Shadows reshapes the “man alone” for 21st century Wellington using vampire cinema and its tradition of intertextuality.
Andrea Bosshard says that the “man alone” is a “… masculine character who must fight his physical environment in order to survive, the man who can turn a piece of number-eight fencing wire into anything – what is now somewhat nostalgically called ‘kiwi ingenuity’- being able to make do, be a jack-of-all-trades, and turn one’s hand to whatever is required.” (98) Allan Cameron notes that “this iconic masculine figure was first clearly defined in John Mulgan’s influential novel Man Alone (1939)” (58n9), and that the “man alone” is “[caught] between these two realms – the landscape and the domestic sphere …” (58). This figure no longer fits into 21st century Wellington, where the domestic sphere has become the landscape, citizens can connect with people around the globe, and survival means making enough money to afford rent, utilities, and groceries.
Vampires – creatures caught between the realms of living and dead – present a natural substitute for the “man alone.” The vampire thrives in seclusion because their strange habits, lack of aging, and homicidal dietary restrictions increase the risk of human discovery (and subsequent persecution). Their seclusion is also an important part of vampire film imagery – Dracula’s isolated Transylvania castle is a vital part of any iteration of his story. What We Do In the Shadows’ lead character Viago even mentions the isolated castle stereotype during an interview and goes on to say it isn’t uncommon for vampires to congregate together in urban spaces because of the difficulties that environment presents.
Viago specifically best represents the “man alone.” He’s a man out of his own time and place, having been transformed into a vampire centuries ago in Germany, now cast as the thoughtful, somewhat humanistic leader of the Te Aro vampire residence. Viago is also a “man alone” in vampire cinema – an intertextual parody eternally severed from the Anne Rice cinematic universe, doomed to persevere in this absurd film apart from his serious corollary.
Viago followed his human lover, Katherine, to New Zealand to marry her. His plan was foiled when his human servant paid the wrong shipping fare on his coffin. Sadly, Katherine was married by the time he arrived, and all he has left of her is a silver locket containing photos of them (which he cannot wear because it burns his skin). Viago fought the temptation to murder her husband because he wanted her to be happy, and after moving on he came to live in a home with a few other transient, outcast vampires – Vladislav, Deacon, Peter, and Nick.
The vampire is “at once seducer and murderous fiend” (Worland, Chapter 1, Section 3, para. 2), and “repositories of some of our most taboo thoughts – predatory rage, sexual sadism” (Weinstock 1), but Viago’s ability to resist his vampiric nature makes him a “man alone” even among his vampire housemates. This isn’t to say he is not seducer and murderous fiend, however. Part of vampire survival involves seducing humans to feed on them – “We are the bait, but we are also the trap,” Vladislav tells the diegetic documentary crew. But it can be a challenge for modern vampires to lure victims into this trap due to technology and their inability to enter a nightclub or bar without being invited in.
The vampires are at constant risk of discovery if their victims cause too much of a ruckus within their small neighborhood. Local police visit following an encounter with a vampire hunter, so Viago hypnotizes them and instructs the vampires not to kill them. This is an example of ingenuity, paralleling the “man alone,” that allows the vampires to survive in their environment. If Viago allowed Vladislav and Deacon to consume the officers’ blood, more police would come, “possibly even Christians which is totally the last thing we need in this house,” Viago says. Viago also cares about the smaller, everyday tasks of maintaining a household that the other vampires don’t care about. He gives Petyr chickens to make sure he has some daily blood, and runs any household meetings related to chores like dishes or vacuuming. The housemates see no reason for cleaning up because all the guests end up dying, but Viago fights back against their apathy and pushes the group to improve their odds for survival.
Another adaptation brings Viago and his housemates out of their times into the 21st century. After Nick’s human friend, Stu, helps the vampires set up a computer, Viago uses it to call his now-aged former servant to tell him about the shipping mishap, and to try and search for a scarf that Deacon had lost. Information and communication technology is as vital to 21st century humans as fire is to wilderness survivors, and it gives vampires a whole new way to acquire victims.
These scenes in the film are certainly opportunities for humor, but they also serve a vital purpose in vampire cinema. All vampires are inherently intertextual (Weinstock 16), and all vampire media must contend with the audience’s awareness of vampire lore and tropes from a variety of works. One of the vampire’s historic weaknesses is sunlight, and films have addressed this component of vampire lore in different ways. Twilight’s vampires become irresistibly beautiful creatures in the sun, while Blade: Trinity keeps sun as a weakness but attributes the cause to their once-human blood – the film’s version of Dracula is able to walk in sunlight because he’s wholly vampire.
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What We Do in the Shadows’ use of parody adds an extra layer to this intertextuality and the “man alone.” Viago, like each of the film’s vampires, resembles a vampire from the subgenre’s history – in his case, Louis de Pointe du Lac from Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. Like Louis, Viago is an “18th century dandy” who dresses in fine clothes. Louis and Viago can both be hesitant about consuming blood, and each of them cares for other vampires that they live with. The two vampires also share the motif of an interview format that segments the story told in their films, though they differ in that Louis’ story focuses on his past while Viago’s primarily details his present. By drawing on Louis as inspiration, Viago becomes a vampire intertextuality separated from the source of his existence – perhaps survival would be easier if he were able to live on Louis’ plantation, or among the film’s 18th century vampire theater troupe. Maybe Viago could have helped preserve Louis’ adopted daughter, Claudia, or helped reign in his reckless creator, Lestat. These answers may be answerable through fan-created media, but it’s likely that any such text would inevitably infect Louis’ universe with the absurd comedy of What We Do in the Shadows because of Viago’s silly, uptight persona that conflicts with the dramatic nature of The Vampire Chronicles.
In a 2017 review, Darren Richman of The Independent wrote that, “What We Do in the Shadows (2014) … has little interest in anything beyond amusing its audience,” (para. 2) but its unique take on New Zealand and vampire cinema shows that it offers more than mere amusement. Media is constantly molding past ideas and structures from around the world. New global takes on stories are an important way to give viewers a new perspective on the fundamental ideas from any genre or tradition to say something about the world it’s released into.
Bosshard, Andrea. “New Zealand Moving Beyond a National Cinema.” Horton, Andrew. Screenwriting for a Global Market: Selling Your Scripts from Hollywood to Hong Kong. University of California Press, 2004, pp. 97-105
Cameron, Allan. “The Locals and the global: transnational currents in contemporary New Zealand horror.” Studies in Australian Cinema, Volume 4, Number 1, 2010, pp. 55-72.
Richman, Darren. “Movies You Might Have Missed: Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows.” Independent, 2017. Link.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, 2007. https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B000V1YVNU.
Weinstock, Jeffrey. The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema, Columbia University Press, 2012.