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It all started with a trio of vampires talking to a camera. In Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2005 short What We Do in the Shadows, three undead Wellington residents participate in interviews from their gloomy share house, arising from their coffins to discuss not only their deaths, but the bloodsucking lives that have followed in the years since. One, Vulvus the Abhorrent (Clement), lists all the things that he actually does in the shadows. Another, Count Viago (Waititi), details the many animals that he can transform into — when he’s not hassling his non-breathing brethren to help keep the place clean, that is. The third, Deacon (Jonny Brugh), explains what happens to a vampire’s clothes when they’re standing in front of a mirror. On topics of shared interest, such as werewolves, the hierarchy of creatures of the night, fashion choices and the allure of virgin blood, each of the trio offers an enthusiastic opinion.
Nearly 15 years later, these three bloodsuckers are no longer just subjects in a 27-minute mockumentary short — and neither are their undead pal Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and still-living friend Stu (Stu Rutherford). Thanks to 2014’s side-splitting comedy of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows’ key figures are also big-screen stars, although Vulvus has long since been renamed Vladislav. True to their vampire nature, their story doesn’t end there. It hasn’t just been resurrected once, either. Like undead fiends siring more fanged minions to chomp in their bite marks, What We Do in the Shadows has spawned an entire on-screen universe.
Apologies to the growing number of fictional shared universes expanding across the film and television realm at ever-increasing rates, but this one has all the rest beat. It hasn’t reached double digits twice over, like Marvel; connected two existing franchises, Alien vs Predator and Freddie vs Jason-style; or let well-known beasts and monsters loose on the viewing world, as Universal’s horror films did in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and Toho’s Godzilla movies did after that; however, when it comes to the two bloody basics — aka blood-pumping fun and bloody good laughs — What We Do in the Shadows sits at the top of the pile. The fact that it’s all about bloodsuckers? That’s the dripping crimson icing oozing across the immortal cake.
Even before it was really a universe, What We Do in the Shadows staked a fair claim. Both the original short and the feature it inspired let their characters loose upon a lived-in world, giving flesh to their deadpan one-liners and undead experiences far beyond the central gimmick. Yes, a faux-documentary about cohabitating vamps arguing about literally bloody dishes is a great idea. Yes, everyone watching instantly understands the mockumentary concept. Yes, seeing immortal beings natter on about their nocturnal lives makes for hilarious viewing. But exploring how they go about those lives, stepping through their nightly routines, and watching their interactions with the living was always going to spark a crucial question: if these vampires are just like us, albeit hundreds of years old and ravenously fond of feasting on humans, what does the rest of their world entail?
When 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows follows the gang as they try to get invited into Wellington nightclubs, or watches Nick’s transformation from human to vampire, or hones in on the undead pack’s rivalry with the city’s werewolves, it broadens its scope beyond Viago, Vladislav and Deacon. How the world reacts to the bloodsuckers is as fascinating as seeing the trio (and, in a far more limited way, their much older vampire friend Petyr) respond to the world. So is pondering just what kind of world could have them in it, which is a subject as hefty as a vamp’s undying thirst. So, it came as little surprise when a spinoff was announced: We’re Wolves, focusing on Anton (Rhys Darby) and his fellow lycanthropes.
We’re Wolves hasn’t sunk its claws into cinemas yet, or even transformed beneath the full moon from an idea into a proper project, but Waititi and Clement have expressed their eagerness to eventually move ahead at various points in recent years. Thankfully, What We Do in the Shadows has served up plenty of other supernatural treats to satisfy fans’ appetites in the interim, including delving further into Wellington’s vampire, werewolf, demon, alien, ghost, zombie and sea monster population. In the Cops-style Wellington Paranormal, Officer O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue) keep the city safe from its otherworldly inhabitants. First seen knocking on Viago, Vladislav and Deacon’s door in the feature-length version of What We Do in the Shadows, they’ve now come to terms with the fact that creatures of the night do indeed exist. Their boss, Sergeant Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) has charged them with investigating all things paranormal, and they’ve taken to it with as much zeal as two nonplussed New Zealand cops can muster.
Honing in on a different supernatural occurrence in each episode, Wellington Paranormal builds a vivid picture of Wellington as an otherworldly hotbed — the kind of place where demons takeover teenagers’ bodies, lycanthropy is a sexually-transmitted condition, and mythological sea critters like munching on locals. Other familiar What We Do in the Shadows faces pop up, both cementing and widening the show’s ties to its inspiration. And, lest anyone think that the series isn’t painting an accurate picture of New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s real-life partner Clarke Gayford even makes an appearance.
That’s Wellington well and truly covered; however this kind of supernatural fun can’t just be confined to an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. It might share the same name as the short and film before it, but US TV’s What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t just float along the same path as its predecessors — or clumsily unleash the same concept upon New York City. If Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, Nick, Petyr and the movie’s other vampires all exist, then more must. And if members of the undead can share a house inland of the long white cloud, then they can do so in the Big Apple. Different vamps, different place, different problems and hijinks, all with Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) at the centre.
Across the first season of What We Do in the Shadows, the TV series, viewers experience vampire life New York-style. But show never loses sight of its roots — and when it found a way to overtly connect Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja and Colin to the broader Shadows universe, it did so in a big, smart and characteristically side-splitting way. Now, this unearthly realm spans two countries. Thanks to one particular stroke of genius, it doesn’t stop there either. The broader What We Do in the Shadows on-screen world was already fantastic as it is, but the fact that it now also includes a vamped-up Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, Wesley Snipes, Paul Reubens and Danny Trejo, has name-dropped Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Pattinson, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and playfully ties into Only Lovers Left Alive, True Blood, Blade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Lost Boys, Twilight and Interview With a Vampire in the process — yes, that’s truly the greatest universe.