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Monthly Archives: February 2015

“Vampires don’t do dishes.”

I’m starting to think knowing as little as possible about a film before watching it is the best way to go (she wrote, while writing a film review). For example, all I knew about The World’s End before I saw it was that it was co-written by Simon Pegg. When – a good twenty minutes or more in – alien robots started appearing I was genuinely surprised (and pleased, because really who isn’t pleased when alien robots appear in what has so far been a movie about men in pubs). Similarly with What We Do in the Shadows – I knew the creators of Flight of the Conchords had something to do with it, and that it was about vampires. That was all. So when Taika Waititi rose out of a coffin with a cheesy grin and explained (mockumentary style) why he likes living in a “flatting situation” with his vampire friends I was giggling uncontrollably. So this is what this is, I thought. Awesome.

What We Do in the Shadows is the funniest film I’ve seen since Alpha Papa – the kind of film that requires multiple viewings because there are too many hilarious lines to digest in one sitting. I’ve watched Flight of the Conchords so many times I know many of the scenes by heart. What We Do in the Shadows is that kind of funny.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi (Boy and Eagle vs Shark) and Jemaine Clements (Flight of the Conchords), What We Do in the Shadows is presented as a production of The New Zealand Documentary Board, who have been granted access to a secret society of vampires living in Wellington (said vampires have promised not to eat the cameramen for the duration of filming). The inhabitants of the vampire share house are: Viago (Taika Waititi), a 378 year old 18th century dandy who came to New Zealand for love; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), just 183 years old and the ‘young’ bad boy of the group; Vladislav (Jemaine Clements), 862, a specialist in torture and haunted by the memory of his arch nemesis The Beast; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a particularly ancient and ghoulish-looking vampire who spends most of his time curled up in the basement.

What We Do in the Shadows is loosely structured around the lead-up to the most prestigious annual event of the un-dead community: the Unholy Masquerade. But the real focus of the film is everyday life in a vampire share house. It is in these chore-wheel details and one liners that What We Do in the Shadows really works.

For a fairly low budget film What We Do in the Shadows manages to look and feel carefully crafted from beginning to end. The vampire fight (and flight) scenes, for example, work really well. The house feels sufficiently stale and creepy – the lighting is good and the furniture and props are just right. The soundtrack really stood out for me in this film, too. The music is dark and discordant, and yet somehow still catchy.

The casting is fantastic. Every actor brings their own little twist of humour to the film. Especially funny (as usual) is Rhys Darby as the head werewolf (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!”) and police officers O’Leary and Minogue (played by Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue).

This film might be criticised for its lack of story – the plot certainly comes second to the characters and their day-to-day activities. I was too busy laughing, however, to really be bothered by a lack of big reveals. (I wonder if there might be a TV series lurking in this film?)

I did think that some of the moments of pathos could have been more powerful. Deacon’s speech about age and death, for example, and the shots of Viago’s love interest now living alone in a retirement village could be more poignant. Because this film is so funny and clever it has the potential to drive those more sobering themes home.

Overall, however, I really loved this film. I will definitely be watching it again, and will be encouraging everyone I know to do the same.

What We Do in the Shadows premiered at Sundance in 2014. It was filmed in Wellington, New Zealand.

Official trailer What We Do in the Shadows

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In selecting my Christmas beach read this year I am definitely guilty of having judged a book by its cover. As soon as I was handed a copy of The Sooterkin I knew it was going to move to the top of my reading pile. A drawing of a seal pup in a nappy and a subheading proclaiming “Half boy! Half seal!” – how could I resist? And while the story didn’t excite me quite as much as the cover-art did, Tom Gilling’s beautifully crafted descriptions of 19th century Tasmania certainly made it worth the read.

In Hobart on July 14th 1821 Sarah Dyer – a convict – gives birth to Arthur – a seal. This odd event is the centrepiece of Gilling’s novel; from it the author moves outwards to explore – in a slightly Dickensian way – the perspectives of a range of characters living on the island, as well as providing a vivid description of the landscape. Reading The Sooterkin is a little like looking at a painting like Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games, where there is so much going on and the eye is drawn to so many individual moments. I finished the novel feeling as if I had had both a bird’s eye view and a very specific experience of Gilling’s Van Dieman’s Land. In addition to Sarah Dyer and her family The Sooterkin introduces its readers to the Reverend Mr Kidney, a English clergyman who has relocated to Australia in an effort to get out of debt; Mrs Jakes, a banished former abortionist; and Mr Sculley, founder of the Van Dieman’s Land Scientific Society. It is Sculley who connects Arthur to the Sooterkin – a Dutch legend where women give birth to disturbing, rat-like creatures (type ‘Sooterkin’ into Google images for some weird and wonderful renditions). It is interesting to note that the word Sooterkin has also come to mean something imperfect or unsuccessful, particularly an imperfect literary composition.

My favourite aspect of The Sooterkin is the voice of Gilling’s omniscient narrator. From the very first line (“Pardon the stench”) I knew I was going to enjoy this book. Gilling’s writing finds its strength in its use of wry humour and wonderfully clear sensory description. Happily settled into my banana lounge I was quickly transported from the white-sand Cambodian beach of Koh Rung to “Hobart Town … rancid with [whale] blubber.” Gilling has peppered his novel with character names and incidents taken from actual colonial newspapers, which add a layer of quirky realism to the tale and remind us that strange truths are often the best kernels for interesting fiction. The unnatural events at the centre of the novel are described with a matter-of-factness that lends the story a fairytale feel, and the movement of the narration between characters gives a rounded and satisfying portrait of this world.

In spending so much time examining different characters and describing the setting, however, I felt that the story at the heart of the novel was a little lost. I wouldn’t have minded this so much (I would have been happy to simply dip into different psyches and landscapes for two hundred pages) if Arthur and his story hadn’t been so interesting. In the end, the plot felt a little weak – the link between the title and the birth of the seal pup was not satisfactorily explored, and neither was the potential influence of Arthur’s existence on the community.

Overall, while I thoroughly enjoyed each paragraph as I was reading it, I did feel upon finishing that something was missing. This novel, perhaps as the alternative meaning of its title suggests, is slightly lacking, a little imperfect in terms of structure. But still a great example of elegant, clever, and satirical writing.

Tom Gilling was born in England in 1961, and moved to Australia in 1983. The Sooterkin – published in 1999 – is his first novel.