This What We Do in the Shadows review contains spoilers.
What We Do in the Shadows Episode 4
What We Do in the Shadows ventures off of Staten Island to visit a “Manhattan Night Club,” as the title of episode 4 explains. The Sassy Cat, run by a dashing, if devious, vampire is a storied night club which has been around since the roaring twenties, catering to the more sanguine tastes of New York’s night timers. It is a place where vampires can party, dance, and form alliances to crush the humans, as Nandor (Kayvan Novak) unapologetically explains.
The Staten Island vampires need allies for the New World initiative they promised Baron Afanas (Doug Jones), in various throes of passion. The scene where Laszlo marks their territory on a map, “from here to here,” is very effective comedy told in a millisecond. The scene is almost as short as the distance, about two blocks, of the area the vampires actually rule. It’s shorter than this paragraph describing it, but it is a classic TV, Get Smart kind of moment, all timing in very little time. Laszlo makes the declaration of the vampires’ dominion in an authoritative voice, booming with import, only to pull back to the more mundane realities. While the actual scenario continues to play out, it sums up both the predicament and the attention it merits. These are vampires who have obviously fallen into too comfortable a rut.
The human subjugation dictate is a bit of an imposition on what have become complacent and lazy vampires. Nandor the Relentless admits in the old days he would have slaughtered his neighbors rather than make partnerships. Now, he realizes slaughtered neighbors make for lonely neighborhoods. Rivalries are important to What We Do in the Shadows. Last week, the vampires squared off against a group of werewolves. This week, they deal with petty one-upmanship from the more urbane Manhattan contingent. The vampires get a lot of mileage out of pettiness – each of them licking their own private obsessions.
A lot of the humor in the series comes from the casual disregard for living flesh, unless it’s been woven into headwear. This is most effectively played in the matter-of-fact way Nandor treats Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillén) mortality. His familiar is going to die someday, it appears to say. He’s not even one of the great ones, a middling familiar at best, meddling and a little too familiar. But Nandor and his vampire compatriots will outlive him, and probably forget his existence before his body decays. At one point a vampire at the club wants to make a meal of Guillermo, Nandor makes a feeble attempt to dissuade him, and after the vampire apologizes for wanting to eat a vampire’s familiar, the attempts get feebler. Nandor tells his new friend that if he really has a taste for the human, to go ahead. This actually causes poor Guillermo to almost lose faith in his master.
Nandor throws Guillermo a bone, though a meatless one, every once in a while to make up for not making him into an immortal vampire. Early in the episode, Nandor suspends Guillermo in mid-air in front of mirrors, which he is not reflected in to give the human the illusion of flying. But constantly reminds the wannabe vampire he’s not, it’s all make believe for him, but not for Nandor, who can really fly. And he wants his thrall to know it.
The telling thing in this scene is how we see Guillermo fully giving in to the fantasy of vampire world, even as he lives in the very real one. All of the characters on What We Do in the Shadows live a fantasy. They each give themselves excuses for any mistakes they make, whether that means taking a life, or faking orgasm. They each wear the mask of the vampire they think they present to the world. In Nandor’s case a warrior, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) sees her acts as victimless seductions. Laszlo fancies himself. What the world sees is a clueless relic, a horny quickie and a narcissistic fop. Neither view is entirely true.
This is best pointed out when the vampires finally arrive in Manhattan, which is run by a vampire named Simon the Devious. If anyone is not what they say they are, it’s someone who calls himself “the Devious.” The vampires are so filled with themselves nothing can break their self-induced spells, except abject social humiliation. They are so last decade’s season. To the New York vampires, the Staten Island visitors are rubes from the country, gullible enough to believe capes are still big in the city. This leads to the best visual gag of the night as Laszlo gets his cape caught in the door of a taxi and is whisked off down the street. Laszlo is also wearing a cursed hat he got from a witch hunter who he killed before the poor guy got the chance to finish his warning about it.
The direct-to-camera interviews make for great counterpoint to the jokes and to give background to the blood drinkers, such as letting us know that the ancient Stavros the Clever died tripping on his own cape at a wooden stake sale at the Garden Center. Nadja especially shines in these, as her wry confessions drip with derision and sexuality. As she explains the shared history of her vampire roomates and Simon the Devious, how they came across on the same boat and flirted and seduced sailors, we see her lover, Laszlo, is rather surprised by the details he himself did not know. Simon isn’t the only devious vampire, as the only female vampire in the group is truly a femme fatale, hiding her secrets in a compact mirror that doesn’t reflect her.
The sets are perfect, especially where the Manhattan vampires keep their familiars. There is no decadence in what looks like an old storage area. Not even the busboys get this kind of treatment. The Sassy Cat itself is a good representation of Gothic nightlife. It is housed in what used to be a shoe shop for horses, as Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is explains in a cockblocking monotone. The energy vampire continues to be an enigma on the series itself. The most understated of the vampires, his sucking of energy actually invigorates any scene he is in. All the main vampires play well off each other.
What We Do in the Shadows is bubble gum for vampire aficionados. It’s sweet and chewy but doesn’t have any sustenance, though it’s got some blood in it. It keeps its flavor about a half hour. But while it’s there it gives bursts of it. Some of it is tantalizing, some downright appetizing. This is the horror. The series doesn’t shy away from quick and easy gore effects, shot for giggles, which somehow adds to the terror of it. In the very opening scene, Jenna (Beanie Feldstein), who drank some of Nadja’s blood after offering her own neck to the seductive vampire last week, lies prone on a bed. As her roommate is trying to pronounce the medication she got at the student center, we see a fly crawl over Jenna’s face, right over the eyeballs, which remain open. The root of both horror and comedy is subversion. An unexpected laugh is as good a payoff as an unexpected scare.
It’s good to see more vampires on What We Do in the Shadows, and even more heartening to see how they know each other well enough not to really like each other. Simon sees Nadja’s complacency, and picks at it, saying he’s glad she’ll never fade away like other vampires. He may not see as much of himself in Laszlo as the audience does, but he does see himself in the British vampire’s hat. The New York vampires may outnumber the Staten Island bloodsuckers, but they are no less flawed.
“Manhattan Night Club” continues to rib the reality TV formula with an on-target sit-com sensibility, while also keeping the situations in the comedy fresh. The vampire and horror myths continue to pay off even as the series veers towards making the legends as mundane as inhumanly possible.
What We Do in the Shadows‘ “Manhattan Night Club” was written by Tom Scharpling, and directed by Jemaine Clement.
What We Do in the Shadows airs Wednesdays on FX.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.