This is a spoiler-free review.
There are vampires on the island of Staten and they’re not just part of the post-Goth scene. Yes, they are fond of glitter and creepy paper but they are not likely to wind up on Creepy Pasta.
The vampires on What We Do in the Shadows don’t need fake fangs and are quite capable of transforming into bats, though their sense of direction is a bit off. The nighttime dwellers tend to be drawn to shiny objects like street lamps when in flying rodent form. They also spend an inordinate amount of time and energy engaging in hissing matches. Energy much better spent feeding the day-walking energy vampires who can drain virgins with mundane topics like insurance amortization and every reason why the 90s internet-warning movie Hackers never gets old.
Vampires never get old and What We Do in the Shadows never gets tired of plumbing the mythology for quirky twists on old tropes. Take all you want but eat all you take is an unwritten rule at dinner parties as it is a vampire faux pas to leave mortal guests lying around half-drunk. The series is based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s feature mock-documentary, What We Do in the Shadows.
Ranking bloodsucker Nandor the Relentless, played with clueless endangerment by Kayvan Novak, is the head of the House. He conquered the Ottoman Empire back in the day, and now looks for glitter at night. Laszlo, played with a stiff-upper-lip British bite by Matt Berry, is a romantic topiary-grower with a stylish tilt. Nandor may be in charge of the house, but Nadja, played by the mesmerizingly mocking Natasia Demetriou, rules it. Nothing gets past her as she has a wry observation on everything.
The understated Mark Proksch represents the day walking energy vampire as Colin Robinson. At one point in the series he comes across his ultimate nemesis, an emotional vampire sucking the happiness and life out of his co-workers and leaving the office as dry as the cubicles for psionic sustenance. Guillermo is Nandor’s familiar, or slave, or “Renfield.” If Malaga, Spain-born Antonio Banderas could make his mark on film as Interview with the Vampire‘s Armand, Harvey Guillén can play a vampire servant on TV.
The pilot gives a very brief history of the vampires. They were chased from a xenophobic Europe prejudiced against their habit or killing and eating people and have been roommates for hundreds and hundreds of years. The four vampires landed on Staten Island, set up House there, and don’t get out much. The vampires have a mission, which they neglected, in the new world. They get a visit from their dark lord Baron Afanas, who reminds them of their hundred-year-old promise to put the New World under vampire rule. Our heroes can barely claim dominion over five houses on a Staten Island block. They are in a quandary. In the old days, the relentless one would merely slaughter anyone between he and his goal. Now, he realizes, what’s the point in taking over a neighborhood if you have no neighbors?
The vampires have a run in with the Staten Island City Council. Nandor makes simple demands: a dome which keeps out sunlight, an idea he may have borrowed from Stephen King’s novel The Dome, but probably can be attributed to the equally relentless Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons whose nemesis was also the sun. They also ask for silence during daytime hours, an all-vampire TV channel, the voluntary destruction by churches of all crucifixes, and a nun-free zone, where vampires can honestly answer, how many nuns? None. They are told the council will take it under advisement, but it’s not an idea well suited for the zoning law commission. They form an alliance with the vampires of Manhattan where, apparently, anyone can call themself a vampire. This makes sense because it is under the rule of the vampire Simon the Devious.
The real-vampire mock documentary series also tips a cursed hat to the myth of eternal love at first sight. Gary Oldman’s Dracula traversed centuries to be with his beloved Mina. Nadja climbed three flights of stone wall to ensnare Laszlo in an enduring romance. He was the most handsome young man in a village horribly ravaged by leprosy and plague. She had a sharp tongue, sharper teeth and a hiss to die for. He was hypnotized. She used hypnosis. Centuries later, he is still very much in love with her. She prowls the night looking for adventure. They are a match made in Hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.
The ancient Staten Island vampires do believe in the power of the crucifix. Just crossing your fingers can inflict a blister. The vampires heal themselves very quickly, though. Much faster than werewolves do, as we learn after a game of fetch goes way over the top. The series has fun with the mix of the modern post-Twilight world, the ancient traditions and equal nibbles from Love at First Bite and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. The old ones are not quite up to speed on the history of the world, or many of the technological and industrial advancements which have been made. To be fair, some of the more antique obstacles still hold very tangible dangers. There are reasons vampires and superheroes stopped wearing capes in the 90s. They are clingy. More so than energy vampires.
One of the most impressive and fun parts of the show is how it seamlessly merges the slice-of-undeath documentary approach with the special effects necessary to establish these are real vampires. They are not club kids and LARPers, who serve as perennial go-to virgins. Nadja and Laszlo swoop down on a couple walking in a park for a nighttime snack, a la Lost Boys. Najda also climbs the wall. The bat transformations, which can happen at any moment – on a subway, at a party – are quick and subtle. Baron Afanas is a horrifically rendered reanimated comical corpse with the anatomy of a Ken doll.
What We Do in the Shadows pokes fun at traditional, modern and self-proclaimed vampires. It also spoofs reality shows. The acting is looser because of the self-awareness, the awareness of the cameras, and the unseen crew, which are referenced and acknowledged by the vampires. I wonder how long it will be before they realize how delicious they might be.
What We Do in the Shadows will premiere on March 27 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.