Mixing comedy with horror is, as I’ve talked about in the past, a tricky business. But people keep going to the well, probably because when it’s done well, it is extremely satisfying. There’s just something about those two primal emotions, joy and fear, playing off each other. For some peculiar reason, New Zealand seems to be one of the few countries that really excels at making the combo work.

What We Do In The Shadows is a faux documentary focused on Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon, three centuries old Eastern European vampires living in a run-down house in a Wellington suburb. Also living with them is Petyr, an almost completely feral Nosferatu-type creature, in the basement. Wellington, for inexplicable reasons, is home to a host of supernatural creatures, including a large vampire community, but the three room-mates are, clearly, not adjusting well to 21st century life, spending most of their time in petty squabbles, nostalgia, and utterly failed attempts to find victims. Until one night Jackie, Deacon’s human servant, brings some victims over and one, Nick, is turned into a vampire by Petyr. Nick, along with his very human computer programmer friend Stu, prove to be what the vampires needed to jump-start them into adjusting to the new century and moving on from their past regrets, much to the annoyance of Deacon, who finds his place as the cool, upstart bad-boy vampire taken by Nick. Unfortunately, Nick’s modernity also leads to a lack of care that endangers those around him, leading ultimately to the (re)death of Petyr and the mauling of Stu by a pack of werewolves. Ultimately, though, a kind of happiness is found for everyone.

Much of What We Do In The Shadows is straight comedy. It’s very character driven, establishing the three leads, their particular neuroses, and letting them play off each other and the world around them in a naturalistic way. So, when the film does shift gears into horror, as it does dramatically on at least two occasions, the contrast is jarring. The horror sequences are genuinely tense, and don’t shy away from the inherent monstrousness of the characters. This is actually a recurring feature of the film; it never lets you forget that these three men, as quirkily appealing as they are, are all mass murderers (Deacon even casually mentions that he was a Nazi, just to drive the point home). Yes, there is a pathos to them (the joy they all experience when Stu shows them sunrise videos on YouTube is palpable), but at the end of the day they’re monsters. It’s hard to classify them as evil, though; the only truly evil character would appear to be Jackie, who is quite happy to lead innocents to their death if it means she can get what she wants out of Deacon. The contrast with her and Stu, who actually does seem put off by the supernatural but stays with it because of his friendship with Nick, keeps the film from the now insufferable cliche of “humans are the real monsters” though.

The film also deserves credit for almost aggressively shying away from the trend in modern vampire stories to make the creatures “not vampires” in some way, or to dismiss the accumulation of vampire lore as mere fictions. These vampires die in the sun, avoid crucifixes, are burned by silver; in general, they conform to all the major elements of classical vampire lore. A lot of this ties into the overall themes at play in the film, specifically the conflicts between the present and the past. Each of the characters, in some ways, is unable to reconcile themselves to their place in the modern world. Even Nick, the very modern and contemporary character, is challenged by the realization that he is going to ultimately outlive everyone he knows and that the future ahead of him is one of constant loss, that he is going to become just as much a relic of the past as the others. Sticking to the vampire lore gives the film the grounding it needs that ultimately allows the characters to move forward and find some kind of reconciliation with the present.

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You know how long I’ve waited for a good new entry to the werewolf film canon? It’s been decades since An American in London came out, and even Dog Soldiers is pretty long in the tooth now. So…this isn’t the next great werewolf movie we’ve been waiting for, no, but it does somehow manage to be an interestingly flawed indie horror comedy.

In the small rural town of Woodhaven, Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Garou is an all around embarrassment; not only an incompetent cop but the town drunk as well, which is saying something given the not at all hidden drug cartel essentially running the town. Lou is given the thankless task of investigating local gun shop owner Willie’s claim of a lead in the ongoing investigation of missing pets and animal attacks that are casting a pall over the upcoming “drink and shoot” event, and this leads to the ritual sacrifice of a reforming politician and a pentagram being carved into Lou’s chest. As such things do. Lou awakens the next day with no memory of the preceding night, but strangely heightened senses and a new competence, which surprises Tina, the other deputy, since previously she was pretty much the only person in this town who ever seemed to do her damn job. That night Lou turns, gorily, into a werewolf in the bathroom of the town bar, operated by local temptress Jessica, and kills a couple of drug dealers that were sent to kill him for…reasons? Anyway, turning into a werewolf lends Lou an unanticipated competence that leads him into violently cleaning up the town, as well as attracting the sexual attention of Jessica. Which, unfortunately for Lou turns out to be a trap laid for him by the group of shape-shifters that have been secretly running the town for centuries, and enacting a “turn some poor sap into a werewolf and then sacrifice him to retain our power” ritual every 32 years. Luckily Tina comes to Lou’s rescue and the two manage to clean up the town of criminal and supernatural menaces both.

Wolfcop really wants to be a brisk comedy, and though most of the humor is really terrible and off-putting puns (at one point Wolfcop Lou describes himself as “the fuzz”), there are moments where the film-makers are clearly playing with the absurdity of their deliberately silly high-concept premise. Most obviously this is in the recurrent three robbers in pig masks, but there’s some extremely unsubtle Red Riding Hood imagery tossed into the mix as well. The problems with the film basically come from the concept not really coming with enough plot to stretch a film out to more than 90 minutes, and the efforts to correct that not really making sense. The notion of shapeshifters secretly running the town ties several disparate elements together, but as the characters point out, running a small meth-addled town is pretty low ambitions for a supernatural menace. And while “everyone was shapeshifters” goes some way to glossing over some of the more blatant plot holes, so would “everyone was corrupt” and that’s a hell of a lot simpler an explanation. Despite these issues, Wolfcop is, marginally, better than most of the other films making up the “high absurdity” trend in indie film horror these days. If that’s damning with faint praise, well…

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The Monstrumologist, 2015 ed., Rick Yancey
Well…it finally happened. I got tricked into reading a Young Adult series by a publisher reissuing it under an adult fiction imprint. In all fairness, I probably would have read it anyway, as a series about an asshole scientist in late 1880s America tracking down monsters of the classical variety, in this case some anthropophages straight out of Herodotus, is the sort of thing that is just weird enough to interest me.
I don’t remember kids books being quite so gorey when I was the target audience for YA books, though…

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For our cold open, two brothers in mechanic’s gear are fixing up a vintage 50s car while listening to a 50s radio station. The older brother, the developmentally disabled Archie, is prompted by the nostalgia wave to point out a picture of the family from before his brother Ray was born. Ray, meanwhile, is more nostalgic for the fact that those were the days that their now deceased father was keeping “the coloreds” in their place. So he’s not too thrilled when a young black boy comes by selling candy, with his murderously racist outbursts upsetting Archie.

Over at the shop, Johnny is minding the place solo, buying a box of old junk from a customer when Archie comes in, sees a vintage 1954 Chevy factory radio in the box, and buys it from Johnny. Johnny is fairly pleased with himself for making back the money he spent on the box of junk, until Micki and Jack get back and realize that he sold an item before checking it against the Manifest. Which, of course, lists a 1954 Chevy radio. Archie, meantime, has given the radio to Ray to put in the car, which mostly prompts Ray to go on some more racist ranting. Which leads Ray to drinking, and tracking down Elliot, the boy from earlier, and “accidentally” shooting him, in a scene that’s fairly uncomfortable in light of modern “stand your ground” laws. Ray flees in the Chevy, smearing blood on the radio dial, causing the car to glow and travel back to black-and-white Mississippi in 1954, to the town the family lived in before he was born, a few days before his father would commit the murder that got him executed. Ray is just thrilled to find himself in a time and place where he can get away with beating and harassing black men, and very quickly attracts the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan, which gets him invited to…his family home, where his father is, unsurprisingly, ranting about “the coloreds.” Ray tries to talk his father out of killing the black man who he and the Klan harassed earlier in town, not because it’s wrong, but because there will be a witness and they’ll all go to jail for murder, but ends up participating in the killing anyway.

The gang stakes out Ray’s house, Jack having figured out that the radio allows a person to travel back in time to 1954, making this possibly the most specific cursed antique yet. Ray rushes home to find his father, learning that nope, he still got executed for that murder he did, so Ray announces that he’s going to kill another black person. This enrages Archie, who tries to stop him, and gets beaten to death for his efforts. The gang breaks into the garage to try and stop Ray and Jack and Johnny get dragged back to 1954 as well. Ray goes to warn his father, and makes plans to kill the lawyer who got him prosecuted. Jack tries to warn the lawyer, and doesn’t get far, as a white man telling a black man “you better be careful” has the result you would expect. Meanwhile, Ray goes for an Oedipally charged talk with his mother, learning that she very much does not share her husband’s opinions on race, and is fairly upset with him since it’s obvious his beating of Archie has caused brain damage. Jack steals Ray’s Klan scrapbook and takes it to the Sheriff, leaving the office just in time to see the lawyer being abducted, and gets himself abducted when he tries to stop it. At the rally, the Sheriff, who is just coincidentally the Grand Dragon, accuses Ray of being an FBI infiltrator, and orders him burnt at the stake. Johnny hotwires Ray’s car, and escapes with Jack and the lawyer, and Ray is burnt alive by his own father. And Jack and Johnny return to the present of 1989.

Oof, this is a rough one. It’s not just that some elements are little hard to watch in light of current events, it’s that the writers and producers apparently saw a story about a racist villain as an excuse to go way over the top. The language is remarkably tame, unsurprising given syndication restrictions, but the racists are still completely cartoonish, and it wears on you when so much of the episode is given over to them. The only saving grace is that the heroes are fairly active in the story and involved in events and the “nope, time is fixed” approach to time travel.

A Very Robey 80s

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Fuzzies and Other People, 1984 ed., H. Beam Piper
The last of the series. Speak not to me of “re-imaginings.”

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