What makes a great horror comedy and, more importantly, how did What We Do in the Shadows get it right when so many other vampire spoofs fail so miserably?
To properly understand, we need to travel way back to the first filmed vampire send-up: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Don’t let Frankenstein in the title fool you. This Bud Abbott and Lou Costello venture features three of Universal Studios’ major monsters: Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula. The Wolf Man and Dracula are played by their original actors (Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugoisi, respectively), while Frankenstein’s monster is played by Glenn Strange, who had taken up the mantle for three Universal films after Boris Karloff.
After the rise in popularity of the Universal monster movies — in a 15-year period we received Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Wolf Man (1941), Son of Dracula (1943) — executives figured they’d capitalize on the intrigue and put together a monster comedy. But production was difficult and no one actually seemed to want to make the movie. By the time it came out in 1948, many critics claimed it had missed the proverbial boat, but enough of an audience emerged to make it the third highest grossing Universal film that year, and the Abbott and Costello Meet [insert Universal monster here] formula went on to become its own franchise.
The reason it found an audience, is still remembered fondly today, and was added to the Library of Congress? The monsters were played straight. Having Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange, and Bela Lugoisi reprise their roles was a masterstroke. Instead of everyone acting goofy, Abbott and Costello maintained their comedic shtick throughout the real, intimidating threats posed by the monsters; the audience identifies with Abbott and Costello but also feels superior, thinking, “Well, I wouldn’t do that if I met Dracula.”
In the Shudder documentary In Search of Darkness: Part II, drive-in movie critic and horror aficionado Joe Bob Briggs breaks down the formula Abbott and Costello perfected:
The key to making a great horror comedy is it’s gotta be 80% horror and 20% comedy. If you try to do 80% comedy and 20% horror, then what you’re doing is, you’re attempting to make a cult film in advance, and that never works — it always falls on its face.
On Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Quentin Tarantino summed up his love for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein by saying pretty much the same thing as Briggs and highlighting the film’s influence on him:
It literally was my two favorite things in the world put together — it was horror, and it was comedy. But the thing that I noticed…was the fact that, yes, there was the comedy stuff, but then when the horror stuff happened — and Abbott and Costello weren’t in the scene — the horror stuff was played straight … And this is the best movie ever made because it put my two favorite types together … I’ve been mixing and matching my favorite genres ever since I started putting pen to paper.
This is why it’s been so difficult to find a good vampire comedy. Most of the memorable ones skimp on the horror — Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) — and the unmemorable ones are one-note, downright mean-spirited, or parodying already despised franchises — Once Bitten (1985), Vampires Suck (2010).
To incisively parody anything requires intimate knowledge. A surface-level poke at vampire tropes falls into easy gags and hack jokes. But Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, when penning the original What We Do in the Shadows movie, seemed to look at the current state of vampirism and wonder, “If all of these vampires are centuries old…why are they dating teenagers and not having more anachronistic issues? What if vampires wanted to hold on to their old ways instead of running around with high schoolers?”
Instead of situating vampires like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series, 1997 – 2003), The Vampire Diaries (2009 – 2017), and the Twilight franchise (2008 – 2012) did, Clement and Waititi chose to #MakeVampiresScaryAgain and instead lampoon the intersections of antiquity and modernity, violence and decorum — a true “fish out of water” tale.
Following Briggs’ 80/20 rule, What We Do in the Shadows has some genuinely horrific visuals. We get grotesque Nosferatu-esque vampires and violent kills. But in lieu of identifying with an “Abbott and Costello,” we get to see the humanity in the monsters. We laugh because of the irony in the interplay of horror and banal annoyances: Yes, murdering virigins for blood is horrifying. Yes, tracking down virgins is tiresome, and realizing most virgins are incels, in this day and age, is hilarious. Yes, the slaughters are gruesome. Yes, it’s hilarious the familiar — er, bodyguard — Guillermo gets stuck with the cleanup.
All of this to say, What We Do in the Shadows probably wouldn’t exist without the Twilight franchise. Media isn’t created in a vacuum and tends to respond to a cultural phenomenon or discourse. If the ridiculousness of Twilight’s vampires hadn’t made it unintentionally funny, the pointed personalities of the What We Do in the Shadows’ vampires may never have graced our screens. Ironically, it’s temporality that made What We Do in the Shadows’ generational mashup of horrific humor (an updated slapstick, if you will) a viable pursuit for its creators.
The best send-ups are done with love and appeal to the fanbase of what’s being sent up. What We Do in the Shadows is a vampire spoof made for lovers of vampire horror — with clever enough writing to mesmerize the uninitiated.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.