“To put it in layman’s terms, we’re kind of like Mulder and Scully. She’s like Scully because she’s analytical, she’s got the brains. And I’m a man with brown hair.“
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Well, if you happen to be a citizen of the New Zealand capital, then your best bet would seem to be the Paranormal Unit of the city’s Police force. Not that it’s saying much, due to the lack of alternatives.
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi would appear to have created something of a phenomenon with what began as just a short film project – What We Do In The Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires – back in 2005. Since that humble beginning, it has since become a full-length feature film in 2014, which itself spawned an immersive experience on Wellington’s waterfront in 2019, under the name What Will You Do In The Shadows?
The film’s three vampires – Viago Von Dorna Schmarten Scheden Heimburg (né von Blitzenberg) (Waititi), Vladislav The Poker (Clement), and Deacon Brücke (Jonathan Brugh) – have been featured in a tourist advert for Wellington, to promote the movie and the location: ‘Vampire’s Guide To Vellington’. Vladislav and Viago both made an appearance in a promotional ad by Wellington Airport about altering the “Wellington Blown Away” sign to read “Vellington”.
The film led to an American spin-off TV series, also called What We Do In The Shadows, which has just finished its second season, as well as being picked up for a third by the FX network. Clement and Waititi are also working on producing a semi-sequel to the movie, based not around the film’s vampire characters, but on Rhys Darby’s Anton and his pack of werewolves; called We’re Wolves, it might take some time for it to come to fruition, as Waititi’s slate is already very full with many other projects, which include Thor: Love And Thunder, plus a Star Wars film.
However, one part of the franchise which hasn’t attracted quite as much attention is another TV series based around this shared universe; in fact, it’s one which hit TV screens the year before FX’s What We Do In The Shadows, airing for the first time in July 2018. The spin-off – Wellington Paranormal – is based around two characters who made a very brief appearance in the 2014 feature: Officers O’Leary (Karen O’Leary) and Minogue (Mike Minogue), who turned up at the vampire house to investigate neighbours’ reports of a disturbance.
The roles hadn’t even been given any names, written in the script only as ‘Policeman 1’ and ‘Policeman 2’. When Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue auditioned for the parts, they’d made such an impression that not only were the characters given the actors’ own surnames, but Clement and Waititi’s thoughts swiftly turned to the potential for giving the cops their very own vehicle, in order to be able to explore them further, and delve further into all the assorted strangeness of Wellington.
Back in September of 2016, it was announced Clement and Waititi had managed to secure NZ$1.4 million in investment for a six-part series of what was then known as ‘Paranormal Event Response Unit’; it was actually described by Waititi at the time in a tweet as: “Think Mulder & Scully but in a country where nothing happens”. Whereas the progenitor movie dealt with vampires, zombies and witches who reside in the local community, Wellington Paranormal has a wider remit, and delves into all manner of phenomena.
Like the film and FX’s What We Do In The Shadows series, Wellington Paranormal follows a ‘mockumentary’ format, with it being patterned after reality crime programmes like Cops, or New Zealand’s own Police Ten 7. Officers O’Leary and Minogue are followed around by a camera crew as they investigate any reports being made with regard to apparent supernatural, unexplained or just plain weird incidents that take place around the Wellington area.
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The Paranormal Unit is headed by Sergeant Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu), from his ‘secret office’ (which is basically a glorified storage closet secreted behind a set of shelving). A lifelong follower of anything out of the ordinary that defies rational or logical explanation, Maaka has recruited O’Leary and Minogue, partly because of their own prior experiences with these kinds of unusual situations, but mostly because they happen to be the only members of his staff who have ever shown any interest in seeing his ‘secret office’.
Maaka‘s dedication to the subject goes as far as having “The truth is in here” embroidered on the waistband of his boxers; however, it doesn’t appear to extend to practical knowledge, as the main source of his research tends to be Google, and a crisis situation requiring an exorcism leads to him having to follow an online tutorial. O’Leary and the guileless Minogue aren’t that much better equipped themselves, as it’s hard to tackle the unknown using only standard Police procedure – try tasering or handcuffing a ghost, or cautioning a demon, for example.
In the course of two series to date, the Paranormal Unit has dealt with possession, cows in trees, alien plant life, ghostly Victorian Police, legendary sea monsters, a haunted vehicle, artificial intelligence, and spectres from a 1970s disco party which took a very deadly turn. There have also been appearances by witches, zombies, werewolves and vampires, including the return of Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who’d been turned into one of the children of the night during the 2014 movie.
Some of the subject matter featured actually ties into New Zealand folklore and legend, such as the Taniwha, which is a mythological creature hailing from Māori traditions that lives in bodies of deep water. In another tale, the haunting of Mount Victoria road tunnel, with drivers beeping horns as they pass through, comes from an actual superstition that is supposedly meant either as a deterrent to any evil spirits which live in there, or a tribute to a murdered teenage girl whose body was buried there prior to the tunnel’s opening in 1931.
Truth and fiction would also seem to have been blurring in New Zealand, with a report of the Department of Internal Affairs apparently being haunted coinciding with the start of the second season of Wellington Paranormal. Officers Minogue and O’Leary have also recently been featured in a series of short public information films, to help get out key messages about how to arrest the spread of COVID-19 in the nation; some of these have seen cameo appearances by New Zealand Commissioner of Police Andrew Coster, as well as Clarke Gayford, partner of PM Jacinda Ardern.
A great deal of the show’s humour derives from a mixture of how unqualified and patently unsuited people deal with the unknown (similar to Shaun Of The Dead’s characters having to cope with a Zombie apocalypse), as well as both Officers missing important things going on either behind or around them, but which are actually caught on camera by the documentary crew (such as spirits passing on into the afterlife, or UFOs abducting cattle); watching very closely for what’s going on in the background is similar to some of the jokes tucked away in films like Airplane!.
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Sounds great, you may be thinking. So, when do we get to see it for ourselves? Well, there’s a snag: while Wellington Paranormal was first to reach television screens, there are contractual issues which relate to FX’s What We Do In The Shadows; these currently prevent Wellington Paranormal being made available for broadcast anywhere other than in New Zealand and Australia. As such, it means that the only way that the rest of the world can see Minogue and O’Leary in action is either by buying import DVDs*, or in online short videos, such as their investigation of Radio Hauraki.
With the success of What We Do In The Shadows, as well as a third series of Wellington Paranormal due to drop at some point in 2020, let’s hope that all of the red tape and legal stuff can be sorted out, so the programme can reach a deservedly wider global audience, and we can finally see for ourselves that the spoof is out there.