The vampire genre has become a significant cross to bear. Tainted in recent years by the likes of the widely reviled Twilight saga, the requisite Friedberg/Seltzer parodies (like Vampires Suck), and general overexposure on TV and film (Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc.), it’s become a crowded field that’s difficult to pump fresh blood into. Mockumentaries seem nearly as omnipresent and disposable, making What We Do in the Shadows (which melds the two genres) an unlikely success. It manages to mock vampire tropes while being respectful of the mythology and is riotously funny in the process.
The movie comes from the minds of New Zealand comedy partners (and writers/directors) Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi. Clement is best known worldwide for his other comedy pairing – Flight of the Conchords with Bret Mackenzie – while Waititi directed the little-seen Eagle vs. Shark (starring Clement). If there’s any justice in the world then What We Do in the Shadows will bring them both more exposure and allow them to continue making idiosyncratic gems, hopefully without the 10-year gap it reportedly took to get this one made.
Shadows takes place in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand in contemporary times and juxtaposes ancient vampires against their mundane suburban setting in the form of a mockumentary. There’s some of the best cringe-comedy in its DNA (like the UK Office and Parks and Recreations‘ relentless optimism), along with genuine horror and of course the offbeat sensibilities of its creators. There’s even some of MTV’s Real World thrown in the mix in its examination of roommate dynamics.
Waititi stars as Viago, a mannered vampire fop who at age 317 is the youngest of four vampires living in a rickety old house. Clement is Vladislav, a, 862-year-old formerly powerful Alpha-vampire who’s fallen on hard times, evidenced by his waning powers and increasingly dire orgies. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the shit-disturber in the house, a hot-head who’s quick to initiate violence by transmogrifying into a bat for a good old-fashioned “bat fight”. The fourth roommate is the little seen Petyr (Ben Fransham), an ancient and grotesque vampire styled after Nosferatu that’s over 8000 years old.
The roommates argue over their chore wheel (“the dishes are covered in blood and no one’s done them in decades”), describe how their outfits look to each other (as they can’t see their own reflections), and go out for wild nights in small-town New Zealand. Their human familiar Jackie does their bidding during the day, like taking their blood-soaked sheets to the dry cleaner and arranging ex-boyfriends as vampire fodder, while the vampires themselves live in relative peace (except for all the killing). The introduction of newly turned vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into their midst disrupts their careful equilibrium, bringing new problems and enemies into their midst.
The core cast is great, creating deeply silly yet believable characters all around. Waititi as Viago is admirably guileless and acts as the glue between the characters. Vladislav is devious and laughably sexualized, as Clement relishes the role of proudly showing off his sex dungeon or trying to hypnotize women at the bar. Deacon might be the secret weapon of the movie, as Brugh brings an impish charm to a character that’s selfish, vain and self-important in the best tradition of horrible yet oddly likeable mockumentary subjects. There’s even a mini-Conchords reunion when Rhys Darby shows up as Anton, sworn enemy of the vampires and leader of a werewolf pack. He’s given perhaps the most quotable line of the film as his buttoned-down lycanthrope argues for decency and declares “We’re Werewolves, not Swear-Wolves!”
While the film relishes in small character moments and turning vampire self-importance on its head (Vladislav in response to Viago’s neat-freak tendencies: “We’re vampires, we don’t put down towels.”), it also builds its own complete underworld of ghoulish Wellington residents living just out of sight of the normies. The climax takes place at a masquerade ball with vampires, zombies, werewolves and various other horrific creatures in attendance (including Stu, a soft-spoken computer programmer and human friend of the vampires who oddly becomes the film’s heart). The filmmaker’s aren’t just taking the piss though, they’re deeply aware of vampire mythology as evidenced by the use of “glamouring” (hypnotizing), transformations, vampire’s weaknesses, and their need to be invited to any building they enter. In comedy, as in life, intent can have a significant impact and Clement and Waikiki seem to be knowingly skewering a beloved genre.
There’s a lot packed into the less-than 90 minutes here and I suspect most will need more than one viewing to catch all of What We Do in the Shadows‘ jokes. It’s jam packed with not just sharp wit, but great character beats, heavy lore, and a fully-realized world that is a pure delight to spend time in. One of the best comedies in years and a worthy follow up to classic mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest efforts like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, What We Do in the Shadows has bite and heart.
What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
Directors: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Runtime: 86 minutes