You wouldn’t think a feature mockumentary about four vampire roommates would be able to sustain itself (the concept seems better fitted for a Saturday Night Live sketch), yet What We Do in the Shadows does that, and more. It’s smart, increasingly funny and a spot-on sendup of the reality television form.
The key is that Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who wrote and directed the film together and also star as two of the vampires, play things straight the whole way through. (It also helps that Clement has one of the most impenetrable deadpans in comedy.) Adopting the format of one of those confessional, fly-on-the-wall reality series – think Real Vampires of New Zealand – What We Do in the Shadows proceeds as if it were just another program offering up real-life intimacy as entertainment. The gag – as it was as far back as Albert Brooks’ Real Life – is that the process is inherently intrusive and contrived, leading to decidedly “unreal” complications for all involved.
Film buffs will appreciate that each vampire represents a type from movies past. Waititi’s Viago is the cultured aristocrat (think Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Tom Cruise’s Lestat). Clement’s Vladislav is the devilish lothario, a riff on the sort of dangerous romantic Gary Oldman gave us in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon nods to the bad-boy bloodsuckers of The Lost Boys, while Ben Fransham’s Petyr – bald, ghastly white and with a mouth full of crooked fangs – is a genuinely unsettling evocation of the great Nosferatu.
If Petyr is my sentimental favorite, Waititi’s Viago is the heart of the film. A mother hen of sorts (he reminds his roommates to lay down paper before dispensing with a victim on the couch), Viago tries to keep the peace while also pining for the lost love who first brought him to New Zealand. He’s genuinely sweet – if no less bloodthirsty – and Waititi manages to perfectly mimic that shy, self-conscious way reality-television figures first look into the camera, before they learn to “perform” for it.
The key is that the filmmakers play things straight the whole way through.
Viago’s storyline lends some of the same sense of romantic exhaustion that defined Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, a superior vampire film from last year. Yet if that exercise was (mostly) serious, What We Do in the Shadows aims for laughs. And so Viago and his mates spend their endless time in ridiculous ways, including Deacon’s belly-dancing routine for a bored Vladislav and Viago. Out on the town, they half-heartedly nod to other wandering vampires and lament the fact that they can’t get into the best nightclubs (vampires have to be invited). The fact that they don’t appear in mirrors is another hurdle; dressing up to go out, they have to make decisions based on Deacon’s hasty sketches of what they’re wearing.
Such jokes pop up alongside the picture’s handful of subplots, including a new vampire (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who threatens Deacon’s position. There’s also a human tagalong (Stuart Rutherford) who’s constantly in danger of being devoured, as well as a rival pack of werewolves led by Rhys Darby (who, like Clement and Waititi, previously worked on Flight of the Conchords).
All of this silliness is given a fairly sophisticated dose of special effects. The roommates’ hissing fits may involve fairly simple wire work, but a sequence in which Deacon and the new vampire transform for a bat fight is a seamless integration of the real and the fantastic. I guess you could say the same of What We Do in the Shadows as a whole. It mixes the documentary format with fantasy elements to create some fantastically funny stuff.