The first five minutes of the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows let me know I was in good hands. In those opening minutes, the filmmakers pay homage to both the classic silent film Nosferatu and Francis Ford Coppola’s stab at the most famous fanged tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Shadows is the brainchild of Jemaine Clement, one half of the comedy rock duo Flight of the Concords, and Taika Waititi, who wrote and directed several episodes of the Concords’ TV show. Clement and Waititi also collaborated on the 2007 comedy Eagle vs. Shark, and have made a very literate comedy in Shadows. They use the conventions of horror movies in general, and vampire movies specifically, to inform their film. Not incidentally, they have also made a very funny movie.
It’s weirdly refreshing to get back to the basics of vampire lore in the way that Shadows does. Under the tyranny of sparkly vampires from the Twilight series, I’d started to forget what made vampires so sinister and mysterious. The undead in Shadows are killed by sunlight, can’t see their reflections in a mirror (which makes getting dressed for a night out on the town challenging), and are burned by silver.
The plot revolves around four vampire roommates who are trying to survive in 21st century Wellington, New Zealand. Viago (Waititi) was an aristocratic dandy when he was turned into a vampire in the 18th century and micromanages the apartment by insisting the housemates carry out the assignments designated by the Chore Wheel. Vladislav (Clement) is a charismatic vampire in the vein of Dracula, who hasn’t quite been the same since a defeat at the hands of his greatest nemesis, a being he will only refer to as “The Beast.” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youthful one (he’s less than 200 years old), and is the rebellious teenager of the group. Rounding out the quartet is Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8000 year old vampire who, quite frankly, creeps out the other roommates due to his odd appearance and behavior.
The story comes alive when Jackie (Jackie van Beek), Deacon’s human servant, brings a friend, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), to the vampires’ house as a victim. The sequence wherein the undead friends lull Nick and another perspective victim into a false sense of safety by holding a dinner party of sorts is hilarious. A comparison between sandwiches and virgins is, without a doubt, the movie’s biggest laugh.
Immediately after the party, the vampires attack, resulting in some of the most original slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years. Let’s just say, things get awfully messy when you bite your victim’s neck and accidentally hit an artery. By the next morning, it’s discovered that Petyr has inadvertently turned Nick into a vampire. The rest of the film is concerned with Nick trying to adjust to his new life and the roommates adjusting to him, as well as Nick teaching the immortals how to adapt to the times.
The film’s action is caught by a documentary crew invited by Viago to chronicle an annual masquerade ball put on by the local ghouls. The faux documentary style that Shadows employs had me nervous before it started. First, it’s been done. Second, bad mockumentary can be excruciating. That is not the case here, though. Waititi and Clement have taken up the mantle of this form of comedy from the likes of Ricky Gervais (the original version of The Office), and, dare I say it, the great Christopher Guest. The stakes (pun completely intended) aren’t as high in Shadows as they are in the best of Guest’s work (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind), and this mainly has to do with empathy for the characters.
What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious, there’s no doubt about that, but I didn’t care about these bloodsuckers as much, or in the same way, as I do about certain misfit community theater actors or over-the-hill folk singers. There is a subplot involving Viago’s lost love, but it didn’t hit me emotionally the way the filmmakers likely intended – on the human level. That might sound odd considering I’m talking about a group of vampires, but that missing element is what would have pushed this film from being very good to great. Make no mistake, though, What We Do in the Shadows is absolutely a film worth sinking your teeth into.