New Zealand directors and comedians Jemaine Clement (best known for Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has wowed festivals and midnight screenings around the world since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year – and rightly so. Among the tide of low-fi productions based around an amusing (or scary) concept and a couple of improvising actors, this smart, canny and often hilarious comedy truly stands out. Expanding on Clement and Waititi’s 2005 short film, their debut feature observes the lives of a bunch of bloodsucking flatmates who are trying to connect and keep up with the modern world with joyful lunacy and great sympathy for both the living and the undead.
Aged between 183 and 8,000 years, über-dapper Viago (Waititi), medieval ladykiller Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonny Brugh), a rogue rebel and big fan of the Nazis, are forced to face the fact that, despite continuing worries about sunlight, crucifixes and garlic, the actual crux of the vampire matter nowadays lies primarily with the mundane. As they try to deal with paying the rent, going out clubbing and annoying arguments about the bloody dishes or cleaning the carpet after a messy dinner, things become increasingly complicated. For one, recently turned bloodsucker Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) hasn’t got anything better to do than spreading the news about his transformation around downtown Wellington, which draws unnecessary attention to the residence. And then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), the eldest of the biting brood and everybody’s darling, who occupies a coffin in the basement and seems to be entirely free from following the rules and rotas of the (relatively) organised household.
Beneath its insanity and immortal issues, the film has an unashamedly soft core that largely revolves around Viago, who is also the narrator of the story. Bravely dedicated to defusing the tensions in the house, he is not only the good soul of the film, but deeply haunted by a love from the past that once brought him from Europe to New Zealand. And Waititi captures his character brilliantly, walking the fine line between human and brutish consciousness and pitching his admission at just the right level to inspire both empathy and horror.
Boasting believable performances throughout, which ensure that no one is cast as either purely evil or innocent, What We Do in the Shadows manages to make the oldest genre clichés and stalest jokes funny again. At the same time, it is original and inventive enough to generate an irresistibly entertaining vampire romp of sorts, even if things get occasionally monotonous in the mid-section. Nonetheless, poignant comic timing, themes of skewed tolerance and commitment, and the smart blend of farce and sympathy lift this alleged doc-comedy way above the mockumentary pack.
Watch the trailer: