“Is Petyr coming? Should we wait?” “Petyr is 8,000 years old. We’re not having Petyr at the meeting.” Petyr is a vampire, a Nosferatu lookalike with satirically oversized fangs that stop him from being able to talk. He’s the oldest of four vampire flatmates living in Wellington, New Zealand, who mostly stays in his nice stone coffin in the basement eating live chickens and dismembering people. With Petyr is Deacon, the “young, cool” vampire (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), a pervert stocky menace with long black hair and a classic mustache, and Viago (Taiki Waititi), an 18th-century dandy. Together they live in a modest-sized home, captured in a (fake) documentary comedy called What We Do in the Shadows. Of Flight of the Conchords fame, writers and directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi explore the everyday of the modern vampire, following them through the trials of paying rent, clubbing, trying to look sexy: “I call this style dead but delicious,” brags Vladislav.
Transcending parody, it becomes a credible entry into vampire movie canon, making the famous bloodsuckers seem more real and everyday. The realism doesn’t come from complex characterization so much as a casual treatment that doubles as the base for its never-ending humor. This is the anti-Only Lovers Left Alive; What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious.
Clement and Waititi have the vampire go the way of domestic slapstick. Deacon hasn’t done the dishes in five years, leaving them in a bloodstained pile of bowls and plates. Like an angsty teen lazily making excuses to mom, he defends himself “What does it matter?! You bring them over, you kill them. Vampires don’t do dishes!” Vladislav gives the Obama shrug. Writer-director-actors Clement and Waititi lobbied the project in Hollywood, who turned it down flat. It’s easy to see why. The tone isn’t obvious enough for the Scary Movie crowd and won’t please fans of Twilight and Anne Rice. Without notable stars or plot that extends beyond the situational, this was never going to be a big studio darling.
What we have instead of Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt looking glamorous are the film’s two directors and their friends bringing out the natural cadences and rhythms of their relationships. The result is a more believable work, a dry-hard pan comedy that feels closer to you and your friends goofing off than anything rehearsed or scripted. Apparently much of the mock-doc was an improvised version of a script, letting the filmmakers have broad strokes in mind to keep focus but with the freedom to let actors be themselves. Everything has an ADD spontaneity that grabs your attention without needing a conventional plot, such as a midnight walk discussing a Fear Factor competition turning into an impromptu encounter with werewolves (who remind themselves “we’re werewolves not swearwolves”). Even the very brilliant This is Spinal Tap can drag, a problem the filmmakers solved here.
Laughs are frequent and consistent. The more references you know, the funnier it will be, such as “We got the idea from The Lost Boys.” or when Deacon tries dressing up as Blade for a costume party. Made for fans of the genre by fans of the genre, vampire fans will rejoice. But what stops What We Do in the Shadows from appealing only to a niche is the warmth of the characters. I identified not only with their vampiric loneliness, but also the loving push-pull between friends. As noted by some critics, there’s an inherent sweetness to these characters and their interactions, one we all share with our own people. it is simply unexpected how universal Clement and Waititi’s off-kilter vampire mockumentary comedy turns out to be.
It doesn’t share Dostoyevsky’s level of insight into the human soul, but it doesn’t have to. Authenticity is a driving force here, and the home-movie look, naturalistic performances, and everyday slice-of-life dialogue and story bite the point home. Seeming to riff on Dogme 95, the overall look is digital and unsophisticated, lacking coloring or much in the way of composition. During the few qualifying action sequences, especially a hyper-speed chase through a haunted house, the grounded low-budget look is terrifying. The stakes aren’t high, but What We Do in the Shadows is relentlessly bloody fun.
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