What We Do in the Shadows

Conceptually clever, consistently inventive, endearingly dorky, and exceedingly good-natured, What We Do in the Shadows is an affectionate, genial send-up of the vampire mythos; a respectful, delirious, surprisingly delicate farce; and a sly satire on millennial slackerdom. Darkly, edgily, riotously, murderously funny, it’s a fiendish, full-blooded delight.

Viago, Vladislav, Deacon, and Petyr are four vampires who share a flat in the Wellington suburb of Te Aro. Viago, Vladislav, and Deacon are between two and eight centuries old and have retained human appearances; the 8,000-year-old Petyr resembles Count Orlok. Deacon has a human servant, Jackie, who runs errands. They are invited to “The Unholy Masquerade,” a ball where they run into supernatural creatures including zombies and witches, as well as Vladislav’s ex-girlfriend Pauline, who he nicknames “The Beast” due to their breakup. Mostly, though, the vampires fight werewolves, grieve, reconcile, and learn to get on with life.

What follows is partly a “Big Brother”-style reality spoof, complete with stagey confrontations, domestic melodrama, and introspective talking-head interviews. But it’s also one of the richest and most satisfying depictions of the vampires-in-the-modern-world conundrum ever concocted, capturing all the silliest, scariest and saddest aspects of the nocturnal bloodsucking tradition in one delicious package.

Perhaps it’s the cultural exhaustion and exasperation with the undead that’s the secret ingredient; it makes something hackneyed and stale newly irresistible. Playing out something like True Blood by way of Waiting for Guffman, What We Do in the Shadows is wonderfully irreverent, infectiously silly, and irrepressibly charming. An early montage provides historical context for how each of the four housemates ended up in New Zealand, and several of the group photos are almost worthy of their own prequels.

Loaded with inspired sight gags and memorable one-liners, What We Do in the Shadows filters the routines of the living through the lens of the dead, breathing fresh ideas into a genre threatened with creative exhaustion. With unflagging energy, entertaining inventiveness, and sustained ridiculousness to spare, it’s almost a jocular slant on Roy Andersson’s illustrious A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

If Jim Jarmusch vividly reimagined the vampire caste as aging ‘80s bohemians grown too cool and too bored for life, these vampires are symbolic of something else: epic unkemptness. Any comparisons with This Is Spinal Tap, Shaun of the Dead, or Only Lovers Left Alive don’t do writer-directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement any favours. Yet if it’s not nearly on par with the “gold” standard of inanity, Three Amigos! – or tries to be New Zealand’s answer to Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) and doesn’t get there – it’s still the most newfangled horror comedy to come out of New Zealand since Peter Jackson’s Braindead.

This mockumentary transcends its lowbrow inspirations, matching fantastic characters, sharp humour, and a well-polished story completely in tune with its source material with an undertone about life in a very remote city. Paying frank attention to the gruesome possibilities of the premise, it’s a dry, cheerfully horrific affair, a sanguine comedy that feels more than a bit like a Christopher Guest farce or an elaborate Monty Python sketch, imprinted with Kiwi comic sensibility. It brings warmth to its silliness, underscoring the loneliness of beings doomed to watch their loved ones die.

More often amusing than gut-busting, What We Do in the Shadows is a risk: some in the audience will chuckle, and some will cackle throughout like a witch after sucking helium. But it’s pleasingly thorough and innovative in its treatment of a well-worn subject, and quietly smart about dealing with the way things can change over a few hundred years (“yes, now Google it”), and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. At a brisk 86 minutes, it never sags or drags. Being immortal doesn’t mean your film has to stick around forever. (It can be canny, wistful, admirably executed, expertly paced, and bloody awesome.)

When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will move to Wellington. And if they’re anything like the quartet in What We Do in the Shadows, I’ll be stopping by for a drink.

3/4

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