Imagine my delight at finding Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows thoroughly entertaining, amusing and even charming. By all rights of logic and history I should have hated it. The mockumentary format is paired with the shaky-cam “found footage” horror movie, two things I most hold in contempt about modern cinema. Both are cheap and easy ways to avoid having to actually bother with a solid screenplay or marginal filmmaking skill. And while this is a mockumentary, it’s a mockumentary with a difference. It has wit and style — and a story arc. Plus, it has characters it’s hard not to care for — despite the fact that they “eat” people. That seems to be their term of choice, even though only one of them — the 8,000-year-old Nosferatu-looking Petyr (Ben Fransham) — actually appears to ingest anyone.
Now, I’m not cutting this slack because of some fondness for the film’s creators’ association with the cult TV show Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve never seen and know very little about. No, I came to this cold — and when I realized it was in the mockumentary form, I groaned and swore. But I quickly realized something else — apart from providing a means for our vampire heroes to directly address the audience, there’s really not much mockumentary here. In fact, I often forgot what I was seeing was supposedly — and preposterously — captured by a documentary crew, apparently festooned with crosses and garlic and having been promised they’ll not be eaten. It mostly just doesn’t matter, feeling more like a look in on a small group of vampires coping with life in modern day New Zealand — and coping with each other in a house-sharing situation.
Part of what makes this work is that it’s the creation of a couple of guys who obviously love and know the genre they’re spoofing. Though vampire mythology has a certain amount of variables to pick and choose from, everything in the movie has a sound basis. It also touches on various aspects of vampire lore — both from legend and cinema. I already mentioned that Petyr is made up to resemble the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), but there’s also the implication that 862-year-old Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) might be Vlad the Impaler. (He excuses his torturing past as a time when he was “in a bad place.”)
The whole idea is predicated on a group of vampires living together in a rundown house in Wellington. Besides the aforementioned Petyr (who at 8,000 doesn’t really interact with anyone) and Vladislav, we have 183-year-old Byronic troublemaker Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 379-year-old fussy, dissipated dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), who, despite his relative youth, is more or less in charge of keeping things in order. Viago is also the sweetest and most lovable of the characters — anxious to please, easily embarrassed and generally affable (even if he does kill people). He’s a thwarted romantic still pining for the girl he lost (thanks to a magnificently stupid “familiar”).
A great deal of the humor stems from this aged collection of the undead bickering among themselves over petty matters, searching for virgin blood (though they’re not sure why) and trying to adjust to the modern world, which they only vaguely understand. They seem oblivious to the fact that their situation has been significantly degraded and their powers diminished. (That their annual vampire, witch and zombie ball is actually taking place with the Victoria Bowling Club standing in for the awesomely named Cathedral of Despair seems completely lost on them.) This may be what makes the film slightly sweet and sad as well as funny.
What’s surprising is that What We Do in the Shadows actually manages to throw some moments of genuine horror into its goofy mix — all thanks to Petyr. In fact, it has a couple of shock effects that are more effective than those found in many supposed straight horror pictures. It also doesn’t shy away from the goriness of its vampire premise, though the use of gore for comedic shock is over 40 years old at this point, so that’s hardly groundbreaking. There is a plot, but I think that’s best left to the film rather than a review. All in all, I highly recommend it — unless horror pictures are just generally off-putting to you. Not Rated but contains scenes of bloody comic horror, adult themes and language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.