After suffering from post-Twilight defanging since 2008, vampires are on the mend. Last year’s one-two punch of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Only Lovers Left Alive, along with films like Neil Jordan’s underappreciated 2013 joint Byzantium, helped creatures of the night reclaim their teeth on the big screen bit by bit; these are smartly written, handsomely crafted deconstructions of vampire mythos that each get to the root of our fascination with bloodsuckers in their own way. So does What We Do in the Shadows, a collaborative effort from everybody’s favorite sons of New Zealand, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, though unsurprisingly they prefer piss-takes over sobriety.
What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary set in a flat in Wellington in which dwell four vampires ranging from “old” to “ancient” to “truly, truly ancient.” They have a job wheel to divvy out chores, they hold flat meetings to discuss the state of their household, and they go out to bars to party such as only the undead can. There’s Viago (Waititi), aged 317, a timid dandy and the glue that holds the group together; Vladislav (Clement), aged 862, a decadent playboy whose literary and historical influences almost speak for themselves; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), aged 183, the youngest of the bunch and their designated “bad boy” and Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000, who barely speaks a line of dialogue and happens to be modeled after Count Orlok.
Basically, it’s The Real World but with vampires, all inexplicably shot by a camera crew a la Man Bites Dog. The film centers squarely on the quartet’s
daily nightly comings and goings, settling on strong punchlines over strong plot. Every scene is built to poke fun at vampire tropes; they have no reflections, so when they go out on the town they have to run their outfits by one another, and once they do get around to clubbing, they have to rely on bouncers’ invitations to actually get inside. Frankly, Waititi and Clement tinker so much with lore that their script almost threatens to teeter into niche territory. They’re walking a tricky tightrope here. Written too narrowly, only Anne Rice aficionados will find the gags funny; too broadly and those gags will land with a generic thud.
But Waititi and Clement hit the precise balance between playing to the niche and letting the rest of us in on the joke. You don’t need to understand why vampires prize virgin blood so highly to laugh at Vladislav’s absurdist explanation. You don’t need to know why vampires beef with werewolves to find the gang’s run-ins with a local pack amusing. And you don’t need to be versed in the particulars of vampirism to find What We Do in the Shadows’s somber explorations of the undead kinda sorta really sad. We learn that Viago missed a window of opportunity to win the hand of his lady love ages ago, and that he still keeps a silver locket with her picture in it as a keepsake even though it scorches his skin when he dons it. Vladislav, on the other hand, is constantly wounded by his own pride. He might be a centuries-old bon vivant, but he still has feelings, damnit.
Eventually, What We Do in the Shadows shakes itself up by introducing a fifth vampire into the mix: Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), freshly turned by Petyr and in possession of a dickish streak running through him a mile wide. His introduction causes immediate friction in the house - he’s a loudmouth, for one, and for another he insists on bringing his human buddy, Stu (Stu Rutherford), around the flat. That Deacon, Viago and Vladislav all take to the nigh-unflappable Stu more than Nick is worth a guffaw or two, but even Nick’s experiences point to the film’s undercurrent of melancholy. Sure, being a vampire means eternal life, staying out as late as you like and turning into a bat for giggles. It also means saying goodbye to your pals, and never eating junk food again. What We Do in the Shadows is wonderfully droll, but it’s also unexpectedly tragic.
That’s proof positive of the movie’s biggest strength: the cast. You’ll want to hang out with these guys, forget the fact that they’ll probably see you as food. But their worst proclivities don’t blunt how endearing they are, particularly Viago, whom Waititi plays as a perfectly awkward, self-aware sweetheart. (His gentle approach to exsanguination almost makes it sound inviting.) Maybe that speaks to the efficacy of vampires’ supernatural charms, but who can resist a genre send-up with this much heart?