New Zealand. Directed by Taila Waititi & Jemaine Clement, 2014. Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh. 86 minutes.
Vampires are people too: vain, petty, condescending, and occasionally prone to not washing the dishes for five years. That’s the central theme of What We Do in the Shadows, a riotous mockumentary co-written and co-directed by Jemaine Clement (one-half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi.
A (mostly) unseen camera crew films the daily routine of four vampires sharing a house in the New Zealand city of Wellington. The foppish Viago (Waititi) pines after a mortal woman he loved so much, he followed her from Europe–but since his familiar didn’t put the proper postage on his coffin, he arrived a year and a half too late, only to find his beloved married someone else. The pretentious Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who prefers to drink the blood of virgins “because it sounds cool,” copes with a petulant and incompetent servant who doesn’t put enough time and effort into fulfilling her master’s desires. The cruel Vladislav (Clement) broods over his defeat by his arch-enemy, the Beast. The ancient and monstrous Petyr (Ben Fransham) mainly stays in the basement and drinks from chickens.
Clement and Waititi expertly dissect the modern gothic supernatural romance. The culture of Wellington’s supernatural community resembles high school cliqueishness as much as it does Elizabethan or Victorian high society. The anger over being passed over as guest of honor for the annual society ball causes Vladislav to literally rot; the vampires consistently try to bully a pack of (admittedly somewhat nebbishy) werewolves led by Rhys Darby. It’s Twilight taken to a logical but uncomfortable extreme.
However, thousands of internet wags have proved that it’s too easy to simply mock handsome Byronic monsters who can pull off sexy but not dangerous. What We Do… needs to be funny to be memorable. Thankfully, it’s not just funny, it’s consistently and excessively hilarious from its first scene (in which Viago’s hand emerges from its coffin to turn off his alarm clock) to its post-credits sequence. Barely a minute goes by without the film delivering a hearty belly-laugh, and much of the dialog should work its way into your day-to-day conversation. (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves!” “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you’re going to enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” “You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!'”)
The performances are universally excellent, with each actor and character getting a chance to shine; in addition to Clement, Waititi, and Brugh, other standouts include Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s bitter servant and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as a recently turned vampire; Darby makes the most of his two or three brief appearances. Clement and Waititi also provide excellent direction and a lovely visual aesthetic, effectively contrasting “ancient and decaying” with “shiny, urban and modern.” The effects work is remarkably good for a film with such a low budget ($1.5 mil).
I’ve run out of synonyms for “hilarious” to describe What We Do in the Shadows. Suffice it to say it’s a brilliant and essential horror-comedy and a future cult classic in the making.