With a history dated all the way back to the early 1800s, to say vampire folklore is washed up is by no means a stretch. Even recent efforts at genre changes often rely on cheap relationship drama and complete blend of the rules to pulsate the dying genre of the undead. While a compelling tale about modern-day bloodsuckers can be made today, it’s fair to note that for every Let the Right One In there’s a Twilight film creeping around a shadowy corner somewhere.
To the credit of What We Do in the Shadows — the new comedy written and directed by Jemaine Clement, one half of Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi, who directed Clement in 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark — there’s no desire to say anything new about the long-toothed undead in this new feature. Rather, the main lark here is poking fun at vampire conventions old and new, while also milking situations/set pieces for all they’re worth.
Opposed to your average (i.e. terrible) new vampire parody like, say, Vampires Suck or Vampire Academy, What We Do in the Shadows has a lot to say and also many, many things to like. The kind of joke-a-minute crowd-pleaser which earnestly makes room for both clever turn-of-phrases and the best blood-based vomit joke you’ll see in 2015, Clement and Waititi’s latest proves, if anything, that there may still be one or two things left to be said about nightcrawlers after all.
As the town’s monsters prepare for their yearly Undead Masquerade Ball, the New Zealand Documentary Board follows Wellington vampires Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) in their day-to-day activities. Those said activities often include the human leeches trying to suck the blood of local residents in their centuries old home or their earnest attempts to get into local nightclubs across the city.
Both activities of which, as the camera team witnesses, come with multiple problems for the creatures with hundreds of post-living years under their belts. Even still, they find themselves with comfortable living in their small-town quarters. That begins to change, however, when one recent attempt to suck young virgins’ blood goes awry and a new fang-wielder under the quartet’s watch.
Based on a 2006 short film of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows is something of a vampire folktale birthed from a New Zealand crossbreed of Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais. The kind of mockumentary that thankfully knows when to get in and get out, Clement and Waititi make up for a lack of plot with consistent gags and lovingly conceived characters. While Clement typically gets the best laughs as an 862-year-old variation of his unusual on-screen persona, Waititi plays a great straight man for the group. He produces some of the most genuinely sweet moments in the film, while also cradling the film’s tonal balance naturally.
They may be the standouts, solely because it’s their movie, but that’s not to undermine their supporting players. Brugh is perfectly in-tune in his character, dialing him up just the right amount but not stealing the spotlight. He always makes just the right impression, passing around good jabs as his co-stars but lets the gags roll off easefully and diligently.
Same goes for Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as Nick. He often has the heaviest drama to lift of the group but chooses to display emotions with nuance and proper dictation, a performance almost beyond his years. And while he’s often resorted for quick gags and safe reaction shots, Stu Rutherford never fails to garner a laugh when he’s on-screen — be it in the forefront or background.
All these eager performers compliment a well-edited comedy with tons of belly laughs but also a nice respect for both its genre and its rules. Even when What We Do in the Shadows decides to bend and tickle them, there’s always a plan at stake, no pun intended, and Clement and Waititi’s screenplay is gleefully more clever and in tune with itself than your average dumb vampire spoof.
At its continuous momentum, though, it makes sense that Clement and Waititi’s film tires out around the hour mark. That does mean, sadly, that the enjoyment is hindered though. With all the best gags through in the first thirds, the climax is by no means unsatisfying but lacks the enthusiasm so readily available before its arrival. Even at a mere 86 minutes, What We Do in the Shadows ends up three-or-five minutes longer than its running time should be. Which is expected, of course, but mildly disappointing as one remembers how much fun the film was before it pooped itself out.
This bump in the road should no discourage anyone, however, from enjoying what fun comes before it. What We Do in the Shadows is refreshingly carefree yet also a triumph in inspired comedy. One that’s also aided with a nice balance of practical and new age effects and solid make-up and hairstyling complimenting the wittiness in the filmmakers’ approach to the material.
It’s the kind of dilated, fun-loving comedy which comes from a place both loving and creative, something of a rarity these days in modern R-rated comedies. With surprises readily found and an appropriate ruthlessness to boot, Clement and Waititi’s film is the one vampire flick today that’s, thankfully, not toothless.