The vampire subgenre of horror films has hit a major low in recent years. So has the found footage film. So a combination of these two played for laughs seems like a recipe for a stale movie. But What We Do in the Shadows, which takes these two concepts and spins them on their heads through the lens of a comedy horror mockumentary, is fresh and incredibly funny.
The setup is fairly simple, a documentary crew has been given permission to film the lives of four vampires living together in Wellington, New Zealand, in anticipation of an annual masquerade ball for supernatural beings in the area. Along the way, the crew captures the minutia and challenges of being one of the living undead and the strange world they inhabit. From the difficulties of getting into a club (they have to be invited in) to the petty squabbles they have (like who is in charge of cleaning all the blood off the dishes), life as a vampire is only a little more extreme than everyday human experience.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who helped create the indie smash hit Flight of the Conchords for HBO, What We Do in the Shadows has all the low dry key and absurdist humor you would expect given their pedigree, but with the layers that come from a well-worn genre that could use some fresh blood. The film drips with humor and satire from the first frame to the last, but the strength of it all comes from the characters at the center, each of whom have distinct personalities and eccentricities that lend to a variety of pathos and pay tribute to the many aspects of vampire lore.
Viago (Waititi), is a dandy who came to New Zealand in pursuit of the woman he loved. But a shipping error caused his coffin to arrive after 18 months, during which time she had married another. He likes to show his victims a good time. After all, these are the last moments of their lives. But he has a penchant for accidentally biting the carotid artery, leading to a few of the film’s funniest and most queasy blood-soaked scenes. Vladislav (Clement) is 862 years old and comes from a time when he ruled his land as a brutal warlord. His anger issues led to frequent torture and his nickname of Vladislav the Poker. He was made a vampire when he was 16 years old, which is why he still looks 16. But life was much harder back then. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is an 8,000 year old Count Orlock-looking monster who lives in a stone coffin in the basement. He’s terrifying, but his nature is revealed to be far more caring than you may expect. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest of the four at 183 years old, leading to his flippant attitude and insistence on being as sexy as possible. He was also part of Adolf Hitler’s vampire army, but fled to New Zealand when the Nazis lost.
But everything is upended when would-be-victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is turned into a vampire by Petyr. His fresh ideas and modern sensibilities change their world as he and his human friend Stu introduce them to technology and today’s world. Nick may first love being a vampire (Twilight is referenced by him several times), but he’s hit with the harsh reality of the brutal nature of undead life and the mortality of his loved ones. His mistakes and learning curve set off story arcs for each character and give a reference point for what any modern person may experience if thrown into this world.
Through these various molds of vampires, What We Do in the Shadows is able to parody and explore the many notions of what the undead do. By putting them in a far more grounded and deadpan world, everything from seducing victims to the idea of having a “familiar” (a human servant) to mid-air battles takes on a sharp comedic edge. It’s clear that the film was done on a very limited budget, but the documentary format and nighttime setting turn this into a positive aspect, as everything feels far more real and less glamorous. Clement and Waititi know how to mine these concepts for real comedic gold, as well. Simple ideas like being unable to see your reflection in the mirror leads to hilarious montages as the friends draw one another with limited skill in order to see what they look like in their outfits.
The film is also incredibly well structured, with new concepts and narrative progressions thrown in at just the right moments. While the second act may begin to lag toward its conclusion, What We Do in the Shadows makes the smart choice to jump ahead in time and pump new life into the story to keep it from feeling stale. Being a dark comedy about murderous monsters, the movie also has enough scares and gore to satisfy audiences looking for the horror elements they crave. But the humor is so deeply infused that images of blood-covered bathrooms, explorations of torture chambers, and graphic mentions of disembowelments end up being some of the funniest bits. It’s also smart enough to poke fun at documentary techniques without feeling cumbersome or obvious. In particular, a reenactment scene toward the end of the film is devastatingly hilarious for how spot-on it is in skewering the countless true crime productions that flood daytime television.
The little glimpses of supernatural life outside vampires are also brilliant. Specifically, run-ins with a pack of werewolves led by fellow Flight of the Conchords alumnus Rhys Darby are gold. They may turn into dangerous monsters under the full moon, but they try to contain themselves (their mantra of “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves” only gets funnier on repeated sayings). There’s a vibrant life to the world created here, keeping the film from feeling boxed in by its limited settings. Once everything falls to pieces by the film’s climax, laughs and jumps hit their mark with precision and unrelenting speed.
While this may be a parody, the subversion of vampire tales is balanced by a reverence and knowledge for the lore. There are plenty of enjoyable serious vampire films out in the world. What We Do in the Shadows does far more for the genre than what the Twilight series did (or undid) in its lifespan. Fans of horror and comedy alike should feel relieved that something as original and genuinely funny as What We Do in the Shadows exists today.