Rating:Vampires have been done to death. The mockumentary format is about as fresh as a joke from a giggling Michael Scott. Put the two together in the right hands, though, and you get the unexpected brilliance that is the New Zealand comedy What We Do in the Shadows. “Flight of the Conchords’” Jemaine Clement makes his (co-)directorial debut alongside frequent collaborator Taika Waititi (who directed “Conchords” episodes along with Eagle vs. Shark, in which Clement starred) in a comedy that touches on the melodramatic trials and tribulations of cohabitating in modern times with other immortal creatures of the night. The biggest obstacle to overcome may simply be agreeing on who does the blood-soaked dishes.
Shadows opens with doe-eyed vampire Viago (Waititi) going coffin to coffin to gently coax his undead roommates to gather for a house meeting. The most petulant and slovenly of the brood is leather pants-clad Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who’s a mere 183 years old. Always trying to keep the gears of the house well-oiled, Viago is the former dandy of the group, having cut his fangs in the early 18th century. And then there’s the long-haired lothario Vladislav (Clement), who dates back over eight centuries to a time when he ruled on high in Eastern Europe, where his ruthlessness (and perversion) earned him the parodied moniker of “Vladislav the Poker.” The only one of the group to get a pass on the house meeting is the toothy, hissing fiend Petyr (Ben Fransham, a dead ringer for Count Orlok, whose crypt is surrounded by rotting body parts). As Viago informs his roommates tersely, “Petyr is 8,000 years old—he’s not coming to the meeting.”
Hinged on the flimsiest of plot—that the crucifix-protected documentary crew was invited by Viago to follow the vampires around in their preparations for the pan-monster Unholy Masquerade Ball—Shadows instead focuses on how the quartet of the damned try to abide in the modern world, without ripping out each others’ throats. When arguments get heated, the situation can escalate quickly as they reflexively float into the air in contorted and threatening postures. Not having a reflection can be problematic when trying to style one’s hair. For that matter, finding fresh victims to lure back to the house proves difficult when bouncers have to explicitly invite the vampires into nightclubs before they’re capable of entering. And don’t get Viago started on how crucial it is to lay newspaper down on the carpet before opening up the sustaining spray of a jugular.
To aid their functioning in modern times, the unholy group exploits the desperate helpfulness of Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a local human who does their bidding (runs errands) at the behest of Deacon on the promise of one day being granted vampiric immortality. Above all, the group must (obviously) avoid lethal sunlight, so Jackie comes in quite handy, especially in luring a clutch of Wellington townsfolk to serve as dinner. When one of them, the heavily-tattooed Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), initially manages to escape the house, Petyr nabs him and turns him into the house’s newest undead occupant. Add to that the tense nighttime run-ins with the least profane werewolves you’ll ever meet (“werewolves not swearwolves”)— led by the kindly alpha male played by “Conchords” alum Rhys Darby— and you’ve got just enough substance to keep this thinly-plotted comedy bloodbath churning along past its pilot episode trappings.
“Flight of the Conchords” sensibilities run throughout the film, especially in the deadpan delivery of players in even the most over-the-top of scenarios. The inclusion of Nick’s near-monosyllabic human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), is a nice touch, as he wordlessly and fearlessly hangs out with the vampire clan, who have promised not to eat him despite their frequent commenting on how pink and succulent he looks. Like Jackie, Stu comes in awfully handy, especially in teaching the centuries-old beings how to use modern technology and social media (Facebook’s “poke” feature is particularly irksome to Vladislav).
The juxtaposition of the quotidian with the fantastic shines brightly in Shadows. The special effects (other than perhaps the transforming werewolves) are convincing and effective, and the film has moments of true gore that only add to the contrast between the run-of-the-mill mockumentary format and its unlikely subjects. Even at a modest 86 minutes, the film does feel a bit padded in certain stretches, but there’s far too much hilarious absurdity for this vampire parody to be anything but impressive. Like Shaun of the Dead before it, this film respects the lore of its subject matter even while skewering it. We need another vampire film like we need two holes in the neck, but by playing off that very fact, What We Do in the Shadows simply kills.