Vampires are a particularly versatile cinematic creature, easily able to transform and readjust to the scenario or metaphoric requirement. Over the past few years, they have shown up on the big screen in a number of guises — sparkly lovelorn teenagers, brooding old world counts, Colin Farrell — but a vampire comedy is a more difficult nut to crack (or vein to drain). In the summer of 2012, not even the combined might of Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, and the “Dark Shadows” television series could make a blood-sucking comedy connect with broad audiences. Thankfully, “What We Do In the Shadows,” the new vampire comedy from “Flight of the Conchords” principals Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, is a refreshing, laugh-out-loud funny picture that is perfectly happy with its somewhat niche appeal. It goes in late, it gets out early, and it’s a total hoot.
A series of title cards set up the general premise of the movie: every year in New Zealand a masquerade ball is held. This ball is attended exclusively by things that go bump in the night: zombies, warlocks, and, of course, vampires. A New Zealand documentary film crew has been given access to follow a house of vampires in the months leading up to the masquerade ball. As the text informs us, they have been granted safety by the vampires…and wear crucifixes around their necks.
The vampire clan is pretty wonderful. Our main character is Viago (Waititi), a dandy who was shipped to New Zealand about a hundred years ago to look for the love of his life, but his assistant paid the wrong shipping so it took him too long to get there and, sadly, his love moved on. Vladislav (Clement) is an ancient European torturer (he’s known as “Vlad the Poker”), but has lost some of his mojo after battling a creature only referred to as “The Beast.” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), is the youngest vampire in the group, and has a kind of rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Deacon also has a human familiar in Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), a middle-aged housewife who desperately wants to become a vampire and does a lot of the vampires’ dirty work. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), a Nosferatu-like ageless vampire who is totally scary and doesn’t really talk but instead just hisses and murders people.
With a swift 80-minute running time, “What We Do In the Shadows” sometimes feels like a loose connection of sketches that are linked, however tenuously, with a narrative through-line. One of the bigger conflicts that shapes a lot of the movie occurs when Jackie brings over a couple of humans for the vampires to feast on, Petyr turns one of the humans into a vampire. This vampire, named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), quickly clashes with some of the others, particularly Deacon, as they try to show him the correct way to be a vampire. In one of the funnier asides, Nick’s best friend, a stunningly bland IT guy named Stu (Stu Rutherford) ends up hanging out with the vampires and teaching them things about computers, which allows for Viago to talk to his servant from the old world (the one who paid the wrong amount of shipping) via Skype, amongst other things (and, yes, there is a good Facebook “poke” joke in there for Vladislav).
Eventually, the vampires get invited to the masquerade party and there is a big showdown with The Beast (we won’t reveal what that showdown persists of here), and another rumble with a pack of New Zealand werewolves, led by Anton (played by another “Flight of the Conchords” alum, the always wonderful Rhys Darby). Anton might be a creature of the night, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not polite. “Werewolves, not swear-wolves,” he instructs his pack.
The structure of the movie, which flits between one micro-concept or set piece to another, is ideal for this kind of material. It allows for a surprising amount of depth to be given to each character, since the film just toggles between characters and situations. There’s no real framework that the movie has to adhere to. If it wants to introduce some bizarre element from one of the characters’ past, then present a sequence where the three main vampires are bickering about who is doing the dishes next, it can. On the whole, it makes for an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience, one in which the inherent shtickiness of the movie’s concept never begins to wear out or feel too thin (something we can’t say about all of the comedies that played South by Southwest this year).
It helps, too, that all of the actors are such gifted comedic performers. Each one of the three main vampires has a vaguely European accent but still remains unique. The same could be said about the performances: they all act like vampires, but their mannerisms and approach to their vampiric nature are different and totally insane. (Deacon hilariously recounts that he wound up in New Zealand because he was a Nazi and a vampire.) All three are comedians in New Zealand, but Clement is probably the one best known to American audiences, thanks to his bit performances in things like “Men in Black III.” Here Clement, like the other performers, totally inhabits his character. If they were playing them as more “arch” or “knowing,” it probably would have sunk the movie. They really are vampires, without the irony or glitter, and the movie fully acknowledges this with some occasionally gruesome gore effects.
There’s nothing worse than a faux (or is it fanged?) documentary not following through on its premise, but “What We Do In the Shadows” totally does. From the ’70s-era logo for a made-up New Zealand documentary company, to the closing credits, the movie establishes a distinct feel and never, ever deviates from it, no matter how crazy things get (it also, thankfully, doesn’t try to make characters of the filmmakers). There are bigger budgeted found-footage horror movies that don’t even have this kind of follow through. What’s more — there are actual, real emotions that come into play towards the end of the movie that give it some unexpected, late-in-the-game pep. “What We Do In the Shadows” is the type of little movie that you watch and feel like you’ve discovered something really special. It’s a total surprise; a silly, scary delight. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.