An endearing mockumentary about ancient vampires struggling with modern-day annoyances, What We Do in the Shadows boasts some of the most lovable horror-movie characters in recent memory. And by "lovable," we mean raunchy, rude, violent, and hilarious.
The film has a very simple premise, as the most effective comedies often do: in 21st century Wellington, New Zealand, a quartet of vamps share a rickety old house. Their squabbles and shenanigans are captured by a crew of documentary filmmakers, mortals who wear crucifixes for protection as they chronicle the months leading up to the hotly-anticipated supernatural party of the year, the Unholy Masquerade. What could possibly go wrong?
First, we meet Viago (co-writer/director Taika Waititi), who sets his alarm for 6:00 (PM, duh) every day; after he arises, he dutifully goes about the task of waking up his flatmates. "I like to hang out with other vampires," he shares in voice-over. His goofy enthusiasm — he rises out of his coffin bed with arms outstretched, grinning with glee at the camera — would make him a go-to focal point in any documentary, real or faux.
There's also Vladislav (Watiti's writing and directing partner, Jemaine Clements), whose decadent sexiness is modeled, comically, on Gary Oldman's Dracula; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the "rebellious young vampire" (he's 183) who exasperates his roomies by ignoring the household chore wheel (he hasn't done dishes in five years); and the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), who looks exactly like Nosferatu and is outright terrifying. Nobody bothers Petyr about the chore wheel.
All of these introductions happen before the opening credits, so by the time the movie gets rolling, we're already fond of these misfits, who function (and dysfunction) as kind of a Real World: The Undead unit. (Maybe The Young Ones is actually a better comparison.) At any rate, there's more to learn about these fang-wielding fellows, who despite having lived for centuries are still prone to social foibles, not to mention awkwardness when it comes to negotiating their vampire traits with their desires for earthly pleasures.
The jokes in the movie take wonderful advantage of this clash, as when the guys complain about trying to get ready to go out on the town when one doesn't cast a reflection... instead having to rely on the input and opinions (and the occasional portrait sketch) offered by others. They don't always get along ("There's tension in any flatting situation," Viago explains, chuckling nervously as an argument escalates into a floating, hissing pissing contest), but these frenemies have known each other for centuries. They have each others' backs, and that's part of their charm.
Shadows could putter along as merely a character study, but it propels forward with a couple of time shifts. After Deacon's hapless human familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), lures hipster Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to the house for a "dinner party," we leap ahead after a gory sequence of events — for a low-budget film, Shadows has some impressive special effects — to learn Nick has been turned immortal. Frankly, he isn't having the easiest time with it. He does, however, prove valuable to his new housemates, schooling them in the wonders of the internet (the guys pore over photos of virgins and ... ooh la la, sunrises) and helping them gain entree into nightclubs that previously would've turned their puffy shirt-clad selves away.
Later, after Nick causes a household drama so severe he's kicked out of the flat, we jump ahead a few more months, and everything comes to a head at the Unholy Masquerade. There's a momentum to this film that's refreshing. We want to see what happens, because we dig these guys; they're complex and unpredictable, not to mention endlessly funny. Longtime friends Waititi and Clement based the film on a 2005 short they made before they broke out with Eagle Vs. Shark and Flight of the Conchords, respectively, and their comedy charisma is undeniable. (Shadows is the type of movie that only improves after repeat viewings, thanks to the layers of riffs hidden in its mostly improvised dialogue.)
Along with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Only Lovers Left Alive, What We Do In the Shadows is part of a new wave of vampire films that prove the corniness of the Twilight series wasn't mighty enough to kill the genre. Like Lovers, Shadows depicts creatures of the night who're dedicated to keeping up with art and culture (though only the wickedly self-aware Shadows lets its vampires delight in making Lost Boys references), and are also well-schooled in the perils of living eternally. They've lost mortal lovers, experienced extreme boredom, and must confront the exhausting annoyance of having to sustain a grudge for decades.
Most importantly, Shadows is a deeply amusing comedy that works on multiple levels. It's smart enough to know that merely goofing on vampire tropes isn't enough to sustain a feature, and it delivers clever humor that both incorporates and pokes fun at vampire lore. It offers horror fans some vein-gushingly satisfying effects. Its characters are fresh ("We're not these mopey old creatures," as Viago would insist) and winningly off-kilter. And while it's hardly scary, it delivers deadpan guffaws aplenty. This is the Spinal Tap of vampire movies, a spoof that stands on its own as genuine, memorable entertainment.