Monster-mash together a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary on vampires and the comedic sensibilities of the Flight of the Concords crew and you get something like What We Do in the Shadows. Starring, written, and directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, this film is capable of transitioning from deadpan hilarity to a genuinely creepy found-footage horror – and then back to ridiculous slapstick. So many films fail to establish a single tone, and somehow What We Do in the Shadows manages to nail them all.
The tone of this film is evident from the opening sequence, where Viago (Waititi) rises from his open coffin not in one smooth, iconic vampire motion, but with a small rest in the middle. He then checks the window to make sure it really is evening, and then introduces us to his flatmates, all of whom are vampires. There’s Vladislav (Clement), an 862 year-old master of hypnosis whose powers have waned following a bad encounter with another vampire affectionately known as, “The Beast”. Petyr is ten times older, completely mute, and resembles the horrifying Count Orlok from Nosferatu. Deacon is the youngest of the vampires at a spritely 183 years old, and has trouble keeping up with the dishes – his responsibility according to the chore wheel. One flatmate meeting later, wherein Viago and Deacon hover in the air and hiss at each other, and Deacon has resigned himself to the five-year pile of dishes. “This is bullshit”, he says, and the opening credits roll. This movie is already better than any comedy-horror from this millennium.
As the camera crew captures the mates preparing for a night out, we learn about their uniquely vampiric struggles. Unable to see themselves in the mirror, they draw crude portraits of each other to provide feedback on attire. While attracting victims back to their flat, they run into problems getting into night clubs. Eventually, Viago does recruit a victim, but accidentally nicks the main neck artery during his feeding bite. As the blood spurts all over his white clothes and the woman gurgles and screams, he issues legitimate (though useless) apologies. “Sometimes you miss”, he confesses.
As funny as the slapstick gets, it has absolutely nothing on the genuine moments of interaction between the characters. They are clearly good friends, but like all friends have their differences. And, after spending decades together, those differences tend to magnify. As new people enter the lives of the flatmates, they have to adjust to new technology and reign in a younger, more fool-hardy vampire while simultaneously surviving encounters with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby of Flight of the Concords fame). He runs a tight ship, keeping his buddies clean-mouthed (it’s “werewolf” not, “swearwolf”) and chained up during transformations to lessen the damage they will do.
What We Do in the Shadows is most certainly a product of the comedy style of Clement and Waititi, and it is hard to imagine anyone else creating a masterpiece of the horror-comedy genre with this tone. But, it is also just a perfectly-executed movie. The interviews and “candid” footage always serve the overall narrative, there are great plot twists, and the relationships between the characters feel natural and earned. Moreover, each character has a convincing arc, with even supporting characters feeling three-dimensional. All too often, the latest blockbuster fails to acquire any of these qualities with its hundred-million dollar budget. But here Clement and Waititi show that talent and creativity go further towards quality film-making than all the CGI face-makeup robots and dinosaur fights in the world. What We Do in the Shadows is another welcome reminder that quality need not be expensive nor flashy.