One of the most quietly influential films of the last 30 years is Man Bites Dog. The 1992 film was created by three Belgians: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and actor Benoît Poelvoorde. The trio took the mockumentary sub-genre — which takes the tropes used by news broadcasts and documentary filmmakers and twists them to comedic ends — in a strange and disturbing new direction. Poelvoorde played a serial killer named Ben, who invites a film crew along to document his "art." Belvaux and Bonzel play the director and cameraman who, at first, believe they are participating in a radical new form of cinema. But as Ben's body count mounts — and includes their sound man — the filmmakers find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into Ben's crimes.
Man Bites Dog is wickedly funny, but it was little seen in America thanks to an inexplicable NC-17 rating. But its spirit was definitely present in The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's millennial BBC TV series which inspired the American mega-hit starring Steve Carell. Now, a deadpan protagonist talking to the camera about his bad behavior has become a familiar trope in TV and movies.
- Dark shadows: Berry, Demetriou, and Novak suck at being roommates
Flight of the Concords' Jemaine Clement and New Zealand super-director Taika Waititi's 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows owed a huge debt to Man Bites Dog, only instead of the mundane life of a serial killer, it "documented" a group of vampires living together as flatmates in a sleepy Wellington suburb. The film took the same slapstick attitude toward murder that made Man Bites Dog so shocking, but sanded off its arch edges by making the vamps, played by Clement and Waititi, kinda goofy in that charming New Zealand-y way.
The movie was funny, but not huge, box-office wise. But it did make the perfect setup for a post-Office sitcom. With Waititi off making projects like Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit, and a new Star Wars project, Clement took the Shadows concept to TV in 2019, moving the setting to Staten Island and introducing a new cast of bloodsuckers.
Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) is a 700-year-old vampire who was once the bloodthirsty king of a minor empire, kinda like Vlad the Impaler. Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) was once a Roma fortune teller who vampirized Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry), a pompous English nobleman, then married him. Those three characters are all familiar vampire types right out of Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. But the show's secret weapon is Mark Proksch. His Colin Robinson, who wouldn't be out of place in The Office, is an "energy vampire." Instead of blood, he drains his victims of the will to live by telling long, boring stories. Since all self-respecting vampire stories require a Renfield, Nandor has Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) in his thrall as a familiar.
The core cast hit the ground running in season one as an already tight unit with easily relatable roomie relationships. They're friends who chafe against the strictures of communal living. None of the centuries-old friends have really adapted well to the modern world, particularly the difficulty of acquiring virgins, who are particularly tasty treats for vampires. They mostly offload that responsibility on the put-upon Guillermo, who desperately wants to become a vampire himself.
- Mark Proksch, Natasia Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, and Harvey Guillén
The highlight of season one was the climax, where the roomies are brought before a council of vampires to be judged for their crimes to vampiric kind. Not only did Clement and Waititi reprise their roles for the show, but they worked their showbiz connections to assemble an all-star cast of people who have played vampires in the past, from Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) to Wesley Snipes (Blade).
The second season, currently airing on FX, has been perfect from the get-go. Guillermo is dealing with the revelation that he is a descendant of Dracula's nemesis Van Helsing. His identity crisis comes to a head when he stumbles into a group of would-be vampire slayers, bringing Buffy into the parody mix. The vamps branch out into the neighborhood by attending what they believe to be an owl-themed party that turns out to be a Super Bowl gathering of dreary suburbanites.
Colin gets the best episode of the season so far when he is promoted to boss at his office job and proceeds to become extraordinarily powerful by sucking the energy out of his hapless underlings. The big-time cameos continue with an absolutely killer turn by Mark Hamill as Vampire Jim, an enemy from Laszlo's past who forces our hero vamp to assume an alternate identity as Jackie Daytona, a bartender obsessed with women's volleyball.
The combination of gothic, slapstick, and deadpan makes for fertile comedy ground, and Clement and company show no sign of exhausting it any time soon. The scripts are sharp, the visual effects are used sparingly but effectively, and the cast is one of the best on television. The quirky, modest What We Do in the Shadows has become destination TV.
What We Do in the Shadows airs on Wednesdays on FX.