Written and directed by Jemaine Clement, half of the comedy folk rock duo Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi, director of the 2007 quirk comedy Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows is one of the rare breeds of parody that works on all levels. It is a character-based mockumentary in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap, but it also recalls the 1992 masterpiece of minimalist black comedy Man Bites Dog.
When the film opens, a crew from the New Zealand Documentary Film Board has gained exclusive access to a home where four vampires live as roommates. It's like if The Real World was a gathering of abominations against nature — even more so than it already is, I mean. Each of the vamps is a type from history. Vladislav (Clement) is an Eastern European medieval aristocrat in the mold of Dracula. Viago (Waititi) is a Romantic French dandy like Lestat. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), at only 185 years old, is the "young bad boy of the group," a take on Twilight's Edward Cullen. And Petyr, the animalistic Nosferatu (Ben Fransham) who lives in the basement tomb of their overstuffed Victorian mansion, is the elder of the bunch at 8,000 years old. Protected, we are told, by crucifixes and ironclad film contracts, the crew documents the roomies' day-to-day activities as they prepare for the Unholy Masquerade, an annual gathering of witches, zombies, and vampires.
It's not easy being a centuries-old vampire in the modern world, and the filmmakers get lots of mileage out of applying the historic rules of vampirism to life in suburban New Zealand. Like every Real World or Big Brother season ever, they argue over who has to wash the dishes. Things were better in the old days, as vampiric hypnosis is no match for the internet and television. Jackie (Jackie van Beek) is a human familiar to Deacon who has been promised the eternal life of a vampire in exchange for years of servitude, which includes doing errands in the sunlight, procuring victims for "dinner parties," and cleaning up the blood and viscera afterwards. One of the victims she procures is her ex-boyfriend Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who Petyr inadvisably turns into a vampire. Nick is a meat-headed bro who is not really clear on the concept of vampirism, like the part about not telling people you're a vampire. But the guys soon take to him, because he can convince the doormen of swanky clubs to invite them over the threshold.
What We Do in the Shadows doesn't shy away from a few obvious Twilight jokes, but Clement and Waititi dig considerably deeper into horror film history. Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula adaptation proves to be a particularly juicy target, and one of the funniest bits is a riff on The Lost Boys. The verité style may look haphazard, but this is a well-constructed film where even the most seemingly offhand remark in the first act is a setup for a later payoff. The Unholy Masquerade, when it finally comes around, resembles not some black mass but a third-rate horror fan convention.
Like Spinal Tap, there's evident affection for the genre they're skewering. Clement, Waititi, and Brugh clearly love getting to turn into bats and battling werewolves almost as much as they love poking fun at the absurdity of it all. Their low-key enthusiasm is infectious.
What We Do in the Shadows
Studio on the Square