“What We Do in the Shadows”: Bloody Funny

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary continues the hip reclamation of vampires

There are two types of vampires: self-loathing, tormented lost souls and amoral sensualists making the most of it—eternal teenagers and eternal twenty-somethings, in short. What We Do in the Shadows, the irreverent mockumentary from New Zealand national treasures Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, provides undead subjects who shamelessly fall into the latter category. Four vampires lead a film crew around their shared Gothic mansion, a bachelor pad of horrors they proudly show off like a Cribs Halloween special, where they pass the centuries preying on innocents and arguing over whose turn it is to wash all the bloody dishes piling up in the sink.

If that sounds like a sitcom set-up…well, at its worst, the handheld style and constant reference to the cameras calls to mind network TV’s half-hearted use of the mockumentary format as an easy joke-delivery system. But don’t cast Shadows out yet: it also has moments of brilliance reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s high standards. Indeed, the high volume of gags-per-minute allows plenty of clever and absurdist rebounds for every low-hanging fruit they can’t help but sink their fangs into.

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The funniest concept in Shadows is also its most endearing: each character comes from a distinctively styled depiction of vampires. The ghoul in the basement resembles Murnau’s undead lead in the silent-era Nosferatu; Waititi’s Victorian dandy, whose ironically sunny disposition suggests immortality never gets old for him, would fit right into the frills of British Hammer horror; and Flight of the Conchords’ sublimely awkward Clement gives himself the best lines as the Anne Rice–esque, hypersexual Vlad the Poker.

Their opposing opinions on how to act like a vampire parody outdated ideas of alpha-male machismo (and keep the premise fresh with hysterically rocky dynamics), but they also reveal the film as a true love letter to monsters that are often romanticized cynically and broadly. Waititi and Clement could never send up the genre’s rules so wonderfully if they didn’t know them so passionately. In this way, Shadows is the next installment in the current hip-geek reclamation of vampire mythology from the YA mainstream, following Jim Jarmusch’s rock star hang-out Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s effortlessly cool A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Those both use immortality for defiant immersions into anachronistic style (think twice before inviting a vinyl collector into your home) and equate bloodlust with the uncontrollable urgencies of addiction, while Shadows foregoes emotional metaphors to favor tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions of the mundane and the otherworldly.

It’s the love of the vampire archetype that gives Shadows the beating heart you happily root for; otherwise, it soaks in self-aware sarcasm and distance that never quite offers the access or poignancy of Guest’s best characters. But if merely being hilarious is a sin, these creatures are unrepentant sinners, destined for immortality in the form of endless quotability, inevitable cult followers, and ritual screenings by the darkness of midnight. FL

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