I had previously written on this site that the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was looking to crowdfund an American theatrical release, a campaign that was ultimately a success. I wrote that the movie “promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Having now actually seen What We Do in the Shadows, I am happy to report that the film not only met those expectations, but even greatly exceeded them. The most essential success of the film, however, was not what it had to add to the vampire genre, but just that it was simply riotously funny from start to finish.
Most of my favorite mockumentaries, titles like Best in Show & Drop Dead Gorgeous, aren’t necessarily well-told stories about personal growth and lessons learned. Instead, they’re more or less glimpses into the lives of already well-established characters as they prepare for a major life event, for instance a dog show or a beauty pageant. Staying true to that format, What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of a small group of vampire roommates in the months leading up to their biggest annual celebration: The Unholy Masquerade, a grand party for the local undead. The Unholy Masquerade mostly serves as a climactic device that brings the film’s slowly boiling conflicts to a head, but what’s much more important is the characters that the “documentary” crew (who wear crucifixes for protection) follow in the months leading up to the event.
The film’s central vampire coven is a small crew consisting of an 18th century dandy, a torture-obsessed pervert, a 183 year old “young bad boy”, and an 8000 year old Nosferatu type named “Petyr”, who terrifies even his own undead flatmates. The group is mostly a collection of goofs, very much delusional in their outsized egos (a common trope in these Guest-style comedies), but also a true, formidable treat who fly, hypnotize, transform into bats & other creatures, and frequently murder unsuspecting victims with their incredibly sharp fangs. It’s a brilliant subject for an awkward comedy mostly concerned with trivial conflicts like a flatmate who doesn’t pull his weight on the chore wheel, the struggles of an active nightlife when you have to be formally invited into bars, meekly asking Petyr to sweep up the skeletons in his room, and struggling to adapt to the addition of a boisterous 5th roommate who shouts “I’m a vampire!” in public even more liberally than Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. There’s some strange, ambitious concepts allowed by the film’s subject, like the existence of Hitler’s secret vampire army or depressed vampires wistfully watching footage of the sunrise on YouTube. It’s the clash of these ideas with the mundanity of modern life that make the film something special, like when one flatmate angrily shouts, “Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
Co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have crafted a thoroughly funny film here that I expect to revisit often. They have added a few updates to the mockumentary format, like the inclusion of some reality show beats, but for the most part the film is a very straightforward genre execution. It just also happens to be a very funny one. What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.