New Zealand isn’t exactly known for its vampires. Granted, until Flight of the Conchords, it wasn’t known for its comedy, either. A decade ago, two mates who made that show possible (star Jemaine Clement and writer/director Taika Waititi) filmed a short called What We Do in the Shadows. Hundreds of hours of footage (mostly improvised) and a couple vampire trends later, a full-length mockumentary of the same name unearths to the delight of many. What makes Shadows work so well? Respect. Not just for the source of the material — Clement and Waititi re-examine vampirism rather than merely spoof it — but for the characters within. Unlike some vampire comedies (looking right at you, Vampires Suck and Dracula: Dead and Loving It), Waititi and Clement reach past tired schtick for some heart. Reanimating an easily tired premise into a subtle critique of several more genres than expected, Shadows is a more serious take than most “serious takes” on the undead.
Though The Office, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Let the Right One In directly inspire it, Shadows reminded me most of the Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog. The “just another day” approach to the macabre is most commonly shared, though Shadows is way funnier and warmer to the touch. The friendly neighborhood serial killer Remy couldn’t possess the centuries-old innocence of Vaigo (Waititi), our motherly host in this peek at a few fanged flatmates living in a dusty old mansion. “Commissioned” by the New Zealand government (don’t worry, the crew wore crucifixes), this exposé of nocturnal living (deading?) asks what even Browning or Bigelow couldn’t — like, say, how do you know you look good when you can’t see your reflection? What happens when your new recruit can’t stop bragging about his newfound vampirism? Plus, what if his human friend (Stu Rutherford) is more likeable than he is? I’m sure the writing process began with a list of questions rather than a script.
Joining Vaigo are the Oldman-esque Vladislav (Clement), slacker Nazi Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Orlock-ish Petyr (Ben Fransham), whose lives are pretty normal once you get past the whole bloodlust thing. The normalcy, in fact, is where the humor lies. They can’t balance a chore wheel, Vaigo still pines after a long-lost love (he still watches her through her retirement home window), and Deacon’s master/familiar relationship with Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) is, well, complicated. Deacon and Jackie get some laughs out of playing their bond like a couple who can’t quite close the deal. Vaigo proves the ultimate gentleman when he unveils his courtship methods.
Approaching vampirism as though it were the most normal thing allows for some expansion of the mythology (even werewolves, led by Conchords mate Rhys Darby, get their own deconstruction), as well as some capital visual gags. The induction process of douchy Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) resurrects shaky-cam “found-footage” style in ways more imaginative than the more straight-faced attempts. Despite its most gaping flaw — if humans aren’t allowed at the Unholy Masquerade Ball, how did nobody notice the camera crew? — Shadows ranks as one of the few truly inspired horror comedies. Think of it as an Only Lovers Left Alive with fewer musings on boredom. See? You like it already.