You would think that it would be far too late to breathe life in the moribund genres of mockumentaries and horror spoofs and that the idea of mashing them together sounds simultaneously audacious and eye gougingly unbearable. Yet here they are in What We Do in the Shadows.
This amiable and light-footed comedy focuses on three vampires in Wellington, New Zealand that are flatmates. There’s the 17th-century neurotic dandy Viago (co-director and co-writer Takia Waititi); the brooding, long haired, and consistently chest-baring Vlad (co-director and co-writer Jemaine Clement); and the youngest, the petulant Deacon (Jonathan Blag). Like a reality TV show, the film begins by chronicling the actually mundane habits of the three. They argue about doing the dishes, and they try to keep their kills clean so as not to ruin the carpet. When they go out at night, they attempt to get into the hot nightclub, but to no avail; the bouncers are having none of it. Occasionally they have a run-in with the local pack of werewolves who happen to be pretty nice blokes. When one lets a curse fly, the pack leader reminds him, “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves.”
Meanwhile, Viago pines over his lost love. She got tired of waiting for him and married someone else, and now he stares up at her window in the local retirement home. Vlad hasn’t been himself after a centuries-old encounter with what he calls the Beast (whose reveal is both a complete surprise and perfectly obvious), and rebellious young Deacon has made some bad choices. Being a vampire is enough of a reason to be ostracized, but a Nazi Vampire…?
Things change when a young man, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), is accidentally vampire-d (he was supposed to die) and joins the group. He’s young, brash, and impulsive, and breathes life into this makeshift family. But not without dangers. Nick brags about his new found vampirism to anybody who will listen, and Deacon is jealous of the attention Nick is getting.
This is all strung together with a bevy of clever riffs on vampire lore and the juxtaposition of modern life and ancient values. Most importantly, the vampires are just adorable. Not Twilight gorgeous but vacuous. Just sweetly and inevitably and endearingly human. Viago, for example, really does try to be a gentleman to his victims before planting his teeth into their necks. “It’s their last night alive, you might as well make it pleasant for them.” Even Deacon has a tender moment with Nick after Nick’s best (and human) friend meets an untimely end.
Shadows succeeds because it has clear affection for the horror genre. No horror fan (a notoriously prickly bunch) will be offended. That’s because the filmmakers have gleaned the most important factor in mockumentaries, affection for and identification with the main characters. These guys may be undead, but there are vitally alive.