What We Do in the Shadows: A-
Can we grade on a curve? The cinematic landscape of late has be so ruthlessly denuded of genuine laughs — Adam Sandler has played no small part in this — that anything with a hint of cleverness or originality is like an oasis in the desert. Making matters worse is Hollywood's reluctance to take even marginal risks on "properties" (instead of films) without obvious branding potential, be it well-known stars or comic book superheroes. Case in point: What We Do in the Shadows — despite critical raves, an enthusiastic festival run, and proven comic talent — struggled to find U.S. distribution. Blink and you might miss its current run.
In it, Flight of the Conchords alum Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (Boy, Eagle Vs. Shark) combine two comically moribund subjects — vampires and mockumentaries — into a high-spirited spoof that recalls the best of Christopher Guest. Think The Real World if it had been cast with brooding, neurotic vampires instead of preening, self-obsessed twentysomethings. Acting as co-directors and costars, the New Zealanders bring their nerdy, deadpan style to a fish-out-of-water narrative that's inventive, emotionally sweet, and, most importantly, bloody fun.
An unseen camera crew has been given full day-to-day (or should we say, night-to-night?) access to four Wellington flatmates who just happen to be undead bloodsuckers. The oldest is Petyr (Ben Fransham), a creepy, gray-skinned Nosferatu-like creature who lives in the basement, surrounded by the dismembered remains of his victims. Upstairs is Vladislav (Clement), a moody, centuries-old Transylvanian with a sadistic Old World streak and a love for red satin sheets. Viago (Waititi), our smiling on-camera guide, is a finicky 18th-century dandy who acts as the passive-aggressive den mother to his fanged housemates. His biggest foil is Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who at a mere 183 years old is referred to as the "young bad boy of the group." Deacon fancies himself a romantic poet and rock star, refusing to carry his weight when it comes to household chores.
Essentially, they are a quartet of geeky Goth misfits who live together in order to deal with the crushing loneliness of immortality. Their house is a filthy mess (Viago's attempts to keep the living room blood-free goes wonderfully awry), their human familiars are little more than fanboy (or fangirl, as the case may be) wannabes, and their humiliating struggles with the modern world give rise to some hilariously awkward situations. Even a night out on the town (Vlad favors the "dead but delicious look") becomes a challenge for a vampire who must be formally invited to enter a dance club.
Things change when Petyr sinks his teeth into a dorky Wellingtonian named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who embraces his newly undead status with reckless enthusiasm. This brings out enemies and awkward confrontations for the flatmates, but also injects a sense of post-millennial vitality into their otherwise cloistered lives. In particular, Nick's blandly mortal pal Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who is in IT, introduces them to the latest technological gadgets.
Editing more than 120 hours of improvised footage (the actors had no script) into an 86-minute film means that What We Do in the Shadows sometimes feels like a series of comedy sketches rather than a cohesive narrative. But where this faux documentary distinguishes itself is in the way it creates true affection for its characters. Each of the vampires is given enough back-story and confessional moments to make their distinct mannerisms both understandable and relatable. We actually start to care about these ridiculous creatures because, like the rest of us, they're just trying to survive the inanities of everyday life ... and keep the carpets free of unsightly stains.
Of course, it helps that the cast is filled with gifted comedic actors. Even a brief encounter with a mopey pack of recovering werewolves ("not swear-wolves") — the leader played by Conchords regular Rhys Darby — is more than just a throwaway joke.
After all the domestic dramas, introspective talking-head confessions, ironic riffs on vampire mythology, gore gags, and humiliating encounters, What We Do in the Shadows ends up sneaking in a thoughtful and empathetic portrait of aging. Friendship, love, and an embrace of new ideas and experiences become the vampires' best defense against loss and regret. It's a lesson we could all learn from.
What We Do in the Shadows is not rated and has a running time of 86 minutes. It opens at Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre on Friday, March 6.