In 1969, Woody Allen released Take the Money and Run, which followed the mishaps of hopelessly nerdy criminal Virgil Starkwell. While the film was a bomb at the box office and received lukewarm reviews (though, in my mind, is rather underrated), nearly 50 years later Allen's film remains a good example of the comedic mockumentary, combining "real life" events and situations with parody. Subsequent films such as 1978's Beatles sendup and Albert Brooks' PBS-styled Real Life (1979) sustained this comedic genre, though both films were resigned to cult status almost immediately following their releases. When Rob Reiner gave us his heavy metal-fueled comedy This is Spinal Tap in 1984, he brought the mockumentary back to the big screen and elevated the genre of what is also labeled as la comedy verité in pop culture. Spinal Tap, which famously chronicled the rise and fall (and semi-rise) of a washed-up UK metal act, garnered critical success on the strengths of its improv-rich dialogue, the deadpan delivery of the actors and their constant, ridiculous dilemmas. More recently, Christopher Guest, who'd written and starred in Spinal Tap, (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Brüno) also received critical accolades for their use of the same format.
Now the New Zealand offering What We Do in the Shadows takes one of the oldest recurring ideas in folklore and horror — the vampire — and drives a stake deep into the heart of ... well, you get the idea. Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) and Taika Waititi (writer-director of New Zealand's 2010 smash hit, Boy), Shadows essentially injects a shot of macabre into the buddy picture scene, focusing on a group of vampires living in a decrepit house on the outskirts of Wellington who've allowed a camera crew to document their day-to-day — or rather night-to-night — existence.
At the film's opening, we are greeted by the 317-year-old Viago (Waititi), the literal Romantic of the group, an instantly likeable, unabashedly sweet, affable 18th-century dandy. Transformed into a creature of the night at the age of 16, the 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) spent centuries as a bloodthirsty sadist, deadpanning to the camera, "I tended to torture when I was in a bad place." Still stuck in a kind of undead puberty, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the self-professed "Bad Boy of the Group," prone to spontaneously attacking those around him. Finally, there's the undead pater familias of the cohort, 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), a knockoff of Nosferatu; a mute, green-skinned, gnarly-fanged creature who lives in the cellar.
The whole crowd is gearing up for The Unholy Masquerade, an annual fête for vampires, zombies and the like. But before they make it to the ball, they will unwittingly recruit a new vampire in the form of a clueless, blue-collar dunderhead named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who creates never-ending hassles and jeopardizes their safety.
Along the course of the film's 80 minutes,
the group contends with a rival gang of
werewolves (led by the Conchords'
Rhys Darby), vampire hunters, clueless police officers and Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a wearied, disgruntled familiar of Deacon's who pesters him about his ongoing promise to finally turn her into a creature of the night.
We see the expected gags regarding vampire clichés about crosses, silver and sunlight, but Shadows really zips along on the strengths of the seemingly improvised banter that made Spinal Tap such a success. The real brilliance of the film is played out in the cast members' abilities at riding the third rail between believability and the absurd. Centuries of experience haven't made these bloodsuckers any wiser; they are as dimwitted as they are utterly self-obsessed. The individual interview footage with Viago, Vladislav and Deacon reveals how excited they are to finally tell their stories, which are usually peppered with a good dose of self-aggrandizing.
Make no mistake, the blood flows freely in Shadows, surging in comical gushers that are a snarky hit toward the gore porn of contemporary horror. Early in the film, Clement and Waititi provide us with a greater sense of the characters' backstories through clever montages of photos, historical footage, paintings and even woodcuts, which helps give this hapless bunch a greater a sense of depth and authenticity, in turn making them charming and appealing. By the film's end, the fanged nimrods, with their well-defined personalities and centuries-old egos, turn what could have been a gory sitcom into an inventive and enjoyable film that takes a bite out of comedies, documentaries and the ever-trendy vampire flick.