Though I haven’t seen it yet, Jim Jarmusch has been widely praised this year for breathing new life into the vampire horror sub-genre with his film Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the undead bloodsuckers are apparently credibly portrayed as a bunch of louche hipsters. Presuming Jarmusch’s film is every bit as good as critics make out, this has been a good year for the be-fanged, as the writers of Flight Of The Conchords have made a vampire-related film that – for my money at least – is the finest comedy of 2014. This frequently hilarious horror spoof / mockumentary, which does for vampires what Shaun Of The Dead did for zombies, lampoons and references films as diverse as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Twilight, Interview With The Vampire, The Lost Boys and Nosferatu with a sharpness that hasn’t been seen since Edgar Wright’s inventive and much loved 2004 ‘zom-rom-com’.
Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement and Jonathan Brugh star as Viago, Vlad and Deacon, three vampires who live together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand along with Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000-year-old bloodsucking colleague who dwells in their crypt. The conceit here is that this odd bunch of housemates is being filmed for several months in the run-up to a monster masquerade ball by an unseen documentary crew, and the assembled footage enables us to witness a number of their petty squabbles and normal day-to-day occurrences as they struggle with the various perils of modern life. They must also try and incorporate irritating new colleague Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into the fold, who comes as a package with his mortal best friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), an IT professional and the film’s surreal take on Twilight’s Bella Swan.
As you’ve probably guessed this is no ordinary, dark tale of bloodsucking and vampire hunting. The documentary’s style recalls MTV’s long-running reality show The Real World, and as well as the occasional blood-feast we see the creatures as they attempt to get into nightclubs (pleading with bouncers to invite them over the threshold), argue over washing-up rotas (the sink is full of blood-stained goblets and plates), use their flying ability at home to hoover those hard-to-reach areas and squabble with a local gang of polite werewolves (sample quote: ‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’).
As always with a comedy based around a single idea there’s a danger that the premise is actually funnier than the execution, but What We Do In The Shadows keeps the laughs coming thick and fast, and it never looks like it’s about to run out of steam. The deadpan comic delivery of the actors is spot on, and although it’s basically a series of linked sketches, there’s a cleverness to the way it mocks the camp vampire legend that puts it head and shoulders above the Scary Movie series or the mid-90s Leslie Nielsen crapfest Dracula: Dead And Loving It. When they are getting ready for a night out, for example, the fact that they can’t see themselves in mirrors sets up a smart gag in which the core trio must produce sketches of each other to judge whether they look good enough for Wellington’s clubs. Later on we see them cooing in awe while watching videos of sunrises on YouTube. It’s very well-observed comedy, at times surprisingly touching, and the jokes rarely fall flat.
The flatmates are very different from one another and a lot of the fun comes from the personality clashes that arise during their frequent conversations. Viago is a romantic dandy and self-appointed boss of the house, Vlad is a fan of torture and Viago, at just over 100-years-old, is the baby of the bunch, prone to childish strops. Meanwhile newly-undead Nick brags in public about his new-found status as a vampire, much to the chagrin of the older hands, who tell him to keep it a secret. In their interviews and solo moments with the documentary crew we gradually find out about their diverse histories, from lost loves to ill-judged stints as part of Adolf Hitlers’ Nazi vampire army, which provides an adequate amount of character depth when factoring in that this is an 80-minute comedy.
Throughout there’s a pleasing DIY feel, with cheap but passable special effects adding to the knockabout charm and plenty of retro horror blood squirting all over the sets. The fake documentary idea may be a little too familiar nowadays but there’s no denying its usefulness in allowing us unguarded access to supposedly-private moments and, in truth, it’s hard to imagine the film working as well with a different premise. We never see the documentary makers – who the vampires have agreed not to kill – but they’re never forgotten about either, with occasional glances to camera by the actors and references made to the film crew.
In summary this is a fine comedy, with a strong sense of its own identity and plenty of astute comic writing. I laughed out loud quite a lot and was inwardly amused most of the time; while comedy is extremely subjective this seems like the kind of film that will should have a broad appeal, even if its low-key release and the lack of big names in the cast mean it’s likely to achieve cult classic status sooner rather than later. There’s not much of a plot, but when the laughs come as thick and fast as this, who cares?
Directed by: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Written by: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford
Running Time: 85 minutes