Right around the time a fake 1970’s throwback title card for The New Zealand Documentary Board pops onto the screen, it is clear What We Do in the Shadows is going at its concept whole hog. Almost certainly a cheeky homage to the fictional Kazakh documentary board that funded Sacha Baron Cohen’s seminal mockumentary Borat, co-directors (and co-writers and co-stars) Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi up the ante a bit by following it up with a declarative statement: “Each crew member wore a crucifix and was granted protection by the subjects of the film.” Just in case anyone would be concerned about the well being of the filmmakers surrounded by these bloodthirsty denizens of the night, Clement and Waititi have it covered.
Presenting itself as a documentary about a group of four vampires living in present-day Wellington, New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows looks to lampoon both vampire culture and The Real World-esque reality television in one fell swoop. Its four principals each correspond to a certain sort of vampire, from the batlike Nosferatu homage Petyr (Ben Fransham) to the Dracula analogue Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) to the younger, petulant brooder brought along by phenomenons like Twilight Deacon (Jonathan Brugh). The main subject of the film seems to be Viago (Taika Waititi), a middle brother type who quite likes the exposure the documentary seems to be offering. The film follows them through their lives, as well as those tangential to them such as Deacon’s thrall Jackie (Jackie van Beek) or Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a freshly sired vampire who is more than keen to let everyone in the world know of his newfound immortality. Everything builds to the annual Unholy Masquerade, a gathering of all manner of horrors.
The trick here is a simple one, smashing together the supernatural and the mundane; the flatmates are just as likely to be found bickering over Deacon’s disinterest in doing the dishes as they are prowling the streets for a fresh victim. There is a threadbare plot surrounding the new vampire Nick’s struggling to adapt to his new life, but it is mostly just an excuse for a series of increasingly silly set pieces that manage to find the perfect balance of Anne Rice and Airplane!. It should not be surprising that the people behind Eagle vs. Shark and Flight of the Conchords know their way around a joke, and in What We Do in the Shadows they come fast and furious. Some of the best gags are the small ones; the aforementioned argument over chores is punctuated by an exasperated plea to clean up the bloody dishes, accompanied by a smash cut to a sink full of blood-stained flatware. It is certainly one of the more consistently hilarious films of recent memory, a nonstop onslaught of gags and references effortlessly executed by its talented trio of leads.
Clement and Waititi do not stop at the jokes, though, and manage to find the time to delve deeper into the sadness and pathos of such an existence as well as the frivolity. Most intriguing is how their actions affect humans around them, especially Jackie. The vampires’ MO seems to involve promising eternal life to their servants and consistently reneging on the deal, while the humans become increasingly desperate the further toward or past the prime of their life they become. There is a sadness and a loss to these characters, that hopeless devotion melded with a hint of frustration that disappears with the most casual wave of the hand from their master. Such a counterweight to the humor is a welcome change of pace; even as these scenes evoke laughs, the underlying discomfort cuts through and lingers in the mind. Quite a bit of the design finds its roots in The Office style cringe humor, but their quips cast a wide net, and for the most part manage to keep things fresh.
At 86 minutes, What We Do in the Shadows is not a film that is interested in overstaying its welcome, but there are some problems that arise in its final third. As the Nick character becomes a bigger and bigger part of the proceedings, the pacing lags, and in practice the final scenes at the Unholy Masquerade lack the punch that may be expected. There are storylines that are tied up a little too neatly and a little too quickly, and it does feel like a film that realized it was reaching the end of its length and decided to end more so than reaching an organic conclusion. There are about 65 or so great minutes at the start of this film, and even as it stumbles at its end, it still produces laughs until the credits roll. It is difficult to even slightly disparage a film that has the laughs per minute ratio What We Do in the Shadows has, and the giant belly laughs it generates on more than one occasion, but despite that it is not easy to shake the feeling that it is not quite there as the final credits roll. As a pure comedy it is great, but as something more it falls ever so tantalizingly short of greatness.