Last February, the funniest movie I saw all year debuted with hardly a blip on the box-office radar. It grossed a paltry $3 million in the U.S. — and that’s only after it came to the big screen with help from a heartily fan-supported Kickstarter campaign. Yes, it was an oddly-timed release, and no, it didn’t have any Hollywood bigwigs attached to it — but after watching What We Do in the Shadows, most people wonder something along the lines of, Where has this glorious film been hiding? It's the mockumentary at its best — laugh-out-loud funny throughout and a spot-on satire with surprising heart. And, it' a movie about scary things that's not at all scary.
What We Do in the Shadows is the brainchild of two hilarious Kiwis, Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Concords and the multi-talented Taika Waititi. The mockumentary chronicles the lives of four flatmates who are getting on each other's nerves — rather understandably — after living together for more than 100 years. There's Viago (Waititi), the "18th-century dandy" with puppy-dog eyes and a heart of (stone-cold) gold; Vladislav (Clement), the melodramatic with a tortured past (literally); Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the two centuries-young resident bad boy; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), the 8,000-year-old fuddy-duddy who's an undead ringer for Nosferatu.
The comic premise is simple. It's basically two hours of imagining the funniest answers to the question: What would it really be like to live as a vampire in the 21st century? In essence, it's not as sexy or sparkly as it usually looks on the silver screen. The brilliant core of the movie's humor is in marrying the supernatural to the super ordinary — it brings the quotidian into the realm of the undead and fleshes out authentic and hilarious characters in the process. Scenarios the gang faces include: a sink full of bloody dishes, trying to decide what to wear for a night out when you can’t see how you look in the mirror, turf wars with the local werewolves, trying to get yourself explicitly invited into a nightclub, and the difficulties of sticking to a strict diet without, you know, becoming rampant murderers. In this sense, it’s more “realistic” than Twilight or any other 21st-century bloodsucker fare.
Speaking of that little franchise, Shadows skewers vampire clichés like a stake through the heart in a culture that’s become so infatuated with, and then exhausted by, vampire stories. The movie came at a time when pop culture has reached its blood-soaked saturation point for onscreen vampires. It exposes the extent of our vampire craze in a way that can be equally appreciated by superfans of the genre and those who were over it five years ago. The movie nails every trope there is, from ancient lore to prime-time CW.
For example, it attacks the caricature of the brooding vampire with an unspeakably dark past (we're looking at you, Edward) and tortured non-soul. Moody Vladislav embodies that quality by saying things like, "When I was torturing, it was because I was in a lot of pain. I mean, obviously they were in a lot of pain, but I hurt here, in my heart — whereas they were just in their neck, chest, and genitals."
Shadows also reminds us how over-sexualized vampires have become — they walk in on each other's bloody orgies with the casualness of college roommates with bad timing. Deacon, in particular, finds himself an unwilling sex icon.
It also points out how eternal youth can distill in them a certain...delusional vanity.
And explains, once and for all, the understandable allure of virgin blood.
The guys grapple with self-questioning and self-loathing — especially the sensitive Viago — because society tells them they are heartless monsters. They try to rationalize their kills ("I think she had a good time at least!" Virgo says of one date that ended badly for her and bloody well for him.) And Nick is the human they make the mistake of chomping; his mainstream vampire education ("Have you seen Twilight? I'm the main guy. I'M TWILIGHT!) makes him a rather annoying addition to the gang. The one they really like is Stu, the most average guy on the planet, whose company they enjoy so much that they vote to befriend rather than eat them.
And thankfully, Shadows doesn't miss out on exploiting the contemporary werewolf-vampire rivalry. (Per Twilight, werewolves are kind of wimps.)
Bloodsucking aside, though, What We Do in the Shadows is simply a well-made comedy. Satire is always a delicate balancing act. It has to be silly and absurd enough to be funny, but not so stupid that the audience checks out. It's rare for a satirical comedy to maintain its energy (and audience attention) for two hours, without losing steam or growing stale. This one continues to throttle forward with the unbridled energy of a sketch show. Shadows is an extremely smart film — the tight script stays fresh for the duration and never feels too rigid or overwrought.
And the characters, ridiculous though they are, are too tender and lovable to call caricatures. As happens when watching any good movie, we become invested in them. But maybe most importantly, Shadows has a shit-ton of fun. It's a gleeful film, full of joy and never self-conscious or pretentious. So, if you find yourself needing a break from the gloom and gore of Halloween films, you know what to do.