Sundance 2014 Review: What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do In the Shadows is a hoot. It embraces all the vampire clichés with irreverent satire, as well as the clichés of the documentary format. It must be that New Zealand sense of humor. I think Flight of the Conchords fans will like it.

The New Zealand Documentary Board presents this deadpan exposé on the secret vampire culture of New Zealand. A clan of vampires has allowed the crew to document their preparations for a semi-annual masquerade gathering, providing immunity and crucifixes to the crew. The legitimate safety precautions give you a sense of the irreverent seriousness with which writer/directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement take the material.

Viago (Waititi) is 379 years old and he seems to be the head of the house. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a Nosferatu type. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the crazy bad boy at 183 years old. Vladislav (Clement) is old school at 862 years. Stu (Stuart Rutherford) is their human friend they hang out with and Jackie (Jackie van Beek) is their human servant who does all the daytime errands.

There’s no improv fluff like you find in a lot of comedy documentaries, especially the acclaimed Christopher Guest group. I love ‘em but you can see them finding the scene as they go. Each scene in What We Do In the Shadows is about something and has jokes.

The vampires are so varied they can cover sleeping habits of lore (coffins, upside down, harems…), reflections, blood problems, even taking the piss out of The Lost Boys because it’s not shocking or intense when these vamps do the food trick. Because it’s a house full of roommates, they have lots of petty arguments over chores, and Vladislav’s metaphor for the appeal of virgin blood is hilariously quotable. Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is new at only two months, and he creates conflict by not respecting the vampire secrets.

Basically, these vampires are all dorks, but they take themselves seriously and it’s hilarious. They still have the same needs as threatening vampires, but they are not graceful about luring victims or cleaning up after them. They engage in lame social banter with other monsters just like awkward humans do. It’s a very socially conscious comedy, as the film addresses gender issues in the vampire culture brilliantly.

Clement and Waititi also nail all the standard moments of documentaries, which are ridiculous in a vampire context. The confessionals when they’re trying to justify themselves, the indignant storming away from intrusive cameras, thank God reality TV popularized those tropes so Shadows can have fun with them.

I guess with a comedy it’s hard to really describe it without giving away the good jokes. I mean, just imagining Clement as a vampire should be enough said, but also taking the documentary seriously and embracing every single aspect of vampire lore should make What We Do In the Shadows sound like an appealing comedy. 

7


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.