What We Do in the Shadows
by Glenn Lovell
What do we do in the shadows? Laugh ourselves silly. The first keeper of the new year turns out to be both bloody and bloody funny. But why mince words? The eloquently titled “What We Do in the Shadows” is the best horror spoof since “Shaun of the Dead.” More, it belongs in the same merrily macabre company as Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.”
Directed by New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who also co-star, “Shadows” is a deadpan mockumentary in the “This is Spinal Tap”/“Man Bites Dog” vein. Our camera crew has been granted “full access” to four Wellington flat-mates who share a very special propensity: They’re lovable bloodsuckers, as in voracious vampires. Petyr (Ben Fransham), who inhabits the cellar, is the oldster, a snaggled-toothed Max Schreck/Nosferatu lookalike; Valdislav or Vlad (Clement) is the brooding, sadomasochistic Transylvanian, “a bit of a pervert.” Viago (Waititi) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) are, respectively, the incorrigible romantic who dresses like Jonathan Harker and, at a mere 183, the “young bad boy of the group.”
After “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and that recent “Dark Shadows” remake, you’d think that the vampire comedy had pretty much been drained dry. Clement and Waititi prove us wrong as they chart a goofy-to-homespun course, with the boys arguing over kitchen chores (“Vampires don’t do dishes!”) and night-on-the-town ensembles (Vlad favors the “dead but delicious look”), entertaining visitors with corny mirror jokes (“Ooh, look! A ghost cup!”) … scouting the local club scene for new victims and human slaves (familiars).
“Vampires have had a bad rap,” points out Viago, who’s tickled to be on camera. “We’re not these mopey old creatures who live in castles.”
No, they’re more like your eccentric maiden aunt ‒ fussy, annoying, but still, in their oddball way, disarming. This is especially true of Viago, who tries to keep the peace by refereeing those petty squabbles and limiting the number of new initiates. (Everyone here seems to hanker for immortality.) Hanging out in modern-day Wellington is more complicated than you’d think. Viago has never gotten over that one true love; Vlad’s still fuming over a centuries old feud with an arch nemesis called “the Beast”; Deacon, the party animal, plants his fangs in just about anything that moves.
This at-home-with portrait is really a run-up to the documentary’s raison d’être: a rare inside peek into horrordom’s night of nights ‒ that zombie-witch-werewolf-vampire mixer known as The Unholy Masquerade. The gathering doesn’t disappoint; it’s has all the loony allure of a class reunion for the undead. The discovery of a young, juicy interloper in their midst proves a plus. So do the roving filmmakers. “You will not eat the camera guys! Well, maybe one camera guy.”
The reason this bit of vamping from Down Under works so well is that it blends traditional vampire lore as codified by Bram Stoker (sunshine and silver remain hazards) with inspired in-jokes (references to “The Lost Boys” and “Twilight” franchise) and 21st Century gadgets. Introduced to the computer age, Viago and the others waste no time experimenting with selfies and Skype. And once again, parallels are drawn between vampires and other societal victims/fringe-dwellers : The newly initiated Nick worries about “coming out” to best-mate, Stu.
Obviously a low-budget affair, “Shadows” still boasts some impressive visual effects. Especially fun are the levitations (perfect for reaching those hard-to-dust spots, eye-bulging transformations and the ever popular “Bat fights!” There’s even a park rumble with a rival gang of werewolves. Yes, on occasion the red stuff spit-sprays across the screen. But not to worry. Our Kiwi hosts are less interested in creeping us out than in introducing us to the most charmingly dotty homebodies since the Addamses.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS ✮✮✮✮ With Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Ben Fransham, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer. Directed and written by Clement and Waititi. 86 mins. Unrated (could be R for lavish bloodletting)