Movie Review: “What We Do in the Shadows”

Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

“What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a really funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a result, the movie feels a little uneven at times, especially when it begins to lose steam in the latter half, although that’s partially due to the fact that many of the best gags occur early on. While that inconsistency prevents it from being the comedy masterpiece that some have suggested, the funny bits (including the ones you’ll likely miss the first time around) are what make “What We Do in the Shadows” such an entertaining import worthy of repeat viewings.

Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew granted protection from its subjects follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But the vampire lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it’s hyped up to be, which unwitting victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) soon learns when he’s invited to one of their dinner parties, only to be served as the main course. After being sucked dry and granted the mixed blessing of eternal life, Nick attempts to make the most of his newfound abilities while ushering his fellow housemates into the 21st century, much to the chagrin of the jealous Deacon.

There’s a very witty sense of humor at work in “What We Do in the Shadows,” skewering centuries of vampire lore with goofy sight gags, clever observations about vamp culture and tense run-ins with a pack of werewolves led by Clement’s “Flight of the Conchords” co-star Rhys Darby. A big part of the film’s success is due to the pitch-perfect comic timing that directors Waititi and Clement bring to each scene, not to mention the inspired performances from the spirited cast. It also boasts some surprisingly good visual effects for such a low-budget production, including cool vampire-to-bat transformations and buckets of gore. While the latter is played mostly for laughs (whether it’s Nick projectile vomiting blood after eating human food, or Viago making a mess of his latest kill), the movie never strays too far from its horror roots.

But for everything that it gets right, “What We Do in the Shadows” suffers from the same problems as Waititi and Clement’s last collaboration, the geek-chic rom-com “Eagle vs. Shark” – specifically, the concept feels like it’s been stretched well beyond its limits, despite the brisk 85-minute runtime. This is an idea that was probably better suited as a short film, even though there’s so much funny material here that it’s understandable why they decided to expand it to feature length. Time will tell whether “What We Do in the Shadows” is destined for cult status, but any movie that makes you laugh this hard (even if only sporadically) at least deserves to be part of the conversation.