A film crew from the New Zealand Documentary Board follows a quartet of house-sharing vampires as they prepare for Wellington's big undead social event of the year: The Unholy Masquerade.
Comedy is littered with manchildren, scattered across the genre like discarded LEGO bricks in a playroom. Most these days are played by Will Ferrell (including one, coincidentally, in a movie almost entirely made from LEGO bricks). At their worst, they’re little more than selfish, offensive douches whose repulsive egotism is supposed to be endearing. But at their best, they’re preposterous, glorious idiots: walking comedy goldmines like Derek Zoolander, Ron Burgundy, Buster Bluth, Tracy Jordan and Peep Show’s Jez.
With What We Do In The Shadows, Kiwi filmmakers Taika Waititi (Eagle Vs Shark) and Jemaine Clement (the non-Muppet-songwriting half of Flight Of The Conchords) have made a brilliant connection: what are vampires if not the ultimate manchildren? They suggest that being undead must be the ultimate state of arrested development — it’s ‘living’ without aging, after all. So much so, their characters are not only permafrozen in immaturity, like neverending students, but also effectively fish out of their generational waters, as clueless about fashion as they are information technology.
As with all the highest gag-hit-rate jaunts, the plot is loose and sparse. It’s primarily a character piece that puts the jokes and characters first. There is Viago (Taika Waititi), a 379 year-old dandy and die-never romantic who can’t abide clutter; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years old, seedy and self-absorbed, like a has-been rock star forever lost in the reverie of his heyday; Vladislav (Clement), 862 years old and “a bit of a pervert”, but sensitive enough to realise he probably shouldn’t be torturing people in his dungeon anymore; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a full-Max Schreck 8,000 year-old monster who lives (of course) in the basement. Then into their uncomfortably balanced lives crashes boorish local bloke Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who is accidentally turned and responds to his newfound supernatural power by running down the streets of Wellington and yelling, “I am TWILIGHT!” as a chat-up line.
Among the film’s many treats, you’ll witness a bat-fight, ineffective hypnosis, a pack of werewolves (not swearwolves) led by Rhys Darby, a ghost cup and buckets-upon-buckets of blood. Perhaps this is the most surprising thing about What We Do In The Shadows: despite its ironically warm heart and likable characters, it doesn’t stint on the horror and gore elements. These guys feast on the innocent, and at times it’s no less gruesome than it is hilarious. It’s almost as if we’re back in the early, viscera-gobbling days of Peter Jackson.
Part of the joke is that such dark goings-on are happening somewhere so mundane, so its reference points often feel a bit parochial. Yet this all feeds into its charm; gags about Slough hardly hurt the international success of The Office, and you don’t need an intimate knowledge of Wellington’s night life to find the vampires’ bar-hopping scenes amusing. Presented in a mockumentary format that worked so well for Christopher Guest in the likes of Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show (not to mention Rob Reiner’s saggy, long-haired archdruid of the subgenre, This Is Spinal Tap), and boasting a great line in vampire/horror parody which riffs on everything from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys to Blade to Twilight, What We Do In The Shadows doubtless ranks alongside the bigger-budget likes of 22 Jump Street and The Inbetweeners 2 in the ‘2014’s Best Comedy’ stakes.
Here it is at long last: a truly great vampire comedy. And also the funniest horror film to come out of New Zealand since Braindead.