A combination of the faux-documentary format and the vampire tropes that have been run into the ground of late does not seem like a recipe for something fresh, but “What We Do in the Shadows” somehow manages to breathe new life into a set of tropes so past their expiration date they seemed undead.
Jemaine Clement, one-half of the New Zealand folk duo Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi, a frequent collaborator who co-created and directed much of the group’s HBO show, wrote and directed this feature, and bring to it much of the same deadpan irreverence.
On “Flight of the Conchords,” our characters were lovably dorky wannabe musicians; in “What We Do in the Shadows,” our characters are lovably dorky vampires. Even as they may murder humans and feed upon their blood, we don’t hold it against them. Viago (Waititi), the most guileless and accommodating to the documentary crew of the vampires who shares a Wellington apartment, says to the filmmakers as he sits, covered in blood, next to the slumped corpse of a woman whose blood he just drank: “On the upside, I think she had a really good time.”
Viago, a lovelorn dandy whose travels to New Zealand were motivated by love, still has pangs of guilt from feeding on humans, but insists that, since they must, they at least lay down towels or newspapers first.
His roommates are all fascinating: there’s Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who at age 183 is the “young bad boy” of the group, and doesn’t pull his weight doing chores around the home. “You have not done the dishes in five years!” his roommate says, exasperated.
There’s Vladislav (Clement), who was turned into a vampire at 16, nearly 900 years ago (“This is why I always look 16. In those days, of course, life was tough for a 16-year-old,” he deadpans), and who lost a great deal of confidence in a confrontation with his mysterious rival, The Beast, who will soon be traveling to Wellington for the annual
Finally there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000-year-old Nosferatu-style wraith who is as far removed from being human as one can get, and not bashful about his monstrousness. “Maybe I could bring you a broom,” Viago says when waking Petyr from his stone crypt in the basement, “and you could sweep up some of the skeletons.”
Vampires aren’t just mopey old creatures who live in dark castles — “Well, a lot of us are,” Viago admits — but can live in posh flats in small countries like New Zealand and take advantage of what the nightlife can offer. Much of the comedy is derived from how out of touch these guys are — even when prowling the nightlife, the fact that a vampire cannot enter a building without being invited in puts a damper on available nightclubs, and an increasing disconnect from modern technology does them no favors, though they start trying to get the hang of it .(“Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet.” “What are you bidding on?” “I’m bidding on a table.”)
The engine of the plot, such as it is, comes when an attempt to feed on local young man Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) inadvertently results in him being turned into a vampire and becoming the fifth roommate. Nick, a brash braggart unaccustomed to his new powers and responsibilities, proves difficult for his new roommates to handle — though he does bring around his best friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), a normal human who becomes off-limits to feed on just because he’s a really nice guy.
I haven’t even touched on Deacon’s desperate familiar (Jackie Van Beek), who dispassionately procures victims for the vampires in the hopes she’ll be turned one day; a duo of police officers glamoured to overlook scenes of violent murder as they walk through the apartment, but who see all the fire code issues, much to the vampires’ chagrin; and a local band of werewolves led by Rhys Darby (Murray from “Flight of the Conchords”), who enforces a strict code of conduct.
There isn’t too much of a story here, but when every other line is a really funny joke, and when the performances are this winning and fun, one certainly doesn’t mind. (Wait till you hear Vladislav’s justification for vampires seeking the blood of virgins.) Memorable line after memorable line at a brisk 80 minutes that does not wear out its welcome: only time will tell if “What We Do In the Shadows” will ascend to the heights of, for example, Christopher Guest’s movies like “Best in Show,” but it’s perhaps the best faux-doc comedy since one of those, and certainly one of the funniest movies of 2015 so far.