Review: What We Do in the Shadows (Sundance 2014)
PLOT:A quartet of aging vampire roommates, living in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand, invite a group of documentary filmmakers to film them as they prepare for their yearly gala ball, where all the city’s undead meet for an evening of entertainment.
REVIEW:WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS has a killer opening scene. The camera is set on a coffin in the middle of a grand-old Victorian mansion- the type you’d see on DARK SHADOWS- as a clock radio sits by it on a stool, about to strike dusk. The alarm goes off, and the coffin opens a crack- just enough for an undead arm to come shooting out to hit the snooze button, before slamming shut again. This is our introduction to the vampire Viago- aged 379- played by co-writer/director Taika Waititi, caretaker to his older vampire friends.
Imagine this as a sort of Christopher Guest for the undead set, using his patented “mockumentary” technique to give us a new, funny take on the vampire mythos. If you’re a fan for FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, whose co-creator Jermaine Clement co-wrote and directed with Waititi, this will likely press all the right buttons. It’s a fresher, funnier vampire comedy that Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS reboot, which likely cost twenty times what this did.
The vampire trio at the heart of Waititi/Clement’s film are a likable bunch. Waititi plays the “nice” vampire- Viago, who- yes- will eat his victims, but wants to make sure they at least have a nice night in the process. Clement plays Vladislav- the second most senior vampire- at over 800 years old- who uses his vamp skills to pick up girls, although with the changing fashions of today’s Wellington, he’s been unsuccessful as of late. Arguably the funniest of the bunch is Jonathan Brugh as Deacon, the self-described bad-boy of the group, who finds his status as the youngster of the gang (at only 183) threatened when their 8000 year old master, Petyr (reduced to a Nosferatu-like state) suddenly gives one of their midnight-snacks undead status.
As the newbie Nick- Cori Gonzalez-Macuer is funny, telling everyone how he’s a vampire, and using his powers to get into clubs and pick up girls. His best friend Tim, a meek- almost mute- accountant, becomes an unlikely favorite of the vamps, leading to lots of jealously and shaming (which is just the three vamps saying “shame!” over and over while walking in a circle) from the gang, and of course, some hurt vampire feelings.
On the whole, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS hits the perfect note for genre fans, with deliberately tacky production design looking like it was lifted off of any cheapie Hammer horror movie from the seventies, giving this a fun retro feel. The actors playing the vamps are never less than hilarious. Even if the joke does start to peter out a bit by the end, it doesn’t really matter as they’re each so invested in their character they can constantly riff on things and it’s still worth watching (apparently all the Sundance Q&A’s were done in character). Of course, it’s not particularly scary (nor is it trying to be) although some hilarious, over-the-top gore effects are sprinkled in here and there, always giving this that Hammer horror vibe that should play well for genre fans.
Overall, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is frequently hilarious, and always fun. Co-writers/directors/stars take what could have been a thin premise and give it life through the force of their own personalities, making for an entertaining piece of retro horror comedy that should become a bit of a cult fave over time.