Studio: The Orchard
Director: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Writer: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi
Producer: Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley, Emanuel Michael
Stars: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Jackie Van Beek, Rhys Darby
A documentary film crew chronicles the lives of four vampires living together as flatmates in New Zealand.
Confession time. When it comes to my personal tastes in genre film, horror-comedy is just not my bag. Plentiful exceptions run the gamut of genuine affection for universally beloved ha-ha horrors like “Shaun of the Dead” to series with subtler streaks of black humor like the “Re-Animator” and “Evil Dead” films. It’s not like I’m a completely blackhearted grump when it comes to funny frights, I just generally prefer those dishes to be served on separate plates.
Horror-comedies are still very much able to triumph in the battle against this predisposition, however. Kiwi haunted house comedy “Housebound” (review here) worked its magic by breaking down my resistance to its infectious brand of gradually creeping appeal before finally winning my upturned thumb. Even “Dead Snow 2” (review here), which did not impress me as much as it did more jovial filmgoers, is so madcap in its outrageousness that I can still appreciate its demented personality despite an inability to fully win me over.
As with any reviewer, understanding his/her point of view is essential to understanding how and why s/he perceives a film in a particular way. And the above disclaimer is practically mandatory as a preemptive shield to deflect the boos and hisses sure to fly in this direction over my relatively lukewarm reception of “What We Do in the Shadows.”
Unquestionably, the tongue-in-cheek horror mockumentary from co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi has bowled over audiences as a festival favorite since its debut in early 2014. Rightfully so, perhaps. For me on the other hand, these two comic minds have proven to be so inventive with their past projects, and the vampire genre is so perfectly primed for biting satire, no pun intended, that “What We Do in the Shadows” comes off as not satisfyingly clever enough to puncture deeper than the surface skin.
Under the pretense of filming a documentary in preparation for an annual event called “The Unholy Masquerade,” a film crew has been granted unprecedented access to a home in Wellington where four mismatched vampires live as flatmates. Viago is the frilly gentleman dandy version of everyone’s favorite creature of the night. Vladislav slots in as the womanizing mesmerist Dracula type. Deacon is a well-meaning lounge lizard unaware of how far he has let himself go, while Petyr is the feral Nosferatu-styled vamp. Together, this odd couple squared represents every major interpretation possible of the fabled fanged creature.
All the conceptual bases covered, the fictional exposé pulls back the velvet curtain on what happens in the quartet’s cobwebbed shadows. What it uncovers is a lifestyle almost as mundane as that of a human’s, if not more so. Like a Chiller Network version of “Big Brother,” the not-so-fearsome foursome argues over who should do the dishes, pines over romances lost decades ago, and deals with typical vampire travails like trying to get into a nightclub when the doorman flat out refuses to extend a formal invitation.
There is a loose arc running throughout that follows a recently turned vampire who is incorrigible when it comes to keeping his bloodsucker status hush-hush, but otherwise “What We Do in the Shadows” is a series of sketches that plays like a supernatural edition of Saturday Night Live. Like most average episodes of SNL, some scenes go on longer than they should, and some don’t really fit at all, but the package is entertaining enough overall even if it is sometimes inconsistent.
The personalities are uniquely endearing. The performances are right at the level where they need to be. And the movie is respectful of the material it pokes fun at to remain subversive without dipping into offensive or childish. Where the comedy lost me is that very little of it ever felt unexpected.
Sure, I laughed at the Jets and the Sharks rumble between the vampires and the werewolves, and at the daily fear Viago encounters when it comes time to open the curtains while hoping his clock didn’t stop. But I was also waiting for the film to pull out a less predictable moment I never would have thought of when it comes to sending up a century’s worth of overplayed vampire tropes. A more outside-the-box angle to the creativity would have made the comedy exceptional, instead of just good.
Am I reviewing the movie I wanted “What We Do in the Shadows” to be instead of the movie it actually was? That might be a fair counter-criticism. With the résumés of Clement and Waititi however, I set the expectation bar for something edgier than the casually winking approach their movie ultimately delivered.
The good news is that there is still plenty of fun to be had in their depiction of Average Joe vampires struggling to fit in with contemporary society, yet too oblivious to ever understand why they don’t. The even better news is that my opinion of being underwhelmed is squarely in the minority, as “What We Do in the Shadows” has achieved nigh universal acclaim from those more prone to falling in love with the hypnotic charm of a satirical vampire mockumentary.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 65