What We Do in the Shadows

“What We Do in the Shadows,” a mockumentary about vampires, arrives at a critical juncture, when audiences have begun to tire of both mockumentaries and vampires. But the brilliant, buoyant comedy from New Zealand’s happy shores proves an old truth: any trope, no matter how overused, can be fresh and appealing again if you put some care into it.

Plenty of care went into this one, courtesy of co-writer/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who took a deceptively simple premise — a fake doc about four modern-day vampires sharing an apartment, “Real World”-style, in Wellington — and spun gold from it. In lesser hands, this could have been a thin, schtick-y comedy sketch that overstayed its welcome and grabbed for low-hanging fruit. Instead, even when it addresses the obvious gags that come to mind when you think “vampire roommates” (bloody dishes in the sink, that sort of thing), it does so creatively, and it provides a rich variety of side stories and subplots. Even the special effects are better than they need to be for a comedy — proof that Waititi and Clement were conscientious about not cutting corners.

The filmmakers, who previously collaborated on the “Napoleon Dynamite” wannabe “Eagle vs. Shark,” appear onscreen here as two of our principal characters. (You’ll also recognize Clement from “Flight of the Conchords.”) Viago (Waititi), a prissy, 379-year-old vampire dandy, is the den mother of the group, the one who calls flatmate meetings and organizes the chores. Vladislav (Clement), a few hundred years older, was a legendary torturer in his day (“Vlad the Poker”); he now fills the role of the insatiable ladies’ man. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), at a mere 183 years old, is the rebellious young troublemaker. And down in the basement, living in an old-style crypt, is Petyr (Ben Fransham), an ancient Nosferatu-type vamp so decrepit you fear he may turn to dust at any moment.

Our four bloodsuckers get along well enough overall, though they have conflicts that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever shared an apartment or watched a reality show. The humor comes from the way vampires, documentaries, and modern society all intersect in surprising (yet obvious once you think about it) ways. The fellas enjoy a night on the town, for example, but it’s difficult to gauge how fashionably you’re dressed when you can’t see yourself in a mirror, and they can’t enter a nightclub unless they’re invited. A newly turned vampire, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), upsets the group dynamic, but he brings with him an easygoing non-vampire, Stuart (Stuart Rutherford), who becomes everyone’s new best friend. With his rosy, bite-able cheeks, Stu is the equivalent of the sexy straight guy who hangs out with gay men: look but don’t touch! The scene where Nick “comes out” to him as a vampire is priceless, perfectly mirroring the manufactured melodrama of reality TV.

Other story details combine the supernatural with the mundane to hilarious effect. Vlad still rages over an ancient battle he had with a fearsome creature known only as The Beast. Deacon’s servant, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who does his bidding in exchange for a promise to be turned into a vampire at some unspecified later date, is tasked with finding victims for the flatmates to devour, and Vlad’s explanation of why they prefer virgins is genius. They quarrel with a pack of werewolves, who have a square, Viago-like leader of their own (“Werewolves, not swearwolves!” he scolds when one of his fellows drops a curse word). And though no effort is made to frighten us, the film takes its horror elements seriously, gushing blood when appropriate. Some thought was put into Nick’s transformation from human to vampire even though we only see it in a brief montage.

What holds it all together and keeps the joke from wearing thin is the filmmakers’ determination to create sustainable characters with interesting backstories. We’d never mistake them for real people, but we develop affection for them as honest, full-fledged creations. Amazingly, even after a laugh-packed 86 minutes, it feels like there’s still more material to explore. A comedy as inventive as this one deserves to be a hit.

A- (1 hr., 26 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a smattering of F-words and other profanity, and a lot of blood (played for laughs).)

Originally published at About.com.