After a slow start, the vampire mockumentary ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ strikes a rich vein of laughter

January 29, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 29, 2018

Although I didn’t have much enthusiasm for Gentlemen Broncos, I have a soft spot for Jemaine Clement, one of that quirky 2009 independent movie’s supporting players. He first came to my attention as one of the creators of Flight of the Conchords, a hilarious sitcom that ran from 2007 through 2009 on HBO. Clement co-starred in the show as a member of the titular duo, who described themselves as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a-cappella-rap-funk-comedy duo.”

Like Flight of the Conchords, which originated in 1998 as a live comedy act, the 2014 movie What We Do in the Shadows grew out of an earlier project. This time Clement’s partners are Taika Waititi and Jonny Brugh, his fellow stars in 2005’s 27-minute-long comedy-horror short What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires, which showed a trio of vampire roommates being interviewed by television journalists.

As best I can tell, the feature-length mockumentary recreates its predecessor on a larger scale. Clement and Waititi return as co-directors and co-writers. As before, Waititi plays Viago and Brugh is Deacon; Clement’s vampire has been renamed from Vulvus the Abhorrent to Vladislav the Poker. The movie adds a fourth vampire roommate, the ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), but Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick) and Stu Rutherford (Stu) reprise their roles from the 2005 work.

This time out, the four vampire friends share a ratty two-story house in a quiet Wellington neighborhood. (Fast facts: Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, has a population of about 400,000 people; it’s the nation’s second-biggest city after Auckland, which boasts nearly 1.5 million residents.)

Although the quartet’s existence is easy, it’s rather mundane and filled with minor irritants. Because they can’t enter a dwelling or establishment without permission, it’s all but impossible for Viago, Vladislav and Deacon to get into the hottest clubs. (Petyr is more of a homebody than his much younger compatriots.)

Deacon has a familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), but she’s better at handling laundry and cleaning the gory remnants of the housemates’ meals than she is at finding virgins for them to consume.

One of Jackie’s not-entirely-successful attempts to arrange a dinner party (emphasis on dinner) results in Nick joining the ranks of undead blood-suckers. It’s Nick’s demise, roughly halfway into the running time, that starts to pump some life into What We Do in the Shadows.

Nick, a 20-something millennial who loves to party, immediately clashes with the next-youngest vampire in the enclave, Deacon, who’s within striking distance of two centuries. Nick makes little effort to conceal his newfound ability to fly from mortals. He also loves boasting to strangers that he’s a vampire, and he stirs up trouble with the pack of local werewolves led by the buttoned-down Anton (the priceless Rhys Darby, who played the band manager in Flight of the Conchords). Perhaps worst of all in Deacon’s eyes, Nick wears a jacket that has too close a resemblance to the jealous vampire’s favorite coat.

Still, the other vampires like Nick, who’s able to arrange entry into clubs and bars from which they’d previously been barred. What’s more, they’re quite fond of Nick’s best friend, Stu, who introduces the gang to cell phones and the Internet. Even curmudgeonly Petyr agrees not to consume the mild-mannered software analyst.

But Nick’s carelessness eventually crosses boundaries the others can’t forgive, such as leading a vampire hunter to their home. But even after being exiled from the house, Nick continues to make reckless decisions, one of which is bringing Stu to the Undead Masquerade, an annual festival for Wellington’s vampire, witch and zombie community.

What We Do in the Shadows is at its best when it expands its focus from its central quartet to show them interacting with modern New Zealanders. Jackie gets off some of the funniest lines, and many of the most enjoyable scenes involve Stu and constables O’Leary and Minogue (Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue). If comedy enthusiasts who don’t mind a bit of fake blood with their humor can wait out the slower bits, they’ll get to enjoy a lively mockumentary about the undead.

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