What We Do in the Shadows opens with a visual cliché: a closeup of an alarm clock in a dark room. The digits show 6:00—6 a.m., we assume—as the alarm sounds; the racket is quickly silenced by a groggily groping hand.
But the hand in this case reaches from a coffin and belongs to Viago (Taika Waititi), a 379-year-old dandy of a vampire whose meticulous attention to politesse includes spreading newspaper before he slays a victim. It is not early morning, but 6 p.m., the scariest time of day for vampires, Viago explains as he rises Count Orlok-style from his casket and peeks gingerly through black curtains to check for lingering daylight. Later, a much-feared “fatal sunlight accident” occurs.
What We Do in the Shadows could not exist without every vampire movie that came before it, yet as it tweaks and pays tribute to seemingly each of them, from the still-haunting Nosferatu to the tedious Twilight series, it slyly emerges as one of the best, and certainly the funniest.
In lesser hands, the premise—think Real World: Vampires—would be a stretch as even an SNL-style sketch. The filmmakers embrace convention right down to the long-bloodless fake-documentary perspective, which has been drained into catatonia by comedies and horror movies alike (apparently the approach just needed a transfusion).
Cowriters and codirectors Waititi and Jemanine Clement, who together and separately have given us Flight of the Conchords, the underloved Eagle vs. Shark and the rollicking Boy, don’t miss an opportunity to sink their fangs into a joke. Because the vampires can’t see themselves in mirrors, they stage modeling and illustration sessions before dressing to leave the house; once on the town, they struggle to get themselves invited into bars; two of the group transform for a brilliant, breathlessly funny bat fight. But the film’s success stems as much from the richness of its characters as its cleverness.
In the opening, Viago, an aristocratic innocent who wears a permanent awkward grin, wakes his roommates for a dreaded house meeting. His fellow vampires include Petyr, an ancient-looking creature that could be the corpse of Count Orlok’s great-great-grandfather; the 862-year-old Vladislov (Clement), who evokes Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula as well as the historical Vlad the Impaler, but who clarifies he was known as “Vlad the Poker;” and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), a blustery, impulsive and relatively youthful 183-year-old. Deacon, we learn, has not washed the dishes in five years. “You’re a cool guy,” Viago intones, “but you’re not pulling your weight in the flat.”
As the film crew (protected by garlic and crucifixes, of course) follows the vampires through their daily lives, we meet the likes of Jackie, Deacon’s “familiar,” who grouses about her oft-postponed conversion and having to iron “the fucking frills” of the men’s blouses; Nick, an obnoxious hipster and recent vampire convert whom the guys only keep around because they develop a fondness for his good-natured best friend, Stu, a software engineer who teaches Vlad to “poke” people online; and a group of rival werewolves, whom Deacon taunts, “Why don’t you go smell your own crotches?” (“We don’t smell our own crotches,” one of the werewolves retorts. “We smell each other’s crotches.”)
Breezy and bursting with visual wit and invention, What We Do in the Shadows is vampire-sneaky; its greatness creeps up on you, entrances you, then sinks its teeth in just long enough to leave its mark. It freewheels in tropes and trappings, it is often proudly juvenile, and it contains geysers of blood, but it is also observant and warm and, indeed, human. Vampires’ much-fetishized lives, though longer and bloodier, aren’t so unlike our own. Vampires bicker and yearn for love and search for meaning too; they just start their days at a later hour.