What We Do In the Shadows
Reviewed by Joe Morganstern in The Wall Street Journal
Marketing campaigns can bring moviegoers into theaters to see what the fuss is all about, but they can’t generate the excitement of those rare occasions when audiences discover a movie on their own. That’s what happened recently with “American Sniper.” The film certainly benefited from marketing, but no one expected the huge crowds that showed up on the first weekend of national distribution. Now a very mini version of the same phenomenon may be taking place—for very different reasons—with “What We Do in the Shadows,” a charming curiosity from New Zealand. After commercial success at home and in Australia, followed by screenings at film festivals here, this mockumentary opened last weekend in only two theaters, one each in New York and Los Angeles. Yet its spectacular per-screen business forecast more of the same during the current national rollout. Did I mention that the subject is vampires? No deep meaning or social relevance, only welcome diversion from these troubled times—i.e. superbly silly fun.
Genre prodigies like this one sometimes elicit guarded responses along the lines of “I liked it”—pause and/or shrug—“for what it is.” And yes, “What We Do in the Shadows” is one more riff on mythical bloodsuckers, one more pseudo-factual sendup in the hallowed tradition of Christopher Guest. That said, it is also deadpan-droll, tonally flawless, graced with comic acting of an extremely high order and elating from the very first scene, which runs a witty variation on all those movies that start with an alarm clock going off. The time is 6 p.m., and the slugabed who awakens hasn’t been sleeping in a standard bed.
His name is Viago, he is 379 years old and he’s played—as a fairly fresh-faced 17th-century dandy—by Taika Waititi, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Jemaine Clement. Mr. Clement is no stranger to American TV audiences, thanks to “Flight of the Conchords.” Mr. Waititi directed, wrote and played in the endearingly odd “Eagle vs Shark,” and the touchingly odd “Boy.” In this new film his Viago serves as host and guide for a film crew that, in the scheme of the mockumentary, has been granted special access to a secret society of vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, and to the society’s social event, The Unholy Masquerade.
Viago is an affable host, even if he’s occasionally off the wall, or ceiling, in a blissed-out mode that faintly recalls the who-am-I-what-planet-is-this persona of Andy Kaufman. And he’s as tolerant as possible of the long-in-the-teeth friends with whom he shares a grubby flat—it isn’t easy to be a vampire in the modern world. Yet he’s also a taskmaster who insists that the floors must be swept free of spinal cords, and the bloodstained dishes must be done more often than once every five years.
The most vigorous of those friends are Mr. Clement’s stern-faced Vladislav, who is 862 and, according to Viago, a great guy, if “a bit of a pervert”; and Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon, too cool for this world or any other and, at 183, “the young bad boy of the group.” There’s also the implacably hostile Petyr (Ben Fransham), who, at the ripe old age of 8,000, is exempt from household chores. The main human of the piece, Stuart Rutherford’s Stu, has forged cherished bonds of friendship with his undead companions, which makes sense since he’s a software analyst who is short on social skills. Werewolves play subsidiary roles, though none of them come close to being fully fleshed-out.
I could go on, and will, without giving away any more jokes except for one of the many throwaways, a smartphone app that warns of nearby crucifixes. One reason to see the film is, I suppose, its value as an antidote to the brainsucking powers of the “Twilight” series. Yet “What We Do in the Shadows” has nonmedicinal virtues that many large-scale movies lack: unflagging energy, entertaining inventiveness, sustained ridiculousness and even, dare I say it, a spasm of eloquence in Deacon’s twisted tribute to the frailties of the human race. I won’t reveal how the story ends, but I can tell you that the movie ends with more thank-yous than I’ve ever seen before—three whole screens of them, beginning with such eminent Wellingtonians as Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Richard Taylor, and culminating in a tip of the hat to the otherwise unheralded Sifty the cat.