Review: Jemaine Clement's 'What We Do In The Shadows' is gory and hilarious
PARK CITY - Going from the bruised beauty of Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" to the brutally silly majesty of the mockumentary vampires of "What We Do In The Shadows" only points up just how easy it is to start from similar places and still end up with very different movies.
Before the film began at the Egyptian, co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi took the stage to talk about how the film came together. They said they were approached by the New Zealand Documentary Board about making this in 2010, asking them to look into the vampire population of Wellington. Sure enough, the opening logo for the film is for the NZDB, and they play the film as a fairly straight-faced documentary, but let's be clear: this is one of the silliest comedies I've seen in a while, and it is so packed with laughs that before they even got to the opening titles, my face was already sore.
Waititi plays Viago, a 300-and-something-year-old vampire who shares a flat with several other vampires, including Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Peter (Ben Fransham). Each of them represents a different vampire archetype from pop culture. Peter is the 1000-year-old Nosferatu, a permanent monster. Deacon seems to believe he's Brad Pitt from "Interview With The Vampire," even if he's a little too wide for the leather pants he wears everywhere. And Vladislav is very directly inspired by the "real" Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, although he's known here as Vladislav the Poker.
Viago is our way into the movie, the first person we meet, and he's by far the most sweet-tempered of the flatmates. Waititi has this great silly smile that basically never leaves his face, and he's so pleased to just be talking to the cameras about his life. The decision to do this as a mockumentary pays off because it allows for a lot of conversation directly to the camera from all of the characters, and also because it establishes a mundane reality. That's important so that when there are crazy special effects moments, they play as real. There are some tremendous tricks used in the film, and it is a fairly sophisticated bit of film craft that only looks simple at first. Considering they approached much of this in a way that allowed the actors to improvise, it seems doubly-impressive that the film contains so many inventive visual gags.
Of all the horror-comedies I've seen here this year (and it's been a pretty solid crop overall), "What We Do In The Shadows" is easily the funniest, and it's because of how completely they engage with their subject matter. This isn't just a "Scary Movie" style regurgitation of images or scenes from other movies. This is a deep excavation of archetype, and in scene after scene, they find smart, character-driven ways to build extended riffs on both the mundane annoyances of modern life and the various ways we've approached vampires over the years.
There are some great running threads in the film that are too much fun to spoil. I particularly loved the ongoing material about Vladislav's greatest opponent, The Beast, and there's a great subplot about what happens when a new vampire is created and turns out to be a giant asshole. The film also brings in other supernatural touchstones like werewolves and zombies in some very funny sequences, giving some other wonderful comic actors like Rhys Darby opportunities to come in, kill (in more ways than one), and then get out again.
"Eagle Vs. Shark" was the first feature that Clement and Waititi made together, and I thought it was a solid but not spectacular little film. Clement is one of those comic personas, though, that I find really entertaining in almost any setting. Even when he's animated, like in "Rio," he is so distinct that I can't really think of a comparison between him and anyone else. He's like the "Mad" magazine version of Mick Jagger, and this is one of his best-realized character roles so far. Jonathan Brugh is also very strong as Deacon, who really hates doing this share of the chores, who has a terrible co-dependent relationship with his familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), and who has the most trouble adjusting to the newest vampire, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer).
"What We Do In The Shadows" feels like the most overtly commercial film I've seen here, even more so than Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here." This is the sort of film that plays to people who only know vampires from the "Twilight" films (there is a fall-down funny running riff about Nick's claims to girls in bars that he was the inspiration for the films) and to people who have seen every single vampire film from every era. Considering how omnipresent the vampire is in pop culture, I am impressed that these guys managed to squeeze some fresh blood from it.
"What We Do In The Shadows" just signed a deal to get the Funny Or Die brand name attached to it, and I suspect a distribution deal for the US will follow soon.