“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” (Sundance Movie Review)
Is it the cyclical nature of things that’s responsible for one of our most overexposed monsters to return in two revelatory films at 2014’s Sundance? Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE finds almost everything vampires have embodied in cinema in a lyrical, self-aware hangout led by two of our most poetic and appropriately vampiric actors, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. Meanwhile, Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s brilliantly comedic WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS also encompasses most everything considered a vampire archetype, but in what’s easily one of the funniest horror-comedies in ages. Where plenty of morose vampires have contemplated their endless existence, these four bloodsucking flatmates in New Zealand attempt to keep up with it all, and give the viewer a gory, goofy time doing so.
Presented as a project from the New Zealand Documentary Board, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is mock doc, but not found footage. It’s in a Christopher Guest vein that allows us to follow four endearing characters into absurd situations as vampires co-existing, hunting and looking to party in modern Wellington. After all, there’s just something so enjoyable in watching a ruffle-shirted 1800s creature of the night ask a nightclub bouncer to invite him in. What’s more, it gives us time to get to know each of the flatmates, as they open up to the camera about past loves, arch enemies and apartment gripes, like how Deacon has ignored dishwashing duty for five years.
Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is one of the four goofballs on hand, a vampire-as-rockstar with a rebellious nature and a pudge that prevents him from being as sexy as he thinks. Also on hand is Vladislav (Jermaine Clement, of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS), a Vlad the Impaler type who’s here called Vladislav the Poker for his favorite way to torture victims, and so we can get to an amazing Facebook joke. Petyr is a silent, Nosferatu-esque creature who Ben Fransham captures in great makeup and with some fantastically funny eye-acting. Our guide though is Viago (Waititi), an 1800s dandy who’s most enthusiastic about the movie and the living situation.
With little in the way of hard plot, SHADOWS is just perfect as a string of running gags and setups as the gang finds fresh adventures with the newly-turned Nick (Cori-Gonzalez Macuer) and his best friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who himself might be the best joke of the film. In essence, and speaking to the power of how much fun this film and these characters are, the audience loves Stu simply because the vampires do, endlessly going on about “just how great” he is as he mostly just hangs out in the frame. The film is leading to an annual event called The Unholy Masquerade, and on our way to the ball, the vampires introduce their familiars, their methods to ensnare victims and thoughtful analogies on why virgin blood is preferable.
It’s not that it’s difficult to detail what makes WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS so rousing, but that much of it amounts to the terrible notion of “explaining the joke.” What helps though is that Clement and Waititi are plainly endeared to not only the characters, but vampires as a whole. The filmmakers love the traditions of these creatures, pitting them against present-day complications, as well as a roving gang of werewolves (led by another CONCHORDS regular, Rhys Darby). It’s a richly textured romp that will reward and delight on repeat viewings. I know, because I saw it twice here at Sundance.