This review was originally published on January 29, 2014…
In the wrong hands, a mockumentary can be a sad and lazy experience. Since so much of a good mockumentary is clever writing and performances that don’t feel like they’ve been scripted, when it goes wrong it has the double-whammy effect of being false and uninteresting. A mockumentary may seem like a simple way to make a film, but that’s the trap; at this point, it’s one of the hardest types of films to do right.
In that sense, What We Do In The Shadows sets itself up for colossal failure, but in more than one way. Not only is it a mockumentary, but it’s a mockumentary about one of the most overexposed villains in recent cinema history, the vampire. Knowing all the different angles there are out there regarding vampires, and all the lore and rules of vampirism that have become commonplace, and the repeat-until-ineffective tropes and techniques set up by mockumentary-type fare like The Office, how could this film bring anything new to the table?
I think it helps that the filmmakers behind the film are Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, and they’re bringing a uniquely Kiwi-inspired perspective, and sense of humor, to the subject matter and technique. Waititi has already established himself as one of my favorite filmmakers with his short film Two Cars, One Night and his features Eagle vs. Shark and Boy, and Jemaine Clement is one half of the ever-entertaining Flight of the Conchords (oh, and he stars in other films too). If everything else about the film might lead you to feel unimpressed, the involvement of these two inspires hope.
And they pull it off. Telling the story of a group of vampires living in Wellington, New Zealand, the film establishes all the common rules we’ve come to know and love about vampires, but explores them in practical ways that may not have gotten a solid look before. For example, those odd choices of clothes vampires always seem to be sporting? Might have something to do with the fact that they can’t see themselves in the mirror, and thus have no fashion consultants other than each other. The explanation regarding a vampire’s thirst for virgin blood is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I’m not about to spoil that one here.
The film also doesn’t stop at vampires, as eventually werewolves, zombies and witches find their way into this comedy’s focus. The choice of going with a mockumentary format winds up working because of its inherent earnestness; these are fantastical creatures and situations, brought into a practical environment and examined for all their oddities. And while the mockumentary technique can be an excuse to go cheap with the production values, this film does the opposite.
As it is trying to present a scenario as if vampires were real, it treats the subject with the necessary effects, CGI and otherwise, necessary to sell that idea. When two vampires get into a fight, and change into bats to continue fighting, it works as if it really happened, as opposed to just looking cheesy. The filmmakers knew that for this to work, they had to commit to showing the supernatural as if it were commonplace reality, and you don’t do that by making it look fake; when it was time to show some production chops, the film steps up.
Overall, though, What We Do In The Shadows is just really funny. Clement’s Vlad is reminiscent of Coppola’s vision for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only here he’s all faded sex appeal with little bite. Waititi’s Viago is a dandy vampire that seems to be inflicted with more than a bit of Andy Kaufman’s portrayal of Latka Gravas, all soft-spoken as he attempts to keep his vampire flatmates together while pining for his lost love. Nick (Cori Gonzales-Macuer) is the newest vampire in the crew, who everyone seems to dislike but can’t get rid of, because they like his human best mate Stu (Stuart Rutherford) more than him. Nick was the victim of ancient, Nosferatu-styled Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is also responsible for turning flatmate Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) into a vampire ages ago, setting up conflict between Nick and Deacon in an odd sibling rivalry. It’s a house of strange personalities and vampire nonsense, played for all the practicalities of real life. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but funny is funny, and this one had me cracking up often.