GORE CHORE: Waititi chipperly attests to the difficulty of keeping a vampire's abode clean.
Pop culturally speaking, vampires are dead — and no, not undead, either. Vampire spoofs, satires and ironic meta-fests are likewise long past their heyday. So there's nothing timely or particularly original about the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Yet it's one of the funniest and most fun film comedies of recent years — proof positive that having a buzzworthy concept is less important than being able to bring the goods.
In this case, "bringing the goods" means squeezing fresh gags of sublime silliness out of hackneyed characters and situations. And co-writer-director-stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi deliver. Clement is half of the "Flight of the Conchords" duo; Waititi has directed numerous film and TV comedies, including the oddball indie Eagle vs. Shark. The two have a long history of performing together, and it shows in the ease of their largely improvised banter.
Their characters have a rather longer history. Clement and Waititi play two of four urban flatmates who happen to be vampires; the youngest member of the group (Jonathan Brugh) is a frisky bad boy of 183. Waititi's character, Viago, dates from the 18th century and still sports dandyish attire, while Clement's Vladislav, who does his best to embody every "sexy vampire" cliché in the book, has a bloody track record in the pre-modern era. Petyr (Ben Fransham), a desiccated bloodsucker residing in the basement, is so ancient he hasn't even tried to adjust to the world of cellphones and dance clubs.
The film's conceit is that these roommates have invited a film crew into their decrepit mansion to document their un-lives as they prepare for an annual festive gathering of the local paranormal folk. And, unlike the blasé characters in found-footage flicks, they are ridiculously happy to be on camera — preening, mugging and posing at every opportunity.
Waititi sets the tone in the first scene: His fetchingly fey character (based on his mom's mannerisms, he has said) walks us through the nightly ritual of rising from his coffin, unable to repress his glee at playing to an audience. Later, we watch as the flatmates childishly flaunt their superhuman powers ("Bat fight!"), bully their human minions (who do their bidding for a shot at immortality) and bicker over who's going to wash the sink full of bloody dishes. In short, these are the dorkiest vampires ever put on film.
But they're also recognizably human, with dynamic personalities — and that's why sight gags like the chore wheel on their wall don't come across as cheap or tired. Clement and Waititi use the techniques of classic mockumentaries such as This Is Spinal Tap to craft a minimal but effective narrative, as the flatmates' bonds are tested by the advent of a freshly fanged vampire (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who exhibits a millennial casualness about privacy.
Back before Anne Rice staked her literary flag firmly in the realm of campy myth making, toward the end of Interview With the Vampire (1976), she offered readers a striking image: Her aged bloodsucker cowered in his home, terrified of modernity. The sequel explained that scene away and turned Lestat into a literal rock star, setting the course for decades of cultural obsession with cold-skinned immortals who are also cool (and/or sparkly).
Clement and Waititi resurrect the comically rich alternative version of the vampire as a befuddled vestige — your dad trying his damnedest to be hip. (The werewolves in this film, always a bit overshadowed by the vampire cool brigade, are perhaps even funnier.) This duo knows that comedy comes not just from mocking tropes but from mocking the scruffy human pretensions that give birth to them. What We Do in the Shadows answers the age-old question of whether immortality would confer glamour and gravitas on human beings with a resounding and hilarious no.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.