Director: Taika Waititi/Jermaine Clement
Unison Films/Defender Films
I worried for a minute there – actually for about 10-15 minutes, the much-hyped, expertly marketed What We Do In The Shadows stumbled along and there were shrieks of laughter – at what, I was never quite sure. Did this audience enjoy Taika Waititi’s bizarre blend of Andy Kaufman mannerisms married to a Kim Dotcom accent and dressed up as 18th Century dandy-turned-vampire? Was it hilarious that Jermaine Clement’s 800-year-old Vlad was quite possibly a sendup of the off-beat villains he’s played in Hollywood films? We might never know but – the (very) good news is – before I started fixating on that the film really got going and swiftly became hilarious.
Based on a decade-old short film that Waititi and Clement dreamed up – and filmed a version of – What We Do In The Shadows pokes fun at vampire films and vampire lore as well as celebrating it; it pokes a stick at the reality TV format and mockumentary trope and in that way that Waititi and Clement have displayed together and alone first as The Humourbeasts and then via vehicles Eagle Vs. Shark and parts of the Flight of the Conchords TV show it is fucking funny. Really funny. Wry observations and deadpan delivery mingle with post-Python absurdity to present something that – as much as it mocks and plays with classic vampire films and mythology – is likely more a product of The Young Ones as it would ever be the recent True Blood and Twilight-type spectacles. Watch closely for pisstaking around the various mockumentary and faux-earnest horror films, Blair Witch Project, for instance and any silly MTV-ish reality TV dramedy you care to shake a wearily angry fist at.
But none of the film-geek stuff matters as much as the fact that the commitment to simply serving the joke, to following through with an absurd conceit and delivering due to great acting, clever special effects and elaborate set-ups which aren’t afraid to even leave the punchline as merely an eye-roll from time to time is what makes this film work. Yes, Taika and Jermaine have carved out successful careers and that has helped guarantee this sort of film an audience, but you can believe – watching it – that it’s still very much in the spirit of a pet-project a couple of comedy-loving friends dreamed up one afternoon, or evening, or whenever it was a decade or so ago.
And when the current trend around vampires and werewolves dies out for a few years (again) – and as new comedy trends sift into place – this film will still stand as really fucking funny, as about the best New Zealand comedy there’s been in a couple of decades; as proof that if you have talent and vision and a great cast then the sort of silly stoner-conversation or chucked-off aside that almost anyone might say they could have dreamed up and discarded can work. But you have to do the work; be able to do the work, be able to deliver.
What We Do In The Shadows is silly-smart escapism – an easy joy to watch and almost a humble-brag sort of a comedy. After a wobbly first few minutes it packs in the laughs without ever desperately trying to pack in the laughs. Rhys Darby won’t make you cringe – a kind of special effect all in itself, really – and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer is slightly wonderful. But it is Waititi and Clement’s show – their characters carry the weight of it even if we are falsely mislead into believing they’ve stepped back into the shadows as the film fires on. That might even be the movie’s greatest trick – its makers are doing so much of the work, the heavy lifting all the while, the great support and assists, that’s what they’re doing in the shadows.