Ever since vampires became sympathetic villains during the Anne Rice years, we’ve seen a huge variety in how to treat these monsters in story. Thankfully for us, a few years ago, Jamie Clement (who you might have seen in Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (the charming genius behind Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok) asked themselves, what if we did a mockumentary about a group of hopelessly inept vampires living in modern-day New Zealand? The result is What We Do in the Shadows, which is my favorite alternate take on vampires, as well as the funniest mockumentary made since This is Spinal Tap.
The story is that a film crew from the New Zealand Fim Commission, wearing crucifixes and invited into a vampire house, gain exclusive access to film the goings-on of four vampires who live and hunt in and around Wellington. Thiago is an Austrian dandy who would really like it if maybe some of his flatmates did a little more work cleaning up the house. Vlad the Poker is a Carpathian shapeshifter who enjoys running folks through with long poles, but that’s all behind him now. Deacon is the young hellraiser, a Germanic peasant bitten about 200 years ago and spending about that long before living up to his promise to bite his familiar, Jackie, and make her a vampire, too. And Petyr is an 8,000-year-old nosferatu who lives in the basement, and is really best left in there, fed with the occasional chicken or something. Letting him out accidentally tends to cause problems.
Thiago, Vlad, Deacon and Petyr have lived together for at least a few decades, and eagerly look forward to the annual Unholy Masquerade, a shindig for the local supernatural community—vampires, witches, zombies, and the like. But aside from that, their lives are basically the same routine: take hours to get dressed, accidentally shoot each other with arrows, perform erotic dances, play terrible music, call up the utility company and hypnotize them over the phone to make their bills go away, invite losers to their house and eat them, and so on and so forth. Each of the vampires has a backstory that rounds them out. Viago pines for a long-lost girl he loved many years ago and who currently resides in a nearby nursing home. Vlad wrangles with his memories of The Beast, his arch-nemesis, whom he’ll probably encounter at the Unholy Masquerade. And when Deacon isn’t trying to pick fights with the local pack of werewolves, he’s feeling threatened by the appearance of Nick, a former victim bitten by Petyr and is now the worst vampire in the world. His every move is a rookie mistake, and he is so thick that he thinks equating himself to the vampires of Twilight will somehow make him cooler. His sole saving grace is his own best friend and flatmate, Stu, a quiet IT guy whom the other vampires quickly befriend…and mourn when he dies a death in no small way hastened by the company he keeps.
What We Do in the Shadows isn’t about the story, though. The plot here is a mechanism to let us accompany Viago, Vlad, Deacon and Petyr in their nightly routines, played to droll perfection that renders even the most visceral of scenes into terrific comedic fodder. We laugh at the vampires’ bungling, but we laugh even harder when they accomplish something according to plan. This is a world of such complete knuckleheads that you really don’t mind seeing people get eaten, the occasional retaliation by a vampire hunter or what happens when you interrupt a bunch of werewolves trying to keep it together on full moon night. Our vampires are ultimately pretty relatable people who don’t realize they have a lot more in common with the humans they hunt than they realize.
There are two moments of truth here. The first is when Petyr dies (look, he’s 8,000 years old, but the guy wasn’t going to live forever) and the second is when Stu dies. Both are part of the vampires’ inner circle, but we see a lot more grief from these guys over Stu than Petyr. As much as they have lived for centuries as eaters of mortal men, deep down, they have not forgotten what it was once like to be human. And while none of them seem to mind being a vampire, they don’t mind the simple pleasures of surfing the internet, Skyping with old servants from across the ocean or getting into a decent nightclub for once, either. These are things Stu helped them discover, but without Stu to share them with, they become hollow exercises. Such is grief that even a vampire can feel.
Don’t worry, though. What We Do in the Shadows isn’t a big setup for a sad ending. This is a mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand, man. It’s not gonna mope for long. Just enough to get you to feel sorry for a guy who can’t bite a victim without spraying himself in the face with blood, a guy who flies into electrical power lines when in bat form, a guy whose greatest weakness is being called mean names by an ex-girlfriend, and a guy who is so clueless that he gives his phone number out to vampire hunters. In any vampire movie, we’re meant to feel for the victims, but here, you can’t help but feel for the hunters as well. These guys need help.