SXSW 2014 Review: ‘What We Do In the Shadows’ Is Also a New Vampire Classic

By  · Published on March 13th, 2014

It’s remarkable that vampire mythology can still be mined for great comedy. Just when you think the Seltzer and Friedberg team closed the book on lampooning the creatures of the night and the overabundant amount of movies about them (with a terrible chapter), another duo prove there’s still actually hilarious potential in this subgenre. Jemaine Clement makes his directorial debut alongside occasional collaborator Taiki Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark; Flight of the Conchords) with the mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows, in which they didn’t necessarily find a ton of fresh jokes and gags in the material but still managed to execute each bit to perfection.

Even Twilight provides fodder for new laughs here, not so much as parody of the franchise but of an amusing idea around it. The humor there stems from something bigger than vampires to make fun of general trendiness, treating the Edward Cullen character as a kind of hipster asshole in the context of the history of iconic vampires. He’s represented by a newly turned bigmouth (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who obnoxiously clings to a foursome of flat mates, one of whom resembles Nosferatu (Ben Fransham), another with a Coppola-style Dracula/Vlad the Impaler thing going on (Clement), a dandyish Anne Rice type (Waititi) and, rounding out the group, a less definable vampire (Jonathan Brugh) who used to be the “young blood” of the group. He has history as an undead Nazi and now takes pleasure in ordering around his human servant (Jackie van Beek) and pranking people with tricks he picked up from The Lost Boys.

Although there is a slight story connecting the dots, What We Do In the Shadows is mostly a series of sketches showing the (after)lives of vampires in Wellington, New Zealand. The premise is that a documentary crew is following the main quartet in the months leading up to an annual get-together of unholy creatures, but that’s just an excuse for the choppiness of this sort of comedy. Mockumentaries can follow a kind of episodic structure that allows for a lot of freedom as far as where the humor takes the characters, as does the loose situational scenarios of throwing these offbeat, oft-bickering characters into a single location in which they have to live together, with ludicrous results. It’s as much the offspring of The Young Ones as This Is Spinal Tap.

Like any good spoof, this one is a mix of the familiar and obvious with the clever and original, the latter tending to explore outside the targets within the genre and play with social comedy adapted to integrate those targets. What We Do In the Shadows is a funny movie with vampires, not just a funny vampire movie, filled with common circumstances with a what-if query applied to each in order to consider how they’d work with the undead.

It’s also as silly as it is smart, unloading plenty of easy gross-out gags involving gushing blood and projectile vomiting plus some token childish moments – a character audibly masturbating from inside his coffin, for example – and some the movie gets away with by having its characters act immaturely in spite of their ages ranging in the hundreds to thousands of years. They take pleasure in regularly being dicks to a pack of werewolves in town, and their unimaginative jabs are still of a kind of brilliant wit due to how consciously they’re delivered. With something as broadly targeting as this, viewers may not laugh at everything, but it’s so loaded with jokes that they may not even notice. There’s always a smart bit within seconds of something stupid.

In recent years, the documentary-styled comedy has been at home on television, so calling this the funniest mockumentary film since Best In Show may not have the kind of value that statement deserves, even if it’s been 14 years. Maybe the proper thing is to say What We Do In the Shadows has saved the genre, brought it back at a time when Christopher Guest is taking a break. Clement and Waititi could also be credited with saving the spoof film in general with this, but that would mean they need to do more like it. Hopefully that happens.

The Upside: Hilariously executed gags that theoretically should seem stale; impressive use of modest special effects; a certain line about a sandwich

The Downside: A few of the broader moments fall flat; the cinematography, while understandably so, is often too dark

On The Side: Waititi received an Oscar nomination for his 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night, which you can watch here.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.