What We Do in the Shadows: Sundance Review

What We Do in the Shadows Sundance Film Still - H 2014

What We Do in the Shadows Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Hilarious mock-doc is a shift from the shock humor of zombie comedies.

"Flight of the Conchords" co-star Jemaine Clement and "Boy" director Taika Waititi play two of a quartet of vampires who share a Wellington house.

A very funny Kiwi take on vampire lore and its application to the modern world, Taika Waititi's and Jemaine Clement's What We Do in the Shadows introduces a quartet of vampires who share the same Wellington house and, like any other flatmates, squabble over the chores -- the difference being that tidying up is a good bit more gruesome in this household than in most. Ace writing and comic performances ensure love from the geek sector, while the presence of Flight of the Conchords co-star Clement both behind and in front of the camera should help attract attention beyond that realm.

However tired one may be of the mockumentary format, the shtick is well suited for this material; in fact, it's easy to imagine a straighter storytelling approach falling flat or playing like an Addams Family rip-off. What we have here looks like an undead edition of The Real World. Two of the pale protagonists are played by the team who wrote and directed: Waititi plays Viago, an 18th century dandy who has retained his delicate manners even in the afterlife (when killing someone at home, he carefully spreads newspaper to catch wayward blood); Clement plays Vlad, aka Vladislav the Poker ("Impaler," one realizes, was already taken), who's more of an orgy-and-torture sort of bloodsucker. Their housemates are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who slightly resembles Joe Flaherty's Count Floyd from SCTV, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a Nosferatu look-alike who isn't much on socializing.

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Each man became a vampire in a different historical epoch, which accounts for the divergent personalities, but none is all that good at dealing with the 21st century. They look ridiculous strutting through the city center in yak-hair coats and leather pants, hoping to seduce victims in nightclubs but hampered by the fact that they can enter a building only if they've been invited. As it turns out, even a so-so bouncer is a better defense against a vampire than a garlic necklace.

The filmmakers adhere to the reality-show idiom, following their subjects through flatmate meetings and filming some spectacularly gone-wrong feedings: Viago can't seem to bite a neck without getting blood all over the couch; a "dinner party" meant to secure some virgin flesh ends up with the creeped-out guests fleeing before moves can be put on them. (Why do vampires like virgins? Well, it's like a sandwich: If you're going to eat it, you'd like to know -- oh, let Vlad explain it.)

The four roomies wind up converting another mortal to their ranks: Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), not the most tactful of men, is soon proclaiming his vampiric nature to anyone who'll listen and drawing unwanted attention to the house. He also brings a regular human over to hang out, which is a grievous crime; but it turns out that Stu (Stu Rutherford) is more congenial than Nick, and can teach these centuries-old creeps how to text and use digital cameras.

The film's pacing never flags. Before household bickering runs out of steam, we're out on the streets watching Sharks/Jets action between the vampires and a crew of nice-guy werewolves who wear plaid and do everything they can to restrain their animal instincts. (They don't even like to curse: "We're werewolves, not swearwolves!") Effects are well suited to their comic deployment: Though our heroes morph into bats quite magically when a fight demands it, other visual tricks have just the right hint of kitsch.

Zombies make an appearance late in the film as well, technically making this count as the third zom-com to premiere at Sundance 2014 in 26 hours. But What We Do in the Shadows belongs to the creatures of the night, and anyone intending to hop on this particular subgenre bandwagon has a hard act to follow.

Production Companies: Unison Films, Defender Films

Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford, Jackie Van Beek

Directors-Screenwriters: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement

Producers: Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley, Emanuel Michael

Executive producers: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement

Directors of photography: Richard Bluck, DJ Stipsen

Production designer: Ra Vincent

Music: Plan 9, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick

Costume designer: Amanda Neale

Editors: Jonno Woodford-Robinson, Yana Gorskaya

Sales: CAA

No rating, 86 minutes