It makes complete sense that What We Do in the Shadows is a feature-length adaptation of a short film. Its concept screams “short.” And the process of stretching it out has turned it from pretty swell to merely agreeable. In theory, it’s not impossible for a mockumentary about vampires to sustain itself over 85 minutes. But this film tries for an odd compromise between aimlessness and having a plot, and the result makes the material feel stretched, even within a relatively slim running time.
Though billed as a documentary, the movie has a photographic and editing style much more in line with that of modern mock-doc sitcoms. The subject matter is thoroughly The Real World (with a supernatural twist), but the cinematography is straight from the handheld, action / reaction shot rhythm of The Office. And that sensibility works with the movie’s overall tone, which is one of general warmth toward its characters, though it’s laced with a nicely morbid streak that befits the horror tropes it parodies.
Those characters are a quintet of vampires sharing a house in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand. Viago (co-director Taika Waititi) is a 300-year-old former European dandy, quite fussy about making sure blood doesn’t get on the couch when he lures in a victim. Vladislav (co-director Jemaine Clement) is nearly 900 and way past his glory days of terrifying the Caucasus. Petyr (Ben Fransham) is over 8,000 and looks like Count Orlok. At less than 200, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the “young” bad boy of the group … until they are joined by the freshly-vampirized Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maceur), who shakes up the dynamic of the whole house.
Though much of its humor comes from riffing on vampire lore and placing these fearsome, ancient creatures of the night in the context of modern life, What We Do in the Shadows finds a new take on bloodsuckers by positioning them as the tragically unhip members of society. Though each character’s arc advances in odd fits and spurts, each one is built around these awkwardly out-of-touch guys trying to find their place in the world. The deadly vampire has become a stand-in for the geek — which, considering all the cool stuff they can do, seems quite self-flattering towards geeks. Nick, though he is rather douchey, is here to bring his new friends kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
The jokes land more often than not, though they may elicit stronger reactions from dedicated genre fans than from the average viewer. Most of the best laughs come not from the winks and nudges to pop culture but from tried-and-true personality humor, such as the phlegmatic, never-failing unflappability of Nick’s best pal Stu (Stu Rutherford). What We Do in the Shadows is a perfectly pleasant romp, even if its attempts to have a plot weigh it down.