Thursday, February 12, 2015

Flatmates Suck: "What We Do in the Shadows" a kooky, deadpan lark

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
86 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Vampires live on. Many must think their ship has sailed, but filmmakers keep returning to the mythical monsters with a different approach, including 2008's sublime Swedish boy-meets-undead-girl love story "Let the Right One In" and its equal 2010 American remake "Let Me In"; Neil Jordan's striking 2013 immortality tale "Byzantium"; and just last year, 2014's resourcefully creepy found-footage item "Afflicted," Jim Jarmusch's cool, Jarmusch-ian "Only Lovers Left Alive," and unforgettable Iranian vampire western "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night." Imagine Christopher Guest's 1984 heavy-metal mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap" with bloodsuckers, and you get writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's fresh, merry, often inspired "What We Do in the Shadows," a New Zealand-born import that has fun sandwiching itself between two done-to-death genres.

In this vampire-out-of-coffin comedy and mockumentary, a crucifix-wearing documentary crew has been granted full access to shoot the lives of Wellington, New Zealand vampires, a part of a secret society, months before gathering for their annual ball known as "The Unholy Masquerade." The small group consists of four flatmates. 379-year-old dandy Viago (Taika Waititi) came to the country for love, still pining after his 94-year-old girlfriend. Former Nazi vampire Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is practically a child; he's only 183 and has a servant-like "familiar" named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), who spends her days ironing the vampires' frills and scrubbing the bloody bathrooms and dishes. Then there's hypnosis-using 862-year-old playboy Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), who has fear and hatred for "The Beast," a moniker for his ex-girlfriend. Finally, there's Nosferatu-looking Petyr (Ben Fransham) living in a basement tomb, and recently bitten vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) tries to get on the guys' good side, hoping for a place in their flat and bringing along his best friend, software analyst Stu (Stu Rutherford), whom the vampires promise not to eat.

Matching their specific Kiwi brand of comedy from "Flight of the Conchords" and 2007's offbeat romantic comedy "Eagle vs. Shark," writer-director-actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi base the feature-length "What We Do in the Shadows" on their 2005 short. Nearly every trope is checked off and treated as a punchline, but Viago, Deaconn, and Vladislav are also relatable. In fact, they are just like us! The viewer is treated to a day-to-day schedule of these flatmates, sleeping during the day and then waking up every night. Viago has a flat meeting about everyone pulling their weight, like doing the "bloody dishes" (literally). They also have a hard time picking out outfits…to find victims (Vladislav's style is "dead but delicious"). They try to get into clubs, but aren't invited, so they can't enter. When Viago invites a human woman over, he places newspaper around her, but when he hits the main artery, it makes a real mess ("On the upside, I think she had a really good time"). Since these pulse-free guys will burn to a crisp with any exposure to the sun, they learn to watch sunrises on YouTube. And, while the fish-out-of-water convention of non-humans testing out technology would seem exhausted, it's quite funny to watch Viago being told that they can find anything on Google and then asking to type, "I lost a really nice silk scarf in about 1912." 

Kooky, silly, droll, and above all adorable, "What We Do in the Shadows" is full of clever details, smiles, and chuckles. Leading up to "The Unholy Masquerade," the film's funniest jokes actually take place in the flat. There's a "bat fight," where the low-budget effects just add to the charm, and nods to "The Lost Boys" and "Blade." The vampires have a Crips-and-Bloods sort of rivalry with a pack of werewolves. When one of them drops a cuss word, the alpha male ("Flight of the Conchords" regular Rhys Darby) gripes, "We're werewolves, not swearwolves!" A joke involving Viago's former Halloween costumes as Whoopi Goldberg in both "Sister Act" and "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit," while forgetting that vampires hate nuns, is also a hoot and a half. All of the actors are endearing in their commitment, particularly its makers. With dainty charm and gusto, the wide-eyed Taika Waititi is the sweetest and most fun as Viago. Jemaine Clement is in his deadpan wheelhouse, playing the self-aggrandizing Vladislav, who thinks he still looks 16. "What We Do in the Shadows" is more of a minor lark than an uproarious laughing-out-of-the-theater experience, but it never has a chance to wear out its welcome at 86 minutes. It's also made with true affection for these fanged killers who are really softies at heart, and there's always a laugh to soak up the plasma.

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