FEW GENRES FEEL MOLDIER than the mockumentary, a once-potent source of comedy that's been defused by the existence of entire networks full of real folks debasing themselves beyond the wildest dreams of Christopher Guest. After the existence of Honey Boo Boo, where can you possibly go from there?
To the cemeteries and nightclubs of New Zealand, apparently. Devised by the Flight of the Conchords brain trust, the blissfully silly What We Do in the Shadows takes what should be, by all rights, some very played-out material (it's The Real World with vampires, for Pete's sake) and fashions it into something gory, hilarious, and disarmingly sweet. Even if your tolerance for shaky cameras, confessional monologues, and creatures of the night feels long exceeded, What We Do in the Shadows is pretty special.
Making a return to theaters after playing at the Portland International Film Festival, the film follows a group of crucifix-festooned cameramen filming a documentary about a quartet of vampires (ranging in age from 183 to 8,000) who share a not-especially-sinister house in the suburbs of Wellington. As they prepare for an annual supernatural costume party, they must also deal with a pack of unusually polite werewolves, an assholish victim who won't stay dead, and explore the newfound wonders and horrors of the internet.
A parody's effectiveness depends heavily on the knowledge of its subject, and the reach of directors/writers/performers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement proves to be gratifyingly deep and wide, riffing on lore that runs the gamut from Vlad the Impaler woodcuts to sparkly Twilight pretty boys, and seemingly everything in between—one running gag will have fans of The Lost Boys plotzing. The mood is only enhanced by some knowingly wobbly special effects—as in the early work of Peter Jackson, being able to occasionally see the strings works wonders. (Jackson, whose Forgotten Silver stands as an earlier Kiwi mockumentary highlight, gets a special shoutout in the credits.)
The three leads—I won't spoil the nature of the house's oldest resident, as it leads to some of the best visual gags—take the potential of their material and run full-tilt. Waititi, whose warbly vocals suggest an upper-crust Dr. Nick Riviera, is never less than adorable, even when he's hurriedly putting down newspapers in anticipation of the blood he's about to send spraying out of his next victim. Waititi's dandiness pairs especially well with Jonathan Brugh, as the chore-shirking relative youngster of the group, who lets his oblivious slobbishness serve as a visual punchline to many of the scenes. MVP honors, however, fall to Clement, who wrings some hilarious changes on the egotism of his Conchords persona. Whether watching him nostalgically futz around his torture chamber or attempting to figure out the dark corners of eBay, his virile Coppola posturing somehow gets funnier with every frame.
Comedies can sometimes be easy to overpraise, especially ones with a knowingly small, hand-cranked feel such as this. Even in such a crowded field, however, What We Do in the Shadows stands out by being expertly paced, consistently inventive (special kudos to the costumers, whose melding of dusty goth finery and GWAR-level codpieces does yeoman work throughout), and exceedingly good natured. (Especially when the splatter is hitting the rafters.) Turns out the genre was only mostly dead, after all.