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What We Do in the Shadows | Review

Friends Forever: Clement & Waititi’s Pleasantly Charming Vampiric Mock-Doc

Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi What We Do in the Shadows PosterThat immortal cinematic archetype, the vampire, has once again been commandeered into the periphery of independent cinema, at least indicated by recent examples of decidedly offbeat fare from the likes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and now from New Zealand, co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who have made the next logical step with a vampire comedy as faux documentary with What We Do in the Shadows. After premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the title has gone on to tour fests, including SXSW and Toronto (where it won the audience award in the Midnight Madness section), and received generally enthusiastic reception. But after securing a distribution deal, the filmmakers provocatively went to Kickstarter to establish a wider release platform beyond New York and Los Angeles, which means the independent title will now see its limited release extend to seventy plus cities. Cute, and affectionately droll as it mines through the plentiful amount of vampire stereotypes, Clement and Waititi expertly command the film’s comedic balance, though it often doesn’t exceed the limitations of its genre, i.e., the trap of reality assisted tropes, where limited narrative dynamics provide shackling parameters.

Four vampires share a flat in modern day Wellington, New Zealand, and we meet them as subjects of an ongoing documentary, bickering amongst themselves concerning house chores. There’s Vlad (Clement), who used to be known as Vlad the Poker when he was human, followed by the overtly polite Viago (Waititi), and the irascible Deacon (Jonathan Brugh). A fourth member, Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a dead ringer for Nosferatu and he hangs out in the basement, generally keeping to himself. Deacon has an eager familiar he keeps promising to transform, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), but she gets upset when Petyr accidentally turns an intended victim, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who becomes a new part of the crew (albeit one that can’t keep his mouth shut about his transformation to the general public). Nick also brings along his best bud, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who the vampires seem to greatly appreciate since the mild mannered human has no problem with their undead state and being in IT, teaches them all they need to know about technology in the 21st century.

Actor Jemaine Clement joins Taika Waititi in the director’s chair, who has directed the star in both “Flight of the Conchords” and the 2007 comedy Eagle Vs. Shark. The rapport amongst the cast members feels immediately evident, and goes a long way towards securing the film’s charm. Closer inspection reveals the film’s significant slightness, but considering the hollow and overtly familiar subgenre being satirized, What We Do in the Shadows is definitely top tier. Tightly paced, which is a wonder considering the meandering narrative, the film manages what it sets out to do from its first frame by remaining entertaining when it’s not nailing a series of well-deserved laughs with its hearty wit.

Clement and Waititi are supremely adept with these silly personas, matched by the churlish Jonathan Brugh and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as the amiable yet tactless newcomer to the crew. Special effects are limited yet artfully employed, such as when the vampires shapeshift into bat form or levitate. A late staged face-off between the overtly self-aware group of werewolves is played with the just the right amount of slapdash to keep it in the healthy vein of successful kitsch. But by its final frames, the silliness and charm may not make the lasting impression you might have hoped for.

Those who appreciate the particular style of humor that’s come out of New Zealand, from Jackson’s Braindead to the underrated 2006 Black Sheep from Jonathan King should definitely appreciate the silly, yet very funny What We Do in the Shadows.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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