A “mockumentary” – the popular portmanteau of the words “mock” and “documentary” – describes a certain type of entertainment where filmmakers train their cameras on exaggerated real life, often resulting in hilarity writ large and huge laughs for its viewing audience. They’ve been around for a while now, with examples dating as far back as the 1960s: Monty Python sketches, Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, and other such films. One of the more popular mockumentaries, This is Spinal Tap, a film about aging rock stars trying to find their place in this world (and the stage door of the Xanadu Star Theater in Cleveland, Ohio) has influenced a generation of would-be comedic filmmakers and performers.
One of those performers is Jemaine Clement, known stateside as one-half of the comedic musical duo “Flight of the Conchords.” Taking the everything-bad-happens-to-this-band concept from This is Spinal Tap, he and co-star Bret McKenzie recorded albums and had a two-season HBO series named after the band. Now, Clement and his longtime collaborator Taika Waititi have brought us What We Do In The Shadows, a supposed documentary about four flatmates living in the Te Aro suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, trying to get along as best they can in their shared living quarters despite their precarious circumstance: they’re all vampires.
Viago (played by Waititi) is trying to organize the clutter-filled house in which he lives with Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), but to little or no avail. Deacon’s had dish duty for five years, and there’s nary a sign that he’s done a single one; Vladislav seems too self-involved to really want to help out (he considers the coincidental dust-clearing when he’s dragging a body down a hallway as housework); and Petyr… well, what do you tell a guy to do, especially when he looks like Kurt Barlow in the 1979 TV-movie adaptation of Salem’s Lot and eats live chickens, strewing bones from all his victims around the basement floor where he sleeps?
It’s hard out there for a New Zealand vampire; societal demands, dietary needs (they have to drink human blood, remember), general upkeep, and sunlight all seem to be nagging concerns for this displaced troupe. The most advanced technologies they seem to enjoy or use are electricity, a canister vacuum cleaner, running water, and an old hand-cranked Victrola-type phonograph. When they step out on the town, they’re dressed in fluffy ruffles and Sergeant Pepper-type jackets; they look like they never got past the fashion of the time when they were made vampires, yet the folks around Te Aro don’t seem to really notice or mind much. Well, except for the small subset of werewolves – yes, I said werewolves, headed up by another “Conchords” alumni, Rhys Darby – who seem to like few things more than howling at the moon or trading insults with the vampires.
It also helps that Deacon has a human servant – known as a “familiar” – named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) who helps keep up all the outward appearances of the house: mowing the lawn, doing laundry, cleaning up pools of blood off the front steps… you know, the usual. However, when former victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) comes back as one of the undead and starts calling more attention to himself as a vampire (and thus, more attention to the flatmates), trouble starts brewing, ending in emotionally and physically tragic consequences, especially as he tries to maintain his friendship with his best friend, Stu (Stu Rutherford).
Films like these were made strictly to entertain, to shed a farcical light on a supposedly non-humorous subject. Brugh and Gonzalez-Macuer play it almost totally seriously, thus imparting the film with some dramatic weight. Yet that seriousness makes us laugh all the more, considering that it clashes wildly with their already-outlandish predicament. Speaking of outlandish, Clement makes the hammy Vladislav a rock star vampire, striking Mick Jagger-esque poses, being moody and vulgar, and delivering some of the movie’s best lines (just wait for his treatise about why he likes virgin blood).
As Viago, the film’s more emotional center, Waititi gives What We Do In The Shadows its meek heart. Viago is this group’s ego, according to Freud’s structural model of the psyche, wanting everything organized and well-run, in sharp contrast to Petyr’s id (he is the basest of the four, driven only by primal urges) and Vladislav’s obvious interpretation of the super-ego. Waititi’s performance was reportedly based on his own mother, resulting in an achingly sweet and oddly nonthreatening vampire, seemingly locked in an awkward war between the horrible things he has to do and his own wishes for peace in the house and a love gone unrequited for almost a hundred years.
If there’s social commentary to be had here, it’s probably that of how new life intrudes upon older, more established ways; the entrance of the younger, naïve Nick almost instantly endangers the four elder vampires, but it also comes with a new outlook on life and its possibilities. Figurative and literal entrances to worlds unknown by the foursome are made manifest by Nick, who also learns about the growing pains of being a vampire while enjoying his newfound abilities. However, we’re largely here to have fun watching these four – eventually five – vampires move around in a world that seems to be getting smaller and smaller every day. Maybe that’s because they have to kill a lot of people, but that won’t change the fact that What We Do In The Shadows is one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see, and it’s quite possibly one of the best movies I’ll see all year.