You know what’s awesome? Surprises. You know what’s surprising? “What We Do in the Shadows.” If there’s one thing that’s more played-out than vampires, it’s reality shows, so it comes as something of a shock that a combination of the two could be such a raucous good time. Against all logic and expectation, this new comedy from the minds that brought us “Flight of the Conchords” is refreshingly goofy, occasionally gruesome, and, most weirdly of all, remarkably endearing.
The concept is simple: a small film crew is dispatched, with crucifixes and a promise they won’t be unnecessarily eaten, to document a few months in the “lives” of a household of undead bloodsuckers in a mouldering, crumble-down manse in, of all places, the tedious suburbs of Wellington, New Zealand.
Each of the housemates is their own flavor of out-of-touch, and each a loose archetype of accursed characters we all know. The 134-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the junior of the group, fancying himself something of a rogue and a rockstar. He regularly neglects both his human slave and his chores around the house. Viago (Taika Waititi), an 18th-century dandy, is all buttons and lace, and gets terribly vexed that no one remembers to put some towels down when exsanguinating guests on his sofa; Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), “The Poker,” is a swarthy old East-European pervert who will proudly tour you through his dank, and tiny, torture chamber. Vlad is closing on his 900th year, and if that sounds old to you, you might want to avoid the Petyr’s (Ben Fransham) room in the basement. Eight thousand years, it turns out, will take a toll on a guy. A bat-eared, bug-eyed, snaggletoothed fiend, he’s long since lost any semblance of humanity, never comes to the house meetings, and, unlike the others, shows no hesitation about turning just about anyone he can get his teeth on into a new creature of the night.
“What We Do in the Shadows” lands squarely in a triangle formed by “Interview with a Vampire,” “The Young Ones,” and “This is Spinal Tap.”
Which brings us to the (not-to-be-identified-here-because-spoilers) new guy. Freshly dragged for no good reason into the “nightlife” and stumbling through his utter ignorance of long-held vampire traditions, he blithely flies around the neighborhood in plain sight, insists on wearing the same coat as Deacon, and bops around town flashing his fangs and boasting to anyone who’ll listen that he’s “that main guy from ‘Twilight.’” Which, even as tasteless as that might be, he really isn’t. His decidedly human friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford), an unassuming, exceptionally average bloke, is actually welcomed into the circle with far more affection, literally bringing some light into their world, patiently explaining how to work modern conveniences like a television and the Internet. You know how excited your grandma got when you showed her how to Skype? Imagine having existed for eight centuries and finally learning how to do your dark bidding on Ebay. Their joy is infectious.
Somehow, the writing/directing/producing/performing team of Clement and Waititi transforms all apparent weaknesses to strengths. Our super-saturated familiarity with all the common vampire tropes, as well as the ubiquitous vocabulary of “The Real World”-style shows, serve as a cunning springboard to completely — and quite genially — eviscerate both. Apparently, they wrote a screenplay, but ingeniously, chose never to share it with anyone involved, allowing for each of the players to riff back and forth on each other in the most spontaneous of ways. The off-the-cuff nature of the results makes perfect sense for their Kickstarter budget and cheese-ball, Monty Python-level effects, focusing always on the often priceless frictions between some well-rounded, fully-inhabited characters. It would be a lie to say every joke hits the bulls-eye, but the whole conceit works far more often than it really has any right to. Off-handed, seemingly frivolous remarks regularly circle back as uproarious visual gags, and vice-versa, winging by so fast that close attention is both commanded and rewarded.
Taking us down a well-worn path to some gloriously unforeseen territory, with a cracking soundtrack and an exquisite pace, “What We Do” lands squarely in a triangle formed by “Interview with a Vampire,” “The Young Ones,” and “This is Spinal Tap.” It is by no means one of those pictures that needs to be viewed on a large screen, but if you like your darkness with a good splash of light, this is a movie you don’t want to miss. In fact, you’ll probably want to not miss it, like, three or four times. It’s a sweet little movie with a lot of heart. And blood. Great, gushing geysers of hilarious blood.