Viago: How was your night last night?
Deacon: I transformed into a dog and had sex.
One of my most important duties as a movie essayist is to help you get in the frame of mind that will allow you to best enjoy your filmgoing experience. In that spirit, I urge you to go to the horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows with low expectations. Ignore the posters that repeatedly use the word "hilarious." The movie is not hilarious. It is, however, silly and clever and consistently amusing. A couple of bits don't work, most notably the end of the "shaming" scene, but I had such a good time that I watched the film twice. It's fun, and that's the whole point, isn't it?
Set in New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary following four vampires that share a flat in the Wellington suburbs (it occurs to me that using the words "mockumentary" and "vampires" would probably have been sufficient to lower your expectations). The film, co-written and directed by Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement, works so nicely because the key characters are well-developed.
Viago (Waititi) is a 317-year-old English dandy who serves as host to the camera crew and den mother to his flatmates. Resembling a younger, non-buff Jake Gyllenhaal, he is eager to help and quite concerned with appearances. When he runs, he pulls his arms up in front of him with his hands dangling down, like John Cleese imitating a mouse. What a treat it is to watch Viago in action.
Vladislav (Clement) is an 862-year-old known for his savage (and freaky) killing techniques. He is a proud being who tries to be a good roommate. At one point he levitates casually while vacuuming a dusty room. At 8,000 years, Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a Nosferatu lookalike who functions on an animal level, though he does appear to listen and understand his flatmates. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the baby of the group at 183. He's a rebel, man.
The vampires try to keep up with the times, but are wildly out of sync. Things change when they meet Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a human slacker. An attempt to eat him goes wrong, but Nick still ends up dead, accidentally changed into a vampire by Petyr. He becomes part of the group, bringing with him his best pal, Stu (beautifully underplayed by Stuart Rutherford). The flatmates actually like Stu better than Nick, who keeps telling people that he's a vampire.
There's lots more, including a group of werewolves determined to be good citizens ("Watch your language – we're werewolves, not swearwolves!"), disgruntled servants and a grand masquerade ball. The Real World style mockumentary format works just fine, and the song selections are effective. There are some swell fight scenes incorporating wires that manage to be cheesy and exciting at the same time. Nice. What We Do in the Shadows is the first film I've seen this year that I anticipate will end up in my Best of 2015 list come years end. Don't let that raise your expectations.