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Spoof with teeth

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ smartly skewers vampire flicks

Jemaine Clement in ‘What We Do in the Shadows’

With a couple of notable exceptions, there have always been just two kinds of vampires. The pseudo-European, brooding, romantic kind carries an inexplicable torch for some reincarnated milk-white girl and always looks like they just walked off of a ’70s BBC version of “A Christmas Carol.” Then there’s the feral, demon-eyed, razor-toothed, gargoyle-eared, bloodthirsty killer kind who don’t play that romance shit at all. Only one of them is actually cool. At least with zombies, the only real bone of contention is a preference for walkers or runners.

I’m always looking for a reinvention of the serious vampire story. A new “Near Dark” or “Let the Right One In.” “What We Do in the Shadows” is another kind of reinvention, not unlike what 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” did for zombies. It plays on everything we know about cinematic vampires and subverts those tropes in surprisingly funny ways.

Presented by the “New Zealand Documentary Board,” a film crew follows a group of four vampires in the run-up to The Unholy Masquerade—a blowout party for vamps, zombies, werewolves and other Kiwi children of the night.

We meet Viago (Taika Waititi), a sort of den mother to flatmates Vlad (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Peytr (Ben Fransham). Fitting in is tough for them; they aren’t cool enough to get into clubs because they don’t dress for the century. They fight over chores, devolve into their own proclivities, resent each other’s shortcomings and stagnate in their routines. It doesn’t help that they’re all homebodies who nobody quite takes seriously—even their victims. The party is the only thing they have going for them. 

But all of that changes when Peytr inadvertently turns Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire. A child of the 21st Century, Nick teaches them about the wonders of the internet, gets them into clubs and generally livens things up. But he also proves to be the weak link when his inexperience at being undead endangers his homicidal adoptive family and the life of his best (human) friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

“What We Do in the Shadows” is uneven but consistently well thought-out and often wickedly funny. Co-written and directed by Clement and Waititi, the film recalls “This Is Spinal Tap” as our semi-bumbling yet all-powerful rock star protagonists realize their lumbering irrelevance in the modern world. 

Their ages define them, and they’re all a little pathetic. The 317-year-old Viago is hopelessly thoughtful, to the point of being considerate of his prey while clumsily going for the kill. But he’s always been kind of clueless. The 862-year-old Vlad was a brutal conqueror at age 16 who’s mellowed with age but still thinks slave ownership and harems are viable lifestyle choices. The baby—180-year-old Deacon—is their upstart teenager, and 8,000-year-old Petyr is the Max Schreckian grandfather who violently gets everyone off the lawn.

They’re all great characters, although Waititi kind of steals the film with his Renfield-tinged combination of bent pragmatism and inherent sweetness. The jokes come from odd places within their personal mythologies, be they nods to modern vampire franchises or just little visual one-liners—as when Vlad, formerly an all-powerful, shapeshifting, hypnotist badass, can’t quite get any of that right anymore because a girl crushed his self-esteem.

“Flight of the Conchords” fans will be tickled by Rhys Darby showing up as the leader of a pack of etiquette-minded lycanthropes (“Okay guys, we’re not swearwolves, we’re werevolves”). And I love that Ben Fransham’s Petyr is so goddamn old he can barely relate to his only friends.

It’s a delightfully nerdy and imaginative spoof more than a laugh-a-minute affair, but “What We Do in the Shadows” remains a unique, funny and smartly written film—one that I imagine has the knack for endearing itself further with repeat viewings.

“What We Do in the Shadows” opened at Circle Cinema March 20.

Looking for more film reviews? Check out Joe O'Shansky's takes on “Blade Runner: The Final Cut" and "Whiplash."