This is, hands down, the absolute most hilarious movie I’ve seen this year. And probably last year and the year before, too. I’m talking the sort of laughter that makes your face ache and your belly cramp up, before you start to cry inexplicable tears, from joy and wonder but mostly in an attempt to reconcile in your head how perfectly perfect a movie can be with being sad that all movies aren’t this good. What We Do in the Shadows — a marvelous title in a sea of generically labeled films — zooms off into utter silliness from its opening moments and never slows down, not even while doing switchbacks into social satire, pop-culture cramdown, and heartfelt pathos.
It’s kind of unholy, how much I love this movie.
Which is apropos, since this is a mockumentary look at the “secret society” of vampires in Wellington, New Zealand — home to a surprising number of the bloodsuckers, given what a small city it is — in the months leading up to their annual “Unholy Masquerade.” The unseen filmmakers get their access via a quartet of vampire housemates: 17th-century dandy Viago (Taika Waititi: Green Lantern), former medieval warlord Vladislav (Jemaine Clement:Rio 2, Muppets Most Wanted), one-time European peasant Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and the Nosferatu-esque Petyr (Ben Fransham: 30 Days of Night). (Waititi and Clement wrote and directed the film.) This is a “real” peek behind the fangs, one that smashes the “hype” around vampirism to reveal the ugly, honest truth: Vampires are just like you and me, except for the immortality and the thirst for human blood. They’re kind of dorky and awkward, they’re definitely not cool, and they do not sparkle in any way, literal or metaphorical. They can’t get their housemates to do the dishes either. They long to create some significance for their lives, and their desperation is sometimes rather forced and sad. And oh boy, do petty grievances get amplified over the centuries. What could Vlad’s (im)mortal enemy — “The Beast,” mentioned only in hushed tones by the boys — possibly have done to earn such a sobriquet?
Oh yes, we do learn this… and the moment is, like every single other moment in this movie, a pitch-perfect nugget of barely exaggerated mundanity that takes the romance and mystery that pop culture has created around vampires and destroys it in an outrageously funny way. From the spot-on aping of cheap indie documentary style — Shadows was made with the “support” of the (nonexistent) “New Zealand Documentary Board” — to the application of modern pop psychology to ancient evil, the film keeps upping its own ante and finding new ways to be surprising, even if you’ve come into the film familiar with all the many clichés of vampire stories. Of course, it’s all much funnier if you’re aware of the clichés, but they are deployed here in ways even the most devoted vampire fan will never anticipate.
This might be the most clever, most entertaining use of the mockumentary format since This Is Spinal Tap. We talk about “dying laughing.” If you could become undead from laughing, this is the movie that will do it. Except, now we know, you wouldn’t want to.