Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement
Written by: Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Ben Fransham, Jackie Van Beek & Cori Gonzalez-Macuer
Since premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, I had been hearing a lot of hype for the found-footage horror-comedy WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. The movie is funny, I will give it that. There are quite a bit of clever spins on vampire lore. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole film came off like one big extended episode of something along the lines of BIG BROTHER with blood-sucking vampires. There’s definitely entertainment to be found in that, but also some flaws. The biggest of these being that this format doesn’t fully lend itself to a feature-length movie in spite of starting off strong and ending somewhat strong. This is definitely a good time, but far from great.
In 2013, a documentary crew was granted access to a secret society. They wore crosses for their protection and filmed everything they saw. This is their footage and it’s a pretty enjoyable take on well-known vampire folklore. Viago (an undead dandy), Vladislav (a perverted former torturer), Deacon (the wannabe bad boy), and Petyr (a Nosferatu-like monster) are four bloodsuckers living together in New Zealand. They have the typical roommate arguments and a unique lifestyle, but their familiar routine is shaken up when a victim unexpectedly becomes one of them. His name is Nick and though being freshly turned, he changes things up in the household dynamics….but his arrival might also spell doom for the four vamps!
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is funny. It’s downright hilarious at points. The beginning kicks off brilliantly with jokes being fired at a rapid mile-a-minute pace. Clever spins are put onto various aspects of vampire folklore (everything from being invited into places to shape-shifting to the selection of victims). One running joke about the messy process of feeding on humans made laugh hard the first time, but had me cracking up to the point of almost being in tears when it reappeared. There are definitely moments of comic genius in SHADOWS and I was convinced from the opening third I would love this film. However, the fact of the matter is that this feels like a TV show pilot for a vampire reality series. This approach has pros and cons. By the time the first act ends, the film’s momentum is quickly running out of steam.
Since it feels very much like a TV pilot, SHADOWS suffers from an unfocused narrative. This could have made perfect fodder for one hour episode or a short film. Instead, this 86-minute movie drags in places. This is especially obvious in the middle section. I found the first third to be hysterical. I chuckled once or twice in the middle and laughed a bit more at the finale. This was clearly not a film with a huge budget behind it, but the production values are actually fairly impressive in places. While a couple of digital details feel cheap, some of the special effects look surprisingly solid. The practical effects (over-the-top gushing fountains of blood in places) are good, but this isn’t a film based on spectacle. Instead, the main focus is the interaction between these five socially inept vampires and the actors excel in the roles.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS feels very much like a pilot for a New Zealand horror comedy show. This might not be the case, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this did eventually evolve into a TV series. There are clear budget constraints in areas (cheesy digital effects) and a plodding middle section (that drags out a one-note joke). There are definitely highlights (mainly in the first third) and hilarious running gags as well. I was entertained while watching this film and there were plenty of moments where I laughed. SHADOWS may not be perfect, but it is funny and also likely to gain a cult following. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS comes recommended for those who want a simple comedy. Nothing more, nothing less.