Ever since Taika Waititi started directing feature films, buoyed by an Oscar nomination for his 2005 short “Two Cars, One Night,” his work has always been built around the fantasy lives his characters created for themselves, whether it was the oddball lovers who clearly don’t belong in the fast food and video game stores they work at in their local mall in “Eagle Vs. Shark” or the Michael Jackson-worshipping tot in “Boy,” the expansion of “Two Cars, One Night.” While the comedies shared a sense of the unpredictable in following the leads to wherever the fun was, they also could be described as meandering, pushing the narrative aside just as its characters hoped to do with the real world so as to not be burdened with its demands.
That’s why after years of often noting the digressions of Waititi’s work that have made his films special, it is a pleasure to say how special “What We Do in the Shadows,” his third feature and first to be co-directed with longtime collaborator Jemaine Clement, is as a whole. Unfolding in mockumentary-form, complete with a production logo for the New Zealand Documentary Board, it is Waititi’s most accomplished and hilarious film yet, due in no small part to how all the details he once had to awkwardly stuff into his low-key narratives all naturally accumulate here, a reversal on the stories he’s previously told by demystifying rather than fantasizing the lives of his characters, a coven of vampires with grappling with rather mundane existences.
While it is a problem for Waititi’s dandyish, 379-year-old Viago and Clement’s self-described “deadly but delicious” Vladislav not to be able to see themselves in the mirror, the people playing them have considerably better observational skills, mining every single bloodsucking gag imaginable without ever becoming redundant or tiresome, unless you count the exhaustion that comes with how fast and furious they come. Much like fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s “Forgotten Silver,” which flawlessly recreated the silent films of its faux subject to tell the life story of a pioneering comedian, the amount of detail that goes into “What We Do in the Shadows” is remarkable, augmenting Viago and Vladislav’s adventures with their roomie Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the “young bad boy” of the group at a mere 183 years old, with old photographs and vintage footage of the trio all accompanied by a ripping, percussion-heavy score pieced together by Plan 9, David Donaldson, Steve Roche and Janet Roddick.
Yet the film is equally impressive in its structure, with Waititi and Clement allowing just enough time for audiences to acclimate to a world where the stacks of bloody dishes in the kitchen are a chore that no one wants to do and each of vampires long for something from their considerable pasts, whether it’s a human girl Viago once missed a connection with or a beast with whom Vladislav tussled with and lost, forever altering his telepathic abilities. Eventually, all these aspects come into play once the vampires find themselves with a new houseguest named Nick (Cori Gonzalez Macuer), whose weeklong bloodlust puts him at odds with flatmates who have been doing this for centuries. He also has a human friend named Stu (Stu Rutherford), which isn’t entirely verboten in the house, as Deacon’s ex Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) is enlisted to recruit fresh meat for the gang to eat, but it does create certain complications that the film fleshes out in most amusing and inventive ways.
Waititi and Clement fashion “What We Do in the Shadows” as an ideal showcase for their deadpan sense of humor, even bringing in “Flight of the Conchords” pal Rhys Darby as an utterly ordinary supernatural rival, yet what shines through is the deep underlying humanity that underscores their work. Even amidst all the blood spilled in the vampire spoof, there’s an inherent sweetness to all the characters and a concern for one another that make every punchline even funnier if such a thing is even possible, giving a film with considerable bite that much more.