What We Do in the Shadows opens in limited release this February. For those interested in a nationwide expansion, consider contributing to Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's humorous Kickstarter fund.
As New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie’s Flight of the Conchords produced one of HBO’s better comedies. Yet despite a string of profitable tours and solid record sales, the band only produced two seasons of their hit show before calling it quits. In the six years since the show’s end, it’s been Clement who has been the most busy and least discerning, taking acting roles in films like Gentleman Broncos and Dinner for Schmucks. He’s the best thing in mediocre-at-best films. Meanwhile, McKenzie’s more selective approach, along with maintaining his parody roots, yielded him an Academy Award for Best Songwriting for 2011’s The Muppet Movie. Still, despite a solid performance in Jerusha Hess’ Austenland, he’s largely relinquished on-screen celebrity. To say that the two have failed to live up to their potential would be an understatement.
What We Do in the Shadows is Jemaine Clement’s first directorial credit. He shares it with Taika Waititi, who directed Clement in 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark along with a handful of Flight of the Conchords episodes. Both directors pull double-duty by filling in supporting roles in this vampire mockumentary, where a documentary crew records the humorous exchanges of cohabiting vampires in New Zealand. There’s enough humor to keep the thin material afloat, which is essentially a series of vignettes that captures the bickering of century-old vampires coming to terms with their vampire-dom. Neither Clement or Waititi exercise much directorial authority to the effort though, lazily utilizing genre staples like a shaky camera for effect. And Clement isn’t offered much material either, with his vampire-character Vladislav typically regurgitating the same orgy-minded joke. Waititi as Viago, a neurotic and self-deprecating vampire, is a more memorable presence, if only for a solitary joke involving a print-out photo of his ex-girlfriend and a coffin.
The picture is a sequence-to-sequence success or failure. There’s not much to be found in the film, mainly due to its structural faults. It’s simply a hodge-podge that never really makes a whole lot of sense as a film; this is the sort of thing where each of its vignettes could’ve been expanded as a television episode. Instead, narratives are condensed into five ten-minute frames and streamlined. So, in a way, What We Do in the Shadows feels like an 80-minute synopsis of a season of television. And in a film that features Clement and familiar Conchord staple Rhys Darby (offering the film’s best line: “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”), the television comparison only feels reinforced. When Clement and Darby interact, a deluge of memories pour in on the two working on Flight of the Conchords, with one wondering if Bret McKenzie could save the two from such mediocrity.