Comedy and horror, those genres that provoke the most visceral reactions in audience members, tend to be the least beloved by critics. The actor Edmund Kean is reported the have uttered the final words, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard” and yet that which makes us laugh is still sometimes viewed as a cheap trick unworthy of serious attention.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014), like the films of Mel Brooks, has little interest in anything beyond amusing its audience. Written, directed by, and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires living together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Plotwise, there isn’t a lot more to it than that but the devil is in the detail and the skilful characterisation means this is a faux documentary that genuinely deserves a place in the canon alongside This Is Spinal Tap and The Office.
In a sense, Waititi’s most recent film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is almost a reaction to his previous effort. Wilderpeople is an open, expansive work filled with glorious shots of the New Zealand landscape by day, whereas What We Do in the Shadows is a small, contained film that takes place almost exclusively at night in a cramped apartment. Both are hilarious and suggest a filmmaker with an ability to turn his hand to anything.
More than 120 hours of footage was shot, most of which was improvisation from the leads. Clement and Waititi actually wrote 150 pages of script but chose not to show it to a single person involved in the film since they wanted to keep things spontaneous and the actors on their toes. The result is a glorious comedy containing so many good jokes that the paper-thin plot is rendered irrelevant.
Waititi, modelling his performance on his own mother, and Clement, basing his on Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are terrific but so too are Conchords alumni Rhys Darby and Stu Rutherford as Stu. The latter is a part-time business analyst hired for the film under the impression that he would be working on computers. His everyman shtick works perfectly in this context, almost certainly because he’s genuinely baffled by the events occurring around him.
The snobbery concerning comedy is such that even Airplane! rarely finds a place in critics’ lists of the best films ever made but it’s about time such narrow-mindedness was challenged. Available on Netflix, this is a joy from beginning to end and, in the “dark bidding” joke, contains one of the greatest gags in cinema history.
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