Before “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Thor Ragnarok,” there was the 2014 mockumentary horror comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” that put its co-director and star Taika Waititi on the map and lead to his coveted Marvel gig and now-minted filmmaking career. Marvel knew then what seems like old hat now: Waititi is hysterical and brilliant, and so is the work.
Co-written and directed with Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords,” “What We Do In The Shadows” featured a delightfully cheeky premise: what if a documentary crew was granted safe passage (or wearing crucifixes, at least) into the home of three vampires who have been living together as roommates for centuries? And what if, once inside that flat in Wellington, New Zealand, the documentary crew discovered that much of what comprised of their daily lives was the utterly mundane and roommate squabbles about paying rent, keeping up with chores (no bodies lying around, please) and trying to get into nightclubs to find fresh blood and new victims? The results were drop-dead hilarious. “What We Do In The Shadows” took a little bit of time to catch on, but soon became a cult comedy hit with a lot of repeat watch value.
The FX series of the same name, transport the documentary-like setting and idea to Staten Island (though there appears to be no reason why, at least from the pilot) and it’s, well, more of the same, but just as deliciously delightful, absurd and wry in is amusing observations of banal vampire co-habitation, rituals and customs.
This time, it’s four vampires who have lived together for four hundred years. There’s the aptly-named, exasperating, self-appointed leader Nandor The Relentless (Kayvan Novak), a rape and pillaging warrior from the Ottoman Empire, who is mainly clueless and typically old-fashioned; the roguish British vampire Laszlo (Matt Berry), a dandy and bi-sexual mischief-maker; the seductive Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), a sexual temptress and lover of Laszlo, though as vampires are wont to be, not exclusive. Their stories, strewn throughout the pilot episode, give comedic insight to life as an undead vampire spanning hundreds of years and all the existential woes and accrued history that comes with it.
Two new elements are incorporated into the show that weren’t in the movie, and they’re terrific. One is the idea of the “Vampire Familiar,” essentially a human slave, that serves the vampire at will in exchange for not being gutted and killed. Nandor’s Familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) is nebbish and obsequious, with a not-so-secret wish to be turned into a vampire as well, believing this may happen on the upcoming 10th anniversary of acting as Nandor’s Familiar.
Also lurking about and not really part of the coffin cabal so much is Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), an “energy vampire” not beholden to the rules of traditional bloodsuckers. A day-walker, Colin feasts on human energy, not blood, essentially boring them to death with a trivial and mind-numbingly tedious conversation that sucks them of their life force (leaving them empty of nutritional value for conventional vampires). Preying on co-workers in temp offices by day, Colin is a humorous riff on cubical culture and that annoying, chatty guy at your day job who just won’t shut up about the most boring shit on earth. Both Colin and Guillermo are side-splittingly funny, both the characters and actors and they provide a ton of laugh-out-loud giggles.
One of the more riotously funny elements of the pilot is the introduction to Guillermo’s job, which, in part, is finding and convincing virgins to come to the mansion as sustenance for Nandor and his vampire overlords. Wisely, Guillermo goes right to the source of Virgindom: huge fucking nerds. One of the places he frequents is parks where LARP’ing nerds are playing their games, that’s a buffet of dorks that have barely seen a genital other than their own.
Directed by Taika Waititi and written by Jemaine Clement, the pilot episode functions precisely as it should: setting up the characters, their conflicts, the clashes to come and the dynamics of all these disparate characters and flatmates. The idea of vampires as roommates is absurd and even though “What We Do In The Shadows” doesn’t offer that many more surprises, aside for the aforementioned new elements, it reveals the basic concept as a rich vein that could be sucked on for years.
The pilot centers on an unexpected visit from their dark lord and leader, Baron Afanas, (Doug Jones), who travels to Staten Island to see how they are faring in their mission hundreds of years ago: total and complete domination of the New World. Of course, these inept, bumbling Nosferatus haven’t gotten very far at all, but the arrival of Afanas—a horrific, emaciated ghoul of a Vampire that looks like something out of a Guillermo del Toro film or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stokers Dracula”—sparks them into action somewhat. SXSW only showed an extended pilot, but the vérité-camera-crew-following-vampires shtick doesn’t look like it’s going to grow pale or old any time this century. [B+]
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