Biting Comedy Enlivens What We Do in the Shadows

Cult film hit becomes an FX series.


'What We Do in the Shadows'
'What We Do in the Shadows,' FX

There is a long and generally dishonorable history of films lampooning vampires, going back to 1952's Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. I've missed most of them, though I did catch Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which Count Dracula makes a tragically underbilled appearance.

So there's no surprise that I've never seen the 2014 New Zealand cult film What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire mockumentary. But it's much beloved among genre fangbangers, so much so that they downloaded more than a quarter of a million pirated copies, one for every five New Zealanders, or Zealandistas, or whatever they're called. (My sole knowledge of them is that if you ever write a harsh review of Flight of the Conchords, be prepared to get death threats for years, although "The next time you come to Auckland I'm going to cut your balls off!" has a certain lack of immediacy.)

This is a roundabout—very roundabout—way of saying I cannot answer the obvious questions about FX's new sitcom version of What We Do in the Shadows. I do not know if it's as good as the movie, or if the special effects are better, or if the characters and plotting are similar. (I also don't know if vampires have legal rights under natural law, but perhaps that's a discussion for another time.)

What I do know is that Shadows, the series, is funny—often deadpan, sometimes quietly droll, sometimes howl-at-the-moon hilarious.

It's a mockumentary about three vampires sent from Europe in the 19th century to conquer and subjugate the New World 160 years ago. Lazy and clueless, they've barely moved from the spot on Staten Island where a ship dumped their coffins 160 years ago.

Kayvan Novak (like much of the cast, a European actor largely unfamiliar to American audiences) plays Nandor the Relentless, a former soldier of the Ottoman Empire ("which meant a lot of killing and a lot of pillaging," he confides), who when he's not sprinkling glitter on his face in an attempt to look like the vampires in Twilight, spends most of his time fruitlessly trying to order around his compatriots, the foppish Laszlo (Matt Berry) and the vampish in every sense of the word Nadja (Natasia Demetriou).

Laszlo and Nadja get into many sexual peccadillos and reminisce about vampirism's Golden Era to vanquishing and enslaving their neighbors, though they do concede that the good old days were not without flaws.

"There was a lot of prejudice against vampires at that time," broods Nadja.

"They didn't like the color of our skin," agrees Laszlo.

"Or the fact that we killed and ate people," adds Nadja.

They've been joined in the group home by the American psychic vampire Colin (Mark Proksch, The Office), who sucks not blood but energy from his victims by boring them to death. One of the most riotously funny scenes in Shadows occurs when Colin takes his mates to his favorite hunting ground, a meeting of the local zoning commission: "It's a smorgasbord of banality and despair."

They're not all as gut-busting as that, but there are plenty of laughs in Shadows: the vampires' 17th-century Eurotrash attire; their hunt for tasty virgins, most often found among the membership of a local live-action role playing group, though Nadja finds them gustatorily inadequate: "They are going to taste too sad"; and their debates about whether to turn into bats and fly, or just take the bus.

Jemaine Clement, the film's creator and writer, and Taika Waititi, its director, assumed the same roles in the series, and they bring a varied palette of humor to the job, ranging from broad Munsters-style wisecracks to Dada-esque bits in which in which nobody notices that they're having an encounter with fanged bloodsuckers. It's almost enough to make me forgive Clement for creating and starring in Flight of the Conchords. Oops. There goes lunch in Auckland anytime this century.