What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) opens with a close-up of an alarm clock going off, followed by a hand reaching out of a coffin to turn it off. The film’s comedy of contrast – which we follow in various permutations for the next 90 minutes – is illustrated right away: vampire lifestyle mixed with the daily grind. While I admit that writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi find various angles into their premise, the movie gets a little long in the tooth, and I suspect it plays better as a sitcom (Season 1 recently wrapped on FX), which benefits from shorter bursts of story.
Clement and Waititi (who gained wider fame in 2017 when he brought winking humor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Thor: Ragnarok”) draw heavily from “The Office” and other British comedies, although “Shadows” is set in New Zealand. Most obviously, a camera crew follows four vampire housemates through their normal activities. Inspired by the camera and his inflated ego, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) explains to the documentarians that he’s both the bait and the trap: His sex appeal draws victims in. We can see that’s not really the case, even as (or especially as) he vogues for the camera. Deacon is the closest to if Ricky Gervais’ David Brent was a vampire.
The main narrator among this flat of vampires, though, is Waititi’s Viago, a sweetheart as far as creatures of the night go, as he is nursing a decades-old one-that-got-away. Clement’s Vladislav also comes across as a decent guy, as we can tell his interest in torturing people with sharp implements comes from growing up in a different era. In a fun montage showing the clash of cultures, Viago is enthusiastic when he learns he can “poke” people on social media. Rounding out the household is the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham), who doesn’t talk much.
The humor effortlessly flows from the fact that vampire lifestyles are problematic when placed against the minutiae of life, such as household chores. Most films in this subgenre aren’t interested in the logistics of housekeeping in vampires’ castles, but “Shadows” is. Thus, we find Viago laying down newspapers and towels even as he chats up his (fortunately dimwitted) date, in preparation for draining her.
“Shadows” moves forward via a few loose through-lines, the wildest of which is the newly turned Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) bragging to everyone about how he’s a vampire. He hasn’t yet learned this is a no-no, and it causes problems. On the other hand, he continues his friendship with a human, Stu (Stu Rutherford), which is kind of sweet. And in a rare case of the humor going beyond the skewering of vampire clichés, Stu has to continually struggle for words to explain what he does at his IT job.
The gang’s rivalry with the local werewolves – full of posturing that makes “West Side Story” seem like a hardcore gangland documentary by comparison – is also good for a smile, as is Jackie’s (Jackie Van Beek) unfortunate position as Deacon’s in-thrall familiar.
I must admit, though, that I found “Shadows” follows a downward arc in laughs from start to finish. Its premise is smart, and it touches all the bases of how “creature of the night” culture can be hilariously mundane when closely examined. But the film is missing those moments when it ratchets things up to additional levels of absurdist humor.
What’s nice about the TV series, which was likewise created by Clement but is set in New York, is it has a new premise for each half-hour installment. The film version stakes its claim to one broad joke and drives it home, but its shortage of surprises as it goes along keeps it from next-level greatness.