The two cinematic genres that have most worn out their welcome in recent years are vampire tales and mockumentary comedies, so it’s a testament to “What We Do in the Shadows” — a mockumentary comedy about vampires — that the film is so cleverly funny and unexpectedly humane that it elevates these potentially deadly tropes.
This success feels all the more surprising coming from co-director Taika Waititi, the New Zealand filmmaker whose previous comedy “Eagle vs. Shark” felt like a waste of the oddball charms of Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”).
Clement and Waititi co-direct this time, and both feature in the film’s ensemble of bloodsuckers living in modern-day Wellington. Genteel Euro-fop Viago (Waititi) does most of the talking to the cameras — we’re told the crew was given protection by the subjects — and guides us through this underground. If Jim Jarmusch’s modern-day vampires reek of cool reserve in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” this cabal of the undead tends more toward the petulant and neurotic.
In addition to Viago, there’s Vladislav (Clement), a warrior of the Vlad the Impaler school; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), whose fashion sense leans more toward New Romantic; and, in the cellar, Petyr (Ben Fransham, “30 Days of Night”), an old-school Nosferatu. These are not your grandfather’s glamorous, castle-dwelling vampyrs — they hang out in mid-level nightclubs, hypnotize oblivious cops (who walk through a murder scene and notice only the lack of smoke detectors) and squabble about whose century it is to do the dishes.
Deacon has a familiar, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek, “Eagle vs. Shark”) — and it turns out that being enslaved by a vampire doesn’t mean you can’t grumble about your boss behind his back — and one of the victims she brings over is Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who winds up being converted, only to discover a steep learning curve about his new status. (His early mistakes include thinking he can still eat French fries and going around telling strangers, “I’m a vampire!”)
“What We Do in the Shadows” is so smart and perceptive about the quotidian ups and downs of its protagonists’ lives that it’s almost a jolt when, say, they start levitating off the ground or get into a passive-aggressive argument with a pack of werewolves. (The latter, led by Rhys Darby of “Conchords,” hilariously interact like a 12-step group resigned to their affliction while constantly combating it.)
The film operates very much in the post–Christopher Guest school of mock-doc filmmaking; fans of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” will recognize those awkward pauses when the camera keeps rolling after someone has said something stupid or embarrassing, but that doesn’t make those pauses any less funny. Clement and Waititi apparently realize how easy it could be to overplay their hand with the grotesque absurdity of the situation, but they wisely err on the side of caution, finding the humor in the humanity and not the monstrosity.
At a brisk 86 minutes, “What We Do in the Shadows” never sags or drags, delivering its comic punches with surgical precision and then getting off the stage. Being immortal doesn’t mean you have to lose your sense of timing.