There are two kinds of horror comedies: the scary kind and the silly kind. The scary kind—from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) to An American Werewolf in London (1981) to Drag Me to Hell (2009)—keep the laughs and the chills strictly segregated, building tension and then releasing it in a laugh (and, sometimes, cutting short that laugh with an even bigger scare). The silly kind—from Young Frankenstein (1974) to Shaun of the Dead (2004)—erase the line between the two, turning the monster into an object of burlesque. This latter strategy is a tricky business that goes wrong more often than right, as you may know if you’ve ever seen Love at First Bite (1979) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) or Dark Shadows (2012). Once you’ve mixed the red and green paints together, you’d better get just the right shade of brown or you’re going to wind up with something that looks like shit.
When silly horror comedies do work, there’s usually some other color blended in as well. Young Frankenstein never gets old for me because screenwriters Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, working in the depths of the Watergate era, imbued the movie with such sweet nostalgia for the monster movies of their childhood. Shaun of the Dead (which, incidentally, has a pretty good scare quotient despite its more ludicrous aspects) amps up the social satire of the George A. Romero movies, its zombie apocalypse set in a North London so gray and tedious that half the population seem like zombies already. Add to this list What We Do in the Shadows, a riotously funny vampire comedy from New Zealanders Jemaine Clement (HBO’s Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (writer-director of Boy and Eagle vs Shark) that opens Friday at Music Box. I’m so sick of vampires I’d have pounded a stake into my own heart not to have to watch this, but it turns out to be a pitch-perfect spoof of MTV’s The Real World and a sly satire on millennial slackerdom.
Ominous titles announce at the outset that the film documents a secret society in New Zealand in the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, an occult gathering. The “secret society” turns out to be four vampires sharing a flat in the college town of Wellington (where Clement and Waititi went to school together). The genial Viago (Waititi), a 17th-century dandy, affects the frilly shirts and jewelry of the Hammer horror movies; Vladislav (Clement), a 12th-century hypnotist and impaler, favors the swarthy pop-star look of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Petyr (Ben Fransham), apparently even older, is a mirror image of the rodentlike bloodsucker in Nosferatu; and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the baby at 183, is the “bad boy” of the group, Viago explains in his ongoing narration to the camera. Viago is the good boy, calling the others together for a flat meeting to point out that Deacon hasn’t done the dishes in five years (a quick insert shows a kitchen sink and counter stacked to the ceiling with bloody dishware). Deacon, in his own defense, asks why the housekeeping matters when the only people they bring home are those they’re going to kill.
Clement and Waititi have got the reality-show format just right: the direct-address interviews, the confessional voice-overs, the zoom-in reaction shots. They’ve also nailed the reflexive self-absorption of reality-show casts; showing the documentary makers around his old dungeon, Vladislav confesses, “I tended to torture when I was in a bad place.” Viago is a vain fashion plate, though as he notes, dressing well is difficult when you can’t see your own reflection in a mirror. Deacon is a shameless hedonist; asked what he did the night before, he replies, “I transformed into a dog and had sex.” Petyr doesn’t speak, but he’s a party animal in his own right; when Viago rouses him from his basement tomb, the cement floor is all blood and bones. “It’s a spinal column, yuck!” exclaims Viago. The Real World vibe persists as the four pals get dressed in their finest threads and head into the streets in search of victims (though the first people they encounter assume them to be male hookers).
Incongruity is funny—that’s why improv artists pair up random words from the audience—and the filmmakers get a surprising amount of mileage from combining vampires with The Real World. The show’s psychological hook has always been the chance to watch divisions fester among people trapped in a single house, and Clement and Waititi score plenty of laughs filtering this through the familiar vampire lore. Petyr has bitten a young loser named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and added him to the household, which causes friction with the others. “I don’t think Nick should have been turned into a vampire,” Deacon confides to the camera. “He’s such a dick.” Nick further complicates the situation by bringing his human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), whom the others agree not to eat only because he’s an IT guy who solves their computer problems. Less fortunate is Deacon’s human slave, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who’s spent years waiting on him hand and foot in hope of achieving eternal life. “They don’t even wear shirts, they wear blouses,” she complains over an ironing board. “It’s this big homoerotic dick-biting club, and I’m stuck here ironing their fucking frills!”
Silly horror comedies, if they’re done right, can transcend their silliness by reconnecting with the fantastic elements that have drawn people to the horror genre since the silent era; Mel Brooks understood this when he rounded up some of the old whiz-bang laboratory gadgets used in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for his own Young Frankenstein. The same goes for What We Do in the Shadows, which revels in its modest special effects; when Viago and Deacon clash over some household matter, they fly up in the air on invisible wires. And there’s always the gore. In one of the funniest sequences Viago hosts a young woman at their flat; he likes to show his victims a good time before they die, and he gives her flowers and treats her sweetly before sinking his teeth into her neck. Unfortunately he makes a mess of things, blood spraying out of her carotid artery; the botched killing leaves both him and the woman’s corpse covered in blood. Trying to recover from the embarrassing incident, Viago observes, “On the upside, I think she had a really good time.” So did I.