A review requested by Anna D, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Even without the benefit of years' worth of hindsight, I think it's fair to assume that history will judge What We Do in the Shadows to be a quintessential, time-stamped example of moviemaking in the mid-2010s. It's a heavily improvised comedy in the form of a vampire mockumentary; a perfect slurry of faddish trends that could only possibly have been made sometime in the last five years. I will leave it to my presumed future historians to decide whether this means that What We Do in the Shadows suffers for this: meanwhile, stuck in the cultural moment that produced the film, I should argue with all my might that it's one of the most creatively absurd and generally hilarious comedies of the year, whether we call that year 2014 (the year of its Sundance premiere and native New Zealand release) or 2015 (the year of its unfairly tenuous U.S. release).

It's so high concept as to be almost repulsive: four vampires are living together in a flat in the Wellington suburbs, and they've invited a documentary crew to film their daily life. The quartet maps vaguely onto the different ways that vampires have been conceived across folklore and literature: 862-year-old Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is a brutal medieval tyrant and torturer, 379-year-old Viago (Taika Waititi) is an 18th Century dandy, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is harmless crush-object for his human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek), and millennia-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) is a rotted, corpse-like Schreckian demon. Later on, the crew accidentally turns hoped-for dinner Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a fifth vampire, and he fills the role of confused soul trapped between his human and monstrous aspects, trying to retain his friendship with the incredibly game and forgiving Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

There's a healthy amount of plot arc attached to all of this, more than I was honestly expecting, but it would be spoiling things to go into all of that, and mostly unnecessary. The main draw of What We Do in the Shadows is still hanging out with the characters, even more explicitly than is typically implied by the term "hang-out movie". The main thrust of the film, in its story and its themes, is the vampires' keen awareness of being stuck with nowhere to go and very little to do; immortal and thus unaware of the passage of time, unable to travel by day and thus stalled out in a little New Zealand town where very little happens of any interest. The tensions that power the film are those that come from having roommates that one gets to know too well and ends up finding both comfortingly familiar and irritatingly omnipresent as a result. It's because of this as much as anything that the film's almost entirely improvised nature works out so well: the focus thus falls on how the characters play off of each other, as the actors throw out riffs to bat around between them (writer-directors Clement and Waititi, adapting their 2005 short of the same title, had a list of the scenes they wanted to occur, but allowed themselves and their co-stars to figure out the micro-level content of those scenes in real time).

The film that results from this is thoroughly wonderful in its self-amused weirdness. The shaggy aimlessness inherent to improvised buddy comedy is jarringly stitched to the gloomy Gothic weight of the cinematography and production design, to excellent effect; with only 86 minutes to fill and a whole bunch of ideas for how to pit the characters against the mundane modern world, the film never lets it incongruities start to settle into something familiar, and whenever it risks doing so, some major wrinkle is silently introduced: Nick becoming vampirised; the revelation that the town is also home to a population of very prim and proper werewolves led by the micro-managing Anton (Clement's Flight of the Conchords co-star Rhys Darby, stealing the movie every time he shows up); the impending undead masquerade where Vladislav's immortal enemy the Beast is rumored to show up. It's immaculately paced and structured so that the momentum is always a little bit in flux, and even when it's at its most relaxed and observational, there's still an edge to it, a live electrical component that keeps it a little nervy. Nobody in their right mind could say that this film comes anywhere close to balancing the horror and comedy halves of the horror-comedy hybrid - it's, like, 90% comedy - but there's just enough horror inside of it to make the whole thing feel coiled up with tension and energy no matter how lackadaisical the beats of any given scene.

Let's not go too far in this line of thinking. The fact remains, What We Do in the Shadows is still pretty damn lackadaisical, and primarily interested in spewing out warped one-liners, while quietly emphasising the awfulness, or at least uselessness, of its characters (or, in showcasing Deacon's totally indifferent treatment to the weary, middle-aged Jackie, emphasising their awfulness right up front). It's every bit a feature film Γ  la mode of Flight of the Conchords in those respects, as well as its pointedly out-of-date pop cultural lexicon. And it also bears a familial resemblance to the "bent line deliveries turn the comedy on its head" manner of Eagle vs. Shark from 2007, the last Waititi/Clement feature collaboration; thankfully, the new film is infinitely less mean-spirited than the film, even as it still has plenty of space for warped cruelty.

Were I looking to scale back on my enthusiasm for the film - which is extremely high, but a lot of that has to do with the vagaries of personal taste and falling right into the sweet spot of "knows and enjoys corny horror tropes" and "prefers deadpan humor" - it would be by noting that the ending starts to run out of a clear direction. Hanging out with strange, slightly off-putting characters is great and all; expanding the bumbling sensibility that works so well in a confined space to a whole world of vampires and other undead creatures gives the film some trouble. And it never can quite decide how much it wants to do with Nick after turning into a vampire. Regardless, a funny enough comedy can get away with narrative and cinematic shortcomings that would strangle any other movie, and What We Do in the Shadows is extraordinarily funny. The funniest vampire movie ever made, even, though with competition like The Fearless Vampire Killers and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, that's a backhanded compliment at best, a subtle insult at worst. So let's just run with "I laughed more at this than anything else in 2015", and content ourselves with that.