Year Of The Vampire: What We Do In The Shadows Is A Sneakily Sad Satire About What Makes Life Worth Living

(Welcome to Year of the Vampire, a series examining the greatest, strangest, and sometimes overlooked vampire movies of all time in honor of "Nosferatu," which turns 100 this year.)

It almost goes without saying that the distinguishing appeal of vampire movies comes from how malleable the gothic-tinged stories can be, running the gamut from unabashed love stories to outright horror. And yet, any genre that has survived and thrived for an entire century is bound to receive the parody treatment at some point or another. While 2014's "What We Do in the Shadows" was hardly the first attempt to peel back the layers of vampire mythology and shine a light (but not sunlight!) on the inherent silliness of the concept, it just might be one of the most effective — and one of the most unexpectedly moving.

Into this cornucopia of sheer storytelling potential stepped the slightly off-kilter sensibilities of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the New Zealand-based filmmaking duo responsible for this veritable orgy of excess. At once broadly universal and intensely idiosyncratic, this strange alchemy perhaps best explains its low-key brilliance. On the surface, the horror/comedy takes pains to chart the singular experience of, as one vampire states early on, "those of us who like to flat together in really small countries like New Zealand." At the core of its beating heart, however, the silly romp through the undead underbelly of Wellington is more interested in performing an autopsy on the beloved genre and diagnosing exactly why it still holds so much power years later.

"What We Do in the Shadows" is a parody and a satire that borders on farce. But underneath such slapstick joys, it's also a deeply melancholic ode to finding acceptance among those who help make life worth living in the first place.

What it brought to the genre

Before the opening credits arrive, "What We Do in the Shadows" lays out exactly why it'll be such a pleasure to hang out with four bumbling vampires and the unfortunate individuals who cross paths with them. Featuring a bare minimum of plot, the film is loosely concerned with the impending approach of the "Unholy Masquerade" as a documentary team — all wearing protective crucifixes — follows our lovable bunch of fang-toothed eternals. The premise gives us an excuse to follow the insufferable "dandy" Viago (Waititi), imperious and hedonistic Vladislav (Clement), difficult Deacon (Jonny Brugh), and terrifyingly ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham) on a typical day in their lives, waking up at 6 p.m. and holding emergency meetings to address roommate responsibilities.

As far as tone-setters go, taking 10 minutes to build to Deacon finally pulling his weight and begrudgingly washing five years' worth of blood-caked dirty dishes is an honest example of the stakes involved.

Leaning on its mockumentary trappings, the film lovingly lampoons vampire tropes — an aversion to silver, the difficulties of getting dressed without seeing a reflection, the inability to watch daytime TV ("Well, I guess I could"), a centuries-old rivalry with werewolves, the struggle to articulate the appeal of virgin blood, to name a few — while it celebrates them. Only those who unabashedly love these kinds of stories could cut it down to size with this much surgical precision.

At first glance, "What We Do in the Shadows" almost seems to wallow in the same self-appointed "bad boy" image Deacon cultivates for himself, boasting a rebellious and anarchic approach to the genre that only makes it seem all the more ridiculous. Perhaps it's more reminiscent of Viago: foolish, distracted, maybe even somewhat naïve ... but with hidden layers of sincerity and earnestness.

Silliness tinged with sadness

Don't get me wrong; "What We Do in the Shadows" remains a laugh-a-minute riot as the gang all but revels in delivering some of the crudest, off-color, and just plain dumb gags you'll ever see. Think of Vladislav turning into a horrid little cat with the hilariously unaltered face of Jemaine Clement, or the pedophile-killing vampire twins taking full advantage of their youthful appearances, or the "Werewolves, not swear wolves" running gag. Hell, how many blockbusters since 2014 have been trying (and failing) to chase the brilliantly simple concept of adding a Stu (Stu Rutherford) to the group?

But where this movie truly shines is in how so much of this off-the-wall humor also reveals the abject loneliness inherent in their existence. Intended victim-turned-vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) spends most of the film just trying to fit in with his new friend group, even "coming out" to Stu as a vampire in one endearingly sweet moment. Deacon's "familiar," Jackie (Jackie van Beek), quietly endures all sorts of humiliations in the hopes of transcending her meager life as a human. And most of all, there's the amusingly tragic backstory of Viago. The circumstances of having lost the love of his life, Katherine, are as silly as it gets (his bumbling servant put the wrong postage on his coffin and delayed his arrival to the country by 18 months, during which she found someone else), but the pain of wishing for her happiness at the expense of his own comes across as all too real.

Eternally chasing connection

Indeed, it's Deacon who makes the most potent observation during one unexpectedly moving scene late in the film. With Stu feared dead at the hands of the werewolves, Deacon attempts to set their many differences aside and comfort Nick with some hard truths. Maybe eternal life isn't so great, he soberly remarks, if it means watching those you love die such undignified deaths.

Everyone in "What We Do in the Shadows" is eternally chasing connection, whether it's Stu (he got better!) bridging the gap between werewolf and vampire or Viago turning Katherine so they can be reunited forever. Perhaps he sums it up best in his own plain way, fittingly enough: "They say that vampire hearts are cold and dead. Definitely dead. But I don't know. I think I still feel things inside it."