DIRECTOR Melanie Light WRITER Ed Pope STARS Pollyanna McIntosh; Victoria Broom; Jon Campling SCREENING 24 April at LIFF
REVIEW James Gracey
This powerful vegan-minded short serves as a chilling metaphor for the inhumanity of the dairy industry and the horrendous treatment of cattle in order to procure their milk. The Herd unflinchingly depicts women subjected to the same processes as the average dairy cow as it delves into the everyday horrors that go unnoticed, or deliberately ignored, by the vast majority of society. Ed Pope’s screenplay renders, in a manner which is deeply shocking, the female reproductive system as basic commodity. Gone is the miracle of birth and in its place is a nightmare of cruelty, suffering, hopelessness and, ultimately, death. It’s a visceral, nauseating experience that gets you in the pit of your stomach, and not just because it’s such a harrowing affair, but because of the message behind it.
When viewed through the unshirking lens of horror, with its ability to shock and provoke, humanity’s inhumanity is all the more devastating. Hundreds of millions of cows suffer and die every year as they’re churned up and spat out by the dairy industry. The bodies of these sentient creatures are treated like machines, as they’re forcefully impregnated so they produce milk. Male calves are destroyed and female calves suffer the same fate as their mothers, as they are pumped full of growth hormones, to produce unnaturally large quantities of milk, and antibiotics, to combat constant mastitis infections. When they are no longer able to lactate, they are destroyed. These facts are shocking enough on their own, but when they’re filtered through a horror narrative and humans become the recipients of such barbaric treatment, the effect is imminently upsetting and thought-provoking. The screenplay also exhibits strong feminist leanings as it bluntly addresses the objectification of women, a recurring element of horror cinema, and takes it to a coldly logical conclusion.
In its short running time, just over 20 minutes, The Herd proves to be a deeply gruelling viewing experience. Director Melanie Light pulls no punches, deftly avoiding falling into the realms of torture-porn and misogyny due to her matter-of-fact approach and distinct lack of sensationalism. The grimy aesthetic and bleak production design lean towards realism. The systematic cruelty is visceral, but its treatment is clinical, mundane even, which makes it all the more startling and effective. One of the most chilling aspects is the indifferent attitude of the brutish guards and the coldly detached behaviour of the nurse (Pollyanna McIntosh) involved in the procurement of the women’s milk. Its brevity makes it feel like part of a bigger story, but to stretch it out to feature length may have done a disservice to the impact of the message. While a lack of characterisation could be the downfall of other titles, in The Herd it highlights how the individuality, dignity and very humanity of these women has been stripped away. They are merely part of a herd, not seen as individuals. Tension comes from their hopelessness and desperation, the unspeakable things done to them, and the nonchalant manner in which it is carried out. Tension is further ratcheted when several of them make a bid for escape.
Tobe Hooper touched upon the notion of people as cattle in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but Pope and Light delve much deeper. The Herd is full-on, in your face ethical horror — but you could argue that in trying to convey the message behind this film, there is no room for subtlety. The violence depicted isn’t just for the sake of violence. It is shocking, yes, but necessary due to the pointed and meaningful message behind it. That the abhorrent brutality is carried out in the vapid name of health and beauty makes it all the more grim. The end credits bring no relief, as they are intercut with a harrowing montage of clips depicting the real-life, everyday cruelty subjected upon dairy cattle. And after that remains the impact of the film itself as we’re forced to think about where our daily glass of milk comes from and the unnecessary and demeaning mistreatment of living creatures that aids its procurement.
Propaganda? Arguably. Thought-provoking, uncomfortably truthful and unsettling? Undeniably.