The Herd

DIRECTOR Melanie Light WRITER Ed Pope STARS Pollyanna McIntosh; Victoria Broom; Jon Campling SCREENING 24 April at LIFF

REVIEW James Gracey

The HerdThis 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.

Win: What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the ShadowsWhat happens when four ancient vampires become housemates in contemporary New Zealand? This hilarious mock-documentary, featuring Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement, details all the comic complexity that arises from such difficult living (or not living) conditions. A young new initiate who won’t stop telling people how cool it is to be a vampire adds to the supernatural chaos.

What We Do in the Shadows is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. To win a copy on DVD, enter details below.

What We Do in the Shadows

DIRECTOR Jemaine Clement; Taika Waititi WRITER Jemaine Clement; Taika Waititi STARS Jemaine Clement; Taika Waititi; Jonathan Brugh DVD & BLU-RAY 13 April

REVIEW James Gracey

What We Do in the Shadows

A documentary crew follows the bemusing exploits of a group of house-sharing vampires in this charming, oddly heart-warming comedy-horror from New Zealanders Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. Cut together from 125 hours of improvised footage, it’s testament to all involved that What We Do in the Shadows feels so fresh, energetic and cuspid-sharp. The plot, free and loose as it is, is driven by the eccentric characters and the various tensions that arise from their sharing a house together, while each carefully fleshed out character lovingly riffs on various pre-established vampire archetypes. There’s Viago, a 379-year-old lovelorn dandy (a neat reversal of the typically ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byronesque vampire); Deacon, a 183-year-old former Nazi vampire (a seemingly Anne Rice inspired faded/jaded rock star type); Vlad the Impaler styled Vladislav ‘the Poker’, an 862-year-old Romanian prince who’s ‘a bit of a pervert’; and Petyr, an 8,000-year-old feral Nosferatu-alike who keeps himself to himself in the basement. 

The attempts of this group of supernatural misfits trying and failing to fit in with society echo the likes of Being Human, and the absurdity is wonderfully accentuated by the sheer mundanity of the situations they find themselves in: from arguing over the cleaning rota and attempting to gain entry to Wellington’s most hip and happening nightspots, to deciding how to best remove blood stains from antique furniture, the banality renders their outlandish personalities and attempts to integrate infectiously humorous. The shadow of Withnail and I also stretches throughout, from the grotty shared residence, antiquated decadence and outbursts of comical debauchery, to the central idea of a group of individuals too bored, stubborn and ultimately incapable of functioning in the 21st century. Stuck in arrested development, their behaviour and attitudes resemble those of overgrown children, and despite their blood-fuelled bravado, there’s an endearing naivety to each of them. Indeed, even the peripheral characters, such as the werewolves (not swearwolves!) and the witches, warlocks and zombies at the Unholy Masquerade are all depicted as charmingly inept, just trying to get by and get on with life.

With the plot structured around various vignettes, the ‘documentary’ format works well and allows the witty, observational humour room to breathe. Intentionally intrusive, it incorporates to-camera pieces, candid introspection and myriad awkward glances during botched attempts to dine on virgins — and it really doesn’t skimp on the red stuff when it’s called for. Pacing is brisk and the onscreen chemistry positively crackles. The filmmakers know their subject well and treat it with respect, as well as gently poking fun at its more absurd aspects. References to vampire cinema and literature abound; from Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to The Lost Boys, Anne Rice and Twilight, ardent vampire admirers will find much to salivate over.