Some films defy categorisation, and refuse to sit snuggly in their box. Sometimes the combination of too many flavours spoils the meal, and you end up with an unconvincing, inedible gloop. But in the right hands, the result can be something gloriously original and right: a Sweetie, a Little Miss Sunshine, a Braindead ... or a Scarfies.
Scarfies is a great many things — sometimes funny, sometimes joyful and nostalgic, more often dark and unpredictable. Ultimately, despite the crowd-pleasing sitcom surfaces, what you have here is a psychological drama, lightened with some comedy and romance. It's a film whose dramatic centre is one house, in the centre of which a man is tied to a chair. The man is clearly dodgy. But does that justify having his lips glued together?
Five students take a room in a Dunedin flat. Dank, grotty, and completely gratis, it seems to good to be true. And it is. There is a secret in the basement, a stash of marijuana that seems to lack an owner. When that owner makes an unexpected reappearance, the students end up holding him captive in the basement.
Kevin (Jon Brazier) is angry and occasionally terrifying (in fact his character's threatening behaviour sometimes feels unbelievable, considering he's the one trapped in a chair). Grappling with how to handle a prisoner who has the potential to both attack them and reveal them to the police, the students find loyalties shifting, and norms of good behaviour drifting away. The pressure rises; Kevin seems to be playing with their minds.
Scarfies began from a desire by Dunedin-raised Rob Sarkies to make a film that captured the essence of being a student in Dunedin — including the city's music and love of rugby— and combine it with a comic thriller. It was also a chance for a team of enthusiastic Dunedin filmmakers to prove that they could pull off their first feature. That the first movie shot entirely in the city so energetically manages to tick all these boxes, without collapsing under the strain, is a miracle in itself.
Scarfies evokes Kiwi student days, aided by pitch-perfect use of a classic soundtrack from record label Flying Nun (including The Clean — who make a brief live appearance - The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, and Headless Chickens). At the same time the realism of the details — the cold, grotty flat, the documentary-like shots of orientation shenanigans, a cast dressed in handknitted jumpers instead of designer labels — all help ground us in the story, as things begin to spin out of control. The small tally of Kiwi films that have been aimed at young people includes a number that were weakened by uneven acting; but the largely youthful cast of Scarfies do fine work.
Thanks partly to a clever marketing campaign making effective use of an old Holden, and the Otago rugby team's blue and gold colours, Scarfies ran for six months in local cinemas, becoming a big hit on its home turf. Scarfies ranks behind the twin behemoths of Once Were Warriors and its sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, as the third most successful Kiwi film made in the 90s. At the NZ Film and TV awards in 2000, it won most of the major awards, including best film, director, screenplay, and supporting actor (Willa O'Neill). The Dominion called Scarfies "a bona fide Kiwi classic", while Herald writer Russell Baillie found it ‘the most outlandishly entertaining New Zealand film in years".
Internationally the reception was more mixed. Scarfies screened in the World Cinema section at Sundance and American industry magazine Variety praised the tight Brothers Sarkies' script and the movie's "energy, humour and sustained tension".
Some international reviewers remarked on its resemblance to a certain Danny Boyle thriller set in an Edinburgh flat (Shallow Grave, a breakout hit about three middle class flatmates dealing with a dead body, released in 1995). But most noted its verve, and Scarfies sold well overseas. Hopes of mainstream box office success appear to have been curtailed by lack of familiarity with the film's Dunedin context, and a title that outside of New Zealand — as Sarkies put it — "no-one can understand". Indeed in the United States it was retitled Crime 101.
Like Heavenly Creatures, Scarfies combines dark doings with a persuasive sense of adventure and joy. Avoiding becoming over-enamoured of its characters, Scarfies treats its posse of amateur criminals with both celebration and cynicism. It evokes the feeling of that time in life when everything is new, a decaying flat is an adventure to be embraced, and decisions sometimes get made before being thought through.
The film also offers us a warning of how in stressful times, morality can start to slide according to the dictates of the group. Scarfies is a journey into darkness where most of the perpetrators aren't monsters or fantasy heroes, but the people living in the next door flat. And you know what's most worrying: most of them seem perfectly nice.
- Ian Pryor is editor of NZ On Screen.