What appears at first to be an uncomplicated fast-buck windfall turns into a nightmarish spiral of increasingly violent events in "Scarfies," an accomplished first feature from 26-year-old New Zealander Robert Sarkies. A "Shallow Grave"-type scenario bumped into a younger age bracket, this comedy-thriller about amateur criminals in over their heads charts a skillfully modulated descent into progressively darker, crazier territory. Energy, humor and sustained tension should help this small but highly entertaining pic secure a share of offshore theatrical and vid sales.

What appears at first to be an uncomplicated fast-buck windfall turns into a nightmarish spiral of increasingly violent events in “Scarfies,” an accomplished first feature from 26-year-old New Zealander Robert Sarkies. A “Shallow Grave”-type scenario bumped into a younger age bracket, this comedy-thriller about amateur criminals in over their heads charts a skillfully modulated descent into progressively darker, crazier territory. Energy, humor and sustained tension should help this small but highly entertaining pic secure a share of offshore theatrical and vid sales.

Title is local slang for students at the world’s southernmost university, Otago, in Dunedin, where a scarf was once part of the compulsory uniform. Setting for the action is a large, dilapidated house — empty and abandoned, but with free electricity — where five assorted scarfies take up rent-free residence. Investigating the basement soon after moving in, they discover a thriving indoor marijuana plantation, and, after only minimal deliberation, they harvest the crop and sell it to some shady types for $ 50,000, a fraction of its worth.

Having quickly blown most of their newfound wealth, the quintet returns home to find the weed’s enraged original owner (Jon Brazier) in the basement. Panicking, they lock the door on the rabid intruder and postpone decisions until after a crucial rugby match involving the local team. But a solution fails to present itself, and as the hostage becomes more of a handful, relationships among the housemates deteriorate.

Perhaps the prime element making the material so engaging is the fresh, funny dynamic among the five inexperienced criminals. The well-contrasted characters are easygoing, trustworthy Scott (Neill Rea), who tries hard to adhere to his responsible side; smart, pragmatic Emma (Willa O’Neill), shocked by her own moral flexibility; nerdy, virginal Graham (Charlie Bleakley), an innocent capable of cruelty; Alex (Taika Cohen), a roguish charmer with a ruthless streak; and Nicole (Ashleigh Seagar), the voice of reason but also of resentment after being dumped by Alex.

The tight script by the director and his brother Duncan Sarkies steadily accelerates the chaos and desperation of the situation, forcing the captors into a rash, increasingly bizarre course of action that culminates in the contemplation of murder. Several blackly funny developments are particularly inspired, notably Graham using his electronic aptitude to rig an electroshock device to keep the hostage quiet or the use of Superglue to gag him.

Perhaps due to the fact that her character shows the greatest emotional range , O’Neill (“Topless Women Talk About Their Lives”) stands out in the delightful ensemble, but performances are appealing all around. Director Sarkies — whose short films have picked up awards — keeps events careening along at a giddy pace, underscored by a wide variety of songs, mainly from Dunedin bands. While most of the action takes place inside the sprawling house, Stephen Downes’ lively camerawork and Gaylene Barnes’ production design provide plenty of depth.

Scarfies

(COMEDY-THRILLER -- NEW ZEALAND)

Production

An Essential Films release (in New Zealand) of a Portman Entertainment presentation, in association with the New Zealand Film Commission, New Zealand On Air and Film 2, of a Nightmare Prods. production. (International sales: Portman Entertainment, London.) Produced by Lisa Chatfield. Executive producers, Chris Hampson, Chris Brown. Directed by Robert Sarkies. Screenplay, Duncan Sarkies, Robert Sarkies. Camera (color), Stephen Downes; editor, Annie Collins; production designer, Gaylene Barnes; art director, Ken Turner; costume designer, Amanda Neale; sound (Dolby), Chris Hiles; line producer, Trishia Downie; assistant director, Axel Paton; casting, Rachael Bullock. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 16, 1999. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Emma ..... Willa O'Neill Scott ..... Neill Rea Alex ..... Taika Cohen Nicole ..... Ashleigh Seagar Graham ..... Charlie Bleakley The Intruder ..... Jon Brazier
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