Black Sheep

| July 8, 2007

Killer sheep. That two-word description of the concept behind this little film from New Zealand should tell you whether or not this is a movie for you. For those of you who’ve had your interest piqued by the idea, a full review can be read below. For the rest of you, I’ll wish you a good day.
The opening shots of Black Sheep make sly use of the breath-taking New Zealand countryside. Writer-director Jonathan King realizes that his country’s most famous resident has made a fortune showcasing the pristine beauty of his native land, and he takes advantage of that stereotype, employing similarly sweeping shots of the scenery with an uplifting score that gives the impression of a tasteful epic about to un-spool before our eyes. Unfortunately, it’s the cleverest joke in the film.
After this peaceful opening, we’re introduced to the Oldfield family, comprised of Oliver and his sons, Angus and Henry. Angus is a sullen jerk of a teenager who plays an extremely mean and dark trick on Henry, using Henry’s pet sheep as a prop. While Henry is still traumatized by this cruel prank, they receive word that Oliver has been killed in an accident. Fifteen years later, Henry (Nathan Meister) is now a young man in therapy for an extreme fear of sheep, the result of Angus’ cruel joke. He returns to the family farm to sell his share of it to Angus (Peter Feeney). Angus has grown into a morally corrupt sheep baron, turning their father’s sheep farm into a large and successful enterprise. He has also been dabbling in genetic experiments on his sheep, trying to grow a more luxuriant form of wool. The side effects of the experiments have been unsavory, to say the least. When Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver), two animal rights activists, steal a jar containing waste from the experiment, they accidentally release a very angry, very mutated sheep fetus that nearly bites Grant’s ear off before escaping to infect the sheep on the Oldfield farm. Before you can say “Baa-ram-ewe,” hundreds of bloodthirsty sheep are running wild as Henry’s worst fears come to life.
It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that King really wants Black Sheep to be a throwback to the splatter comedy movement started by the schlock-fests of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!) and perfected by the likes of Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Brain Dead), Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy) and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). These films tickled not only the funny bone, but the gag reflex as well. The fact that King fails in his attempts to emulate those mini-classics doesn’t make his intentions any less noble, just misguided. Where those earlier films were giving viewers images and a sense of humor that was new and dangerous, Black Sheep feels less like homage and more like a diluted sampling of bits and pieces of better films from the genre.
Probably the biggest misstep came from the fact that King wants the film to appeal to both a mainstream audience and the splatter comedy crowd. The problem with this approach is that he satisfies neither camp. The mainstream viewers are never going to watch a movie about killer sheep and the few that do wander in by accident are going to tune out as soon as the blood starts hitting the screen. The splatter fan is going to be disappointed by the attempts to court a mainstream audience every time the camera looks the other way from what promises to be a particularly grisly moment. To be fair, there are moments of extreme, dark-humored gore, but they are surprisingly few and far between, not nearly enough to satisfy the gore hounds this should have been aimed at.
Another major problem is the humor in the film. King tries to load up his script with quirky characters and dialogue designed to keep the jokes rolling even when the sheep are off-screen. Most of this humor falls flat, leaving his cast flailing about, trying in vain to make the humor hit its mark. The new-age babble that Mason is saddled with is particularly bad and makes you root for the sheep to make her their next victim. This is a major problem when you’re supposed to be pulling for her to survive. There are laughs to be had they just all come from the visuals of the sheep terrorizing the heroes and the occasional sarcastic throw-away line delivered with smarmy glee by Feeney. His response to the news that “the sheep are revolting!”–“Aren’t they?”
The film looks and sounds great, with lush cinematography that gives the much-admired New Zealand scenery a chance to shine and a sound design that manages to turn the familiar “baa” of the sheep into a menacing war cry. Special mention has to go to the special effects team at Weta Workshop. Not only do the mutated sheep-creatures and various torn-apart corpses look great, but also the animatronic sheep are phenomenal. When put side by side with the actual sheep, they blend in perfectly. The illusion is seamless and goes a long way to keeping the premise credible long after the script abandoned the rest of the film to make lame jokes about sheep flatulence and “rocky mountain oysters.”
It’s hard for me to fault an attempt to return the splatter comedy to some of its former glory since it’s a genre near and dear to my heart. But ultimately, King doesn’t deliver enough on either the splatter or the comedy to recommend his film. Viewers looking to get their sick sense of humor satisfied by more recent fare would be better off checking out Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz or James Gunn’s surprisingly gory and entertaining Slither.

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