What does one say about a comedic horror film with killer sheep that hasn't been said before? I mean, seriously, what insight do I have to offer when it comes to rabid, flesh-eating lambs?
Black Sheep is an unapologetic B-movie gorefest from New Zealand, a country where sheep outnumber people by something like four to one. Written and directed by first-timer Jonathan King and featuring Fangoria-style splatter effects by the Weta Workshop (part of the effects team on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, and tons more), Black Sheep taps into what surely must be the fear of many a Kiwi, and yet does so with the kind of quirky humor we can expect from that part of the world.
Two brothers reared on a farm in the pastoral New Zealand wilderness and who lost their father at an early age have grown up with two differing resentments of the wooly animals their family has raised for generations. The older brother, Angus (Peter Feeney), saw the sheep as a barrier between himself and the rest of the family, and so now he is having his revenge by turning them into the ultimate commodity. His younger brother, Henry (Nathan Meister), has turned them into a symbol of childhood trauma and developed a deathly fear of them. He is returning to the farm after many years to sell his stake in the place to Angus and finally be free of the baying beasts.
Only, big bro' is up to nefarious shenanigans that involve gene splicing in order to build better livestock. To that end, he has hired a disgraced scientist (Tandi Wright) to pursue the unthinkable in secret. The weekend of Henry's return is to be the new hybrid's unveiling, only Angus is going to be exposed in a way he didn't expect. Two crusading environmentalists, Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason), liberate one of Angus' cast-offs, unleashing a plague on the flock that turns them into murderous, marauding balls of fluff. It's going to be up to Henry to overcome his fears and stop his brother and his sharp-toothed sheep. As a bonus, he just may fall in love with Experience in the process.
Obviously, Black Sheep takes itself none too seriously, and the film ends up being goofy fun. Though it could have probably been either a little funnier or a little scarier, rather than settling in some kind of middle ground between the two, you'd have to be feeling pretty grim and cynical not to succumb to the sheer dumbness of the premise. Combining tropes from a wide variety of midnight schlock, parodying zombie movies and mad scientist plots while making fun of hippies, the overtly Green, and even family dramas, Black Sheep bites off pieces of just about everything and spits it back out as bloody chunks of comedy.
Fans of old-school frightfests will particularly like the old-fashioned approach to the special effects. The zombie sheep are all puppets and animatronic constructions rather than digital effects. Torrents of red food coloring and syrup are dumped on rubber-made intestines and skin. The truly grotesque, however, is saved for the infected humans, the transforming weresheep that could prove to be the real threat were the plague to leave the farm. The filmmakers had a good time coming up with this stuff, and it shows onscreen.
So, if you're looking for a few shocks and quite a lot of belly laughs, Black Sheep will make for some excellent popcorn viewing. It won't change your life, but it might make you think twice next time you pull on that wool sweater.
The widescreen transfer on Black Sheep is a solid job. Nothing spectacular, but no problems either. I did catch a layer shift in chapter 7, but it was nearly imperceptible because it occurred while the screen was black. Only a brief hiccup in the audio was noticeable.
The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is pretty good, using the full range of speakers to create the spookified atmosphere and instigate a few of the scares. There are Spanish subtitles, as well as closed captioning.
An audio commentary with writer/director Jonathan King and lead actor Nathan Meister is jokey and keeping in the fun spirit of the main feature. Both share plenty of information about shooting the picture and the particular peculiarities of working with Weta's live puppets and models. Weta Workshop also takes center stage in the thirty-minute "The Making of Black Sheep" documentary. The design, construction, and execution of the effects dominate about 80% of the featurette. It's well made, though be prepared for a sound glitch in the program. When we go into the scientist's lab, a few seconds of audio drop out completely.
Five deleted scenes with optional commentary are largely inconsequential sequences full of exposition that was deemed redundant. A two-minute blooper reel is surprisingly laconic, but "Early Morning (Surprise Scene Shot Exclusively for DVD)" is a pretty funny on-set gag. The theatrical trailer is also worth watching and should be studied as a good example of how to properly sell a movie (not that it helped Black Sheep at the box office).
Recommended. No pretensions, no high-minded metaphors, just cheap thrills and silly laughs. Black Sheep is the first ever movie to see the horror in sheep herding. Played for giggles, but also full of a few good scares and wicked gross-out moments, this Kiwi romp is exactly what it sells itself as and nothing more. Yeah, it's not a classic or anything, but so what? Hating Black Sheep is the equivalent of hating fun, and you don't hate fun, do you?
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.