Opening Friday, June 22
Directed by Jonathan King
The story revolves around Nathan Meister’s Henry Oldfield, a young man returning to the family sheep farm after fifteen years, deadly afraid of sheep due to a childhood incident. His older brother Angus (Peter Feeney), responsible for that sadistic event (which might be traced back to his parent’s choice in name) is going to sell the farm in favor of a new plant where his scientists have created a new genetically superior sheep that provides more wool. Henry is ready to leave the farm with a nice size check when the sheep start giving him a reason to be afraid of them, after a couple animal lovers unwittingly unleash a genetic experiment meant to be destroyed, but instead begins turning the local sheep into infested man-eating creatures that immediately go on the attack.
That’s the set-up, and if you think the thought of killer sheep sounds like some sort of extended Monty Python sketch, then you’re probably ready for the amount of laughs that King delivers every time a sheep turns up on screen with eerie accompanying music. It’s doubtful that Black Sheep was ever meant to be particular scary, although its humor doesn’t necessarily come from actual jokes as much as the absurdity of the situation and the fact that it’s played very seriously. These are sheep after all, those placid creatures that never would harm a child, and this is New Zealand, so there are literally hundreds of them with no way of telling which ones are safe and which ones aren’t. From there, the movie follows a fairly routine storytelling structure with all the ups and downs one normally expects and maybe a few too many telegraphed bits for those who’ve seen too many of the film’s creature attack predecessors.
One can appreciate the light tone King was going for when the first victim is killed by a genetically enhanced embryo that looks a bit like a sock puppet, and that’s only the start of what includes many different variations of the creatures, as well as a number of more evolved beasts. While King’s countrymate Peter Jackson might seem like his most obvious influence – WETA FX even helped with the CGI – the roots of Black Sheep might go further back to John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” especially once the bitten humans start changing. Fans of gore will appreciate King’s splatterific vision and the way he uses impressive make-up and special effects to appease the bloodlust of horror fans, and though some of it’s pretty revolting like the offal pit, the absurdity of what is killing people makes it easier to palate. (Oddly, the close-ups of the region’s cuisine are more likely to turn stomachs.)
The big question is whether this joke is able to sustain itself over an entire movie and that’s really the movie’s only real stumbling block. After all, it’s funny that Henry could be so deathly afraid of these creatures and that he finally has an actual reason to be afraid of them, and the movie’s full of clever sight gags, includine one that fans of Toonz the Cat might appreciate. One can also enjoy the awkward relationship between Henry and a treehugging farm invader named “Experience” (Danielle Mason), obviously the daughter of hippies, who likes spouting new age nonsense about karma and chi. That said, it does hit a certain point about an hour in where the viewer’s already got the joke, leaving King to have to find a way to get his heroes out of their situation. That’s where the other characters and subplots come in, offering lots of places for King to go rather than simply staying on Henry and Experience the entire time.
“Black Sheep” is certainly a welcome entry into the burgeoning horror-comedy field, blending its mad environmental science with a lot of fun laughs and enjoyable characters that might make the ubiquitous sequel even stronger.