Black SheepNick Blake
Black Sheep
Medium: film
Year: 2006
Writer/director: Jonathan King
Keywords: horror, horror-comedy
Country: New Zealand
Actor: Matthew Chamberlain, Nick Fenton, Sam Clarke, Eli Kent, Nathan Meister, Nick Blake, Oliver Driver, Danielle Mason, Peter Feeney, Glenis Levestam, Richard Chapman, Louis Sutherland, Tammy Davis, Tandi Wright, Ian Harcourt
Format: 87 minutes
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 3 November 2009
It's a New Zealand horror movie about sheep. I think you know already whether this film is for you.
Obviously it's a silly idea. That's the whole point, isn't it? Sheep are not inherently scary, which is what makes this film funny. There's a genetic engineering program that's been conducting terrible experiments and the result is a kind of zombie-werewolf virus that's soon spreading through the local sheep population. Have you ever wondered what a zombie sheep would do? Watch this film and find out!
The results, needless to say, are hugely entertaining. Jonathan King is clearly a man who's watched the early films of Peter Jackson and knows the joy that can be had from blood, guts and a bit of tongue in cheek. Killer sheep are funny. The more killing they do, they funnier they are. It never gets old to see someone vanish sideways and die courtesy of a flying blob of wool. What makes the joke even better is that the film's really going for it. The sheep can at times be menacing, as when you find about twenty thousand standing in the garden or when you're crawling underground with rabid mutton snapping at your heels.
The film's not afraid of gore, either. Early on in the film while the sheep are still behaving themselves, we even get gore-a-like shots, such as an old lady skinning a rabbit for dinner or else a pan full of tinned spaghetti. This is more effective than you'd think. The opening with a young lad and an axe is startling as well, while the offal pit is downright nasty. Ewww. For quite a while I was mildly surprised that we were only seeing the aftermath of sheep kills rather than the bloody moment itself, but I should have known better. Around the one hour mark, there's a sheep apocalypse as a group of a dozen or more people get ripped to shreds in the kind of special effects sequence to warm the cockles of your heart. Love, imagination and a sense of humour went into those spraying intestines.
Then there's the ending. There's a villain, you see. Naturally he deserves a spectacular death, for which the film takes care to telegraph a couple of juicy-looking options. I thought I had the finale pegged more than once, but instead it keeps topping itself until we end up with a punchline that's either going to have you laughing aloud or curled up in pain on the floor. Me, I thought it was hysterical. That's one villain who's not going to be getting up again afterwards.
I've mentioned Peter Jackson, but it needs saying that that's a misleading comparison. Despite the obvious similarities of intent, this is a more controlled and professional-looking film than Bad Taste or Braindead. The sense of humour and a willingness to get goofy with the monsters (in this case a bottled sheep foetus) are what these movies all have in common, but Jonathan King has no intention of making a film that looks in any way amateurish. On the contrary, when we're looking at the New Zealand countryside it's rather beautiful.
The cast is good too. This isn't a complicated story, but it's doing all the right things and going about its job more professionally than many films with far bigger ambitions. Our hero is a boy who grew up on a farm, but was given a phobia of sheep by a particularly nasty prank his brother played on him. He doesn't think he belongs out here in the countryside any more, but his brother wants to buy out his share in the family land and his therapist thinks it would be a good idea to go and confront his past. Meanwhile there are also two animal rights activists out there, fulfilling the same plot role as those in 28 Days Later but with a far higher comedy factor. They're complete head cases, even if one of them is pretty, female and obviously destined to be the hero's romantic interest. "What about the salmon farm?" "Those salmon died free!" At first we think the male activist is the nutter and his girlfriend's the normal one, until the girlfriend starts having to interact with other human beings and we realise that she's a space cadet too. "You need to ground yourself. You're a tree."
I liked all the actors here. The comedy is often very funny indeed, the hero is likeable and the villain is both fun and convincing. There's a charming casualness about Antipodean heroes that works really well in films like this. Call it the Crocodile Dundee effect.
Do they make sheep-shagging jokes? Of course they do. "Fuck the sheep!" "No time for that."
The only bit of the film that I thought didn't quite work was at the beginning. Our hero as a boy is looking for his dog and the cinematography goes into Scary Mode, despite the fact that nothing's happened yet and we've been given no reason to think that anything will. That didn't quite work. (Footnote: it's been pointed out to me that I was overlooking the smaller matter of Axe Boy, but I think my subconscious must have judged that killing a sheep wasn't enough to make me worry that anything along those lines might happen to a human.) However apart from that, I thought the whole film pretty much hit its marks dead-on. It's a pretty solid horror movie if you're going by tension and scares, but it also made me laugh quite a lot. It's not quite as impressive as Shaun of the Dead, to pick the other obvious horror-comedy of recent years, but that's mostly because it's telling a smaller, less ambitious story.. Shaun of the Dead is a richer movie in its characters and themes, but Black Sheep has more tension and a more extreme sense of humour. They're both very successful at what they do and I'd happily put them on the same shelf, anyway.
I particularly appreciated the ending. It's silly (twice over), but in a good way. You could say that of pretty much the whole film, in fact.