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Black Sheep (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 June 2007
“Black Sheep” is a poker-faced comedy about bloodthirsty sheep. It also includes half-human, half-sheep monsters like werewolves, only with sheep. In fact, the plot (and transformation scenes) resembles “The Howling,” but it’s funnier—and even more straight-faced. It was made in New Zealand and released there last year; it’s getting practically a stealth release in the U.S., but will soon be available on DVD. Depending on your willingness to go along with this kind sort of thing, you may enjoy it as much as I did.

The film is so solemn about its subject that it’s possible there are some who won’t even feel their legs being pulled, but director Jonathan King is very adept at it, even more so than those guys who made “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” There are only two actual jokes in the film, neither of which will be revealed here, but for one, try to imagine what might work on were-sheep monster the way holy water does on vampires. The rest of the time, the humor is entirely in the premise.

On the profitable Glenolden Station (ranch), young Henry Oldfield had a horrible experience with a pet sheep and his resentful older brother Angus. Now, fifteen years later, Henry (Nathan Meister) is returning to Glenolden for the first time; that childhood trauma gave him a paralyzing phobia regarding sheep, so it’s not a good thing that the taxi taking him home gets stalled in a flock of sheep.

Angus (Peter Feeney) is still resentful of Henry, who’s willing to sell his share in the station, where the handsome, aristocratic Angus has been paying for experiments aimed at producing an improved breed of sheep. A big press conference announcing same is scheduled for the next day. Though Nathan is glad to see tough old housekeeper Mrs. Mac (Glenis Levestam) and childhood pal Tucker (Tammy Davis), a man’s man, he just wants to get the hell away from the sheep.

Meanwhile, environmental activisits Grant (Oliver Driver) and the weirdly-named Experience (Danielle Mason) are sneaking up on Angus’ laboratory barn, where cold-blooded scientist Dr. Rush (Tandi Wright) has been conducting her experiments. As she’s ordering some mysterious containers to be taken away, Grant dashes in, grabs one and heads for the hills.
But even though he evades his pursuers, he drops the container. It breaks open and a fetal sheep drags itself out of the shards. It looks harmless enough—but then it viciously bites Grant and tries to tear him apart. As Grant goes one way, the sheep critter crawls the other, right into a flock of sheep. The maternal feelings of one are aroused, but when it reaches the bleating embryo/monster, it bites her on the nose, and the horror begins.

Make no mistake: “Black Sheep,” bizarrely comic though it is, really is also a horror movie. The lamb’s bite turns the sheep carnivorous, and their favored food is people. There are lots of spilled human entrails dotting the rolling green hills of New Zealand before the movie’s over. Sometimes the sheep don’t kill people, merely savagely bite them, and those people turn into sheep monsters also hungry for human flesh and eager to spread the transformative effects.

Tucker is bitten on the foot by a sheep that seems to want to drive his truck off a cliff. He, Henry and Experience (who’s joined them) manage not to go off the cliff, but Tuck falls into the clutches of Dr. Rush. She’s more interested in what she can turn him into than in a cure, though she’s also thinking about that. Meanwhile, Angus encounters the more slowly-changing Grant, who bites him on his hand, and of course, he, too, eventually starts transforming. But not before he plays out (off screen) the Gene Wilder section of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” Needless to say, becoming a sheep monster does not improve Angus’ disposition.

The movie is fast-paced, well acted and witty from beginning to end. King also scripted, and has a sure hand with this kind of thing, which is very hard to bring off. Usually, horror comedies are parodies (like “Scary Movie” or “Young Frankenstein”) or more openly comic (like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”). This kind of elaborate leg-pull is very uncommon, very difficult to realize, but King does it with great panache. “Black Sheep” is not an ambitious movie—how could anyone be ambitious about killer sheep?—but in its modest way, it scores big.

The cast is unknown to Americans—or, for that matter, probably to most New Zealanders. Nathan Meister and Danielle Mason have very brief filmographies; Peter Feeney’s is longer, and includes some episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Tammy Davis, ingratiating as Tucker, was in “Whale Rider.” All are very good, particularly Mason, who gets some of the better lines (“The feng shui in this room is terrible!”), while Meister follows the classic hero’s path of overcoming fears (in this case, of sheep) and rising to the occasion. Feeney makes a great bad guy, cold, arrogant and wrong.

“Black Sheep” was filmed on scenic, unfamiliar locations, with good wide-screen photography by Richard Bluck. Considering where it was made, it’s not surprising to find Peter Jackson’s name in the “thanks to” list at the end, or to see his WETA Workshop largely in charge of the special effects. Marion Davey of WETA was the “creature effects coordinator,” with Dave Elsey and Davina Lamont in charge of the makeup effects.

The “hey, we’re SERIOUS!” attitude extends to the cast list; for the first time in movie history, one actor (Kevin McTurk) is listed as playing a “weresheep.” If you like your horror comedies played straight as PART of the comedy, “Black Sheep” could tickle you as much as it did me.

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