Friday, October 23, 2009

#141: Black Sheep


Black Sheep
Written and Directed by Jonathan King
Released March 29, 2007 (New Zealand)

Want to hear four words that can get me to automatically rent a movie, sight unseen? How about "Genetically engineered killer sheep?"

Still, as slapped my money down at the rental counter for the New Zealand-made Killer Sheep, I tried my best to keep my expectations at bay. I remembered seeing a feverish preview of this film floating around online a few years back that made Black Sheep look like an insane bit of Sam Raimi-esque, Evil Dead meets Peter Jackson's Dead Alive craziness.

And for a brief moment, that's what you get. After an extended prologue that sets up the relationship between the young versions of our protagonist Henry and his evil brother Angus, along with the establishing the roots of Henry's fear of sheep, we meet the adult Henry upon his return to the family farm. Returning to wrap up some unfinished business with his brother, Henry cannot wait to leave his past behind.

Meanwhile, his brother is up to no good, having turned the family farm into an experimental genetics lab that has -- for reasons I can't seem to remember -- begun working on a mutated form of the seemingly harmless woolen animal.

This is a horror film... what do you think happens? If you guessed, "The sheep hits the fan," you're right.

Problem is, as batshit crazy as the premise sounds, the potential for insanity here is touched upon but never capitalized on the way you might want from a movie like this one. It's not that the film takes itself too seriously, though there is a danger of that, especially early on in the film where everything is played straight (save for the arrival of two completely annoying environmentalist hippies).

There's a scene right after the "outbreak" begins where a sheep pretty much goes all Toonces the Driving Cat, hilariously taking the wheel of a truck and plummeting to its death. I cheered inside, thinking that this was finally turning into the movie I wanted to see. Bring on the camp! Bring on the gore! Bring on the insanity!

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty here to crack up about. I just wanted more. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like the comic timing was just a little... off. Perhaps there was too much exposition, or maybe there were too many long (and not all that funny) exchanges between Henry and Experience, the female environmentalist. Once that Toonces moment hit, Black Sheep should have just gone off the rails and never let up. As it stands now, there are just too many breaks in the action.

There's still plenty to be impressed about here, especially in the cinematography and special effects work. The movie looks and plays better than any movie with a plot like this probably should. One of writer/director Jonathan King's most impressive feats is how he manages to make something like a sheep slowly chewing grass, or a herd of sheep advancing over a hill, seem completely terrifying by not doing much more than letting his camera roll. The special effects (done through Peter Jackson's WETA Workshop) were equally impressive, and again almost done too well for a horror comedy.

Good but not great, Black Sheep does master one particular idea of successful entertainment: always leave your audience wanting more.

For more on Black Sheep:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Some pretty decent reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

The aforementioned Toonces scene:

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