Black Sheep (2006)
Not a week goes by that I don't ask our Editor-in-Creep if we can have a sheep here at the office. Unfortunately for my ovine aspirations, not a week goes by where I am not told that, no, we cannot have a sheep here at the office. It's a shame really; I like sheep, and there is enough fiber and fleece at Classic-Horror headquarters to prove it. So, it's no surprise that when I caught wind of a new film coming out of New Zealand featuring flocks upon flocks of man-eating Merino, I was deliciously delighted. The New Zealand Film Commission has funded some of my favorite films, and Black Sheep may just join their ranks. A campy bit of ecohorror crossed with comedy, Black Sheep boasts some fantastic gore-effects, interesting and occasionally witty characters, and, of course, one of the most unexpected, disturbing monsters to grace your television screen. Who knew something without any upper incisors could be this dangerous?
Henry Oldfield, the son of a once-successful currently-deceased shepherd, has an intense phobia of sheep. However, he has returned to the family farm to close a deal with his brother, Angus, selling his share of the estate, with the intent of facing his past and then high-tailing it back to the safety of the city. Unfortunately for Henry, Experience, a shrill, new-age ecoactivist and her lame boyfriend have stolen a deformed, unusually aggressive genetically mutated sheep fetus from Angus's agricultural laboratory. And they've accidentally let it loose on the countryside. Way to go guys. Just one bite from this little bugger turns your average, docile ewe into an unstoppable rampaging Romney. Have I mentioned that in New Zealand sheep outnumber people 12 to 1? This is gonna get ugly.
One of the most charming elements of Black Sheep is its story. It's certainly not the first movie to try and make a cute, fluffy creature into an actual threat, but unlike several other films I can name (Night of the Lepus comes to mind), Black Sheep actually manages to pull it off. For starters, sheep aren't small. They're fast enough to run down a healthy human, and, weighing in at an average upwards of 150 pounds, we're all just lucky that sheep are more interested in grass than manflesh. So, rather than actually altering the characteristics of the animal, all Black Sheep had to do was change the personality. Everything else about the sheep remained the same, right down to the dental pad. It's rather scary to think that this is likely a pretty good prediction of what would happen if sheep got a hankering for meat. Makes you think twice about that lamb you're eating for dinner. However, despite the viability of sheep as ruthless killers, Black Sheep isn't foolish enough to take itself seriously. The film is laden with images of sheep congregating in ominous flocks, stalking their prey, or suddenly lunging for the jugular. By keeping the action silly and light-hearted, Black Sheep manages to prevent a descent into unbearably ridiculous, maintaining a delicate balance between self-mocking humor and legitimate horror.
This balance is reflected in how Black Sheep handles its characters. Not a lot of back-story is given, just a couple of minutes of prologue with Henry and Angus back on the farm, where Henry loses his father and gains an unreasonable fear of sheep. Otherwise, the characters are more or less stereotypes. Henry is the lovable country-boy-turned-city trying to escape his past, Experience is the misguided activist who means well, and Angus is the embittered older brother out to make a profit by any means necessary. While, usually, character development, at least for the non-fodder personnel, is key to good horror film, Black Sheep does just fine without it. In fact, good character development would have been death for Black Sheep. Not only would the time spent on back-story delay the wool-laden violence, but it would have also added a layer of seriousness that the film just doesn't need. Black Sheep's success depends on its lightheartedness. Further, the flatness of the characters presents several opportunities for character gags and witty dialogue. In on particular scene, Henry and Experience are trying to make their escape from a house surrounded by sheep. Henry stands frozen on the spot... until Experience tells him to be a tree, using new-age, anglicized chakra meditation to lead him out of the fray. The scene is funny and effective, even more so when Henry repeats the same trick later to help Experience get past her claustrophobia before they are eaten by ewes in an underground tunnel.
The plot is, of course, not without it's flaws. While, generally, Black Sheep manages to maintain a lighthearted sense of fun that helps keep the audience from realizing how ridiculous this whole movie really is, the film occasionally slips up. As an audience, we can accept that the genetic mutation is passed from sheep to sheep through a bite, despite the fact that, really, it makes no sense. Whatever. Man-eating sheep almost make no sense, period. I'm ok with this. But Black Sheep crosses the line with the Were-Sheep. Yeah, you read that right. Were. Sheep. Whenever one of these deadly Drysdales takes a chunk out of a person, he or she starts turning into a giant sheep, while still maintaining a few recognizable elements of human form. Pardon my incredulity, but how, exactly, does a person's entire cellular make-up transform from one species to another? It's not just silly, it's stupid, and the whole movie would have been better off without the subplot.
While we're on the subject of failed subplots, the whole ecological awareness element of the movie might have been better executed, or, better yet, left out of the film entirely. On the one hand, it's hard to take the ecological implications and concerns about genetically engineered animals seriously when the character championing responsible agriculture is a misguided, crystal-waving hippy. At first, it seems like the movie's creators are making fun of the concerns regarding genetically modified organisms by taking potshots at their opponents. This would have been fine, but, by the end of the movie, the genetically modified organisms, having now ravaged half of the small farming village, are restored to their original, genetically pure state and Henry, once terrified of sheep, moves back to the old homestead to start practicing organic farming. The result isn't funny – it's confusing. The mixed signals make it impossible to tell whether Black Sheep is supposed to be warning us about the dangers of messing with Mother Nature, or making fun of the issue while using it as a convenient springboard for sheep-related carnage.
Speaking of carnage, Black Sheep has plenty. The effects are done by Peter Jackson's WETA Workshop, and I know why that's a name I love to see during the credits. The sheep, with few exceptions, look incredibly realistic – right down to the lack of top incisors – despite being smeared with blood, glaring menacingly, and crawling through tunnels in search of tasty people. The gore effects are just as good, as sheep rip into people's necks and blood flies across the screen, tendons and veins exposed in all their gooey glory. One particularly nasty scene showed a group of carnivorous Corriesdales (actually, I think they were Romneys) feasting on a man's innards, zombie style, with intestines and other internal organs being pulled every which way from an open body cavity. Let me tell you, these sheep mean business. Finally, despite its failing as a plot point, the transformation effects for the were-sheep are top-notch, with the face elongation and sprouting wool being reminiscent of The Howling. If I were to imagine a sheep-human hybrid, they would look like this. Overall, a fantastic splatterfest at its finest.
Black Sheep is a dyed-in-the-wool horror-comedy, and a fantastic way to spend a Tuesday night. It's witty, outrageous, and downright gory. Sure, it's got a few gaping plot holes that aren't worth ruminating on, but otherwise, the story is solid and the antagonists are a shear delight. Don't let anyone pull the wool over your eyes – Black Sheep definitely ain't baaaaaa-d.