New Zealand cinema is perhaps best known for three main genres; world cinema arthouse such as ‘Whale Rider’ and ‘Once Were Warriors’; the elephant-in-the-room Tolkein-Peter Jackson blockbusters of the last decade; and the low-budget gore-fests such as ‘Bad Taste’ and ‘Braindead’ that made Jackson’s name in the first place and remain perhaps the most intriguing and incongruous export from an island chain still best known for being Australia’s neighbour (oh, and the home of ‘Flight of the Conchords’).
‘Black Sheep’ is solidly in the third tradition of these and, encouragingly, firmly maintains the Kiwi tradition for making the grungiest, funniest and most physically substantial horror movies in the world today. The film mixes and matches Romero-style zombie horde techniques with creature designs that combine ‘Brain Dead’s’ Sumatran Rat Monkey with ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (including a loving homage to that film’s famous transformation scene).
The filmmakers’ minds are, at all times, unashamedly in the gutter, and the narrative is quick-paced and genuinely funny. The emphasis is not on scares but gross-out, though gross-out in a somehow more acceptable and less exploitative way than the current US trend for torture-porn. ‘Black Sheep’ aims for the same sort of audience as ‘Death Proof’ or ‘Planet Terror’ but sets out its stall with lush digital cinematography rather than deliberately scratched out filmstock and missing reels. In the same way that ‘Bad Taste’ was made on a shoe-string but went to great lengths to look as polished as possible (with limited success), ‘Black Sheep’ is all about making the most out of its limited resources rather than looking cheaper than it is.
This is largely thanks to two things. Firstly the incredible work of the Weta workshop – the live action element of the special effects studio that contributed to ‘Lord of the Rings’ and 2005’s ‘King Kong’. In ‘Black Sheep’ the emphasis is on the real, the tangible. Just as ‘Die Hard 4.0′ has a physicality to much of its action sequences so this movie relies on puppets, prosthetics and palpable oozy gore. The costumes are first rate, the deaths are suitably bloody and the finale loud and messy. It is a glorious experience, and one compounded by some first-rate wrangling of the animal extras – while getting sheep to move in herds is perhaps not the hardest task in the world it is employed to great effect here.
Secondly the film boasts a solid and compelling script. This is no masterpiece but it is self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously while at the same time constructing a coherent narrative that works with its ludicrous premise without just being reliant upon it. At heart someone sat down one day and thought that zombie were-sheep would be funny (they were correct). However, then this one-note joke was built into a full 80-minute movie that remains entertaining and amusing throughout.
In the interest of completeness the plot should be considered, but it is pretty much off-the-shelf monster movie stuff, albeit applied to sheep. Henry Oldfield returns to his childhood home, a sheep-farm, just as his older brother Angus is planning a business deal that is worth millions. Unfortunately this deal hinges on a genetically engineered uber-sheep, boasting the perfect wool for garment manufacture, whose creation has generated some unpleasant biological waste. A brace of hippy environmental activists get involved and it all goes a bit wrong.
This is a film where it would be all too easy to go overboard on a central idea that cries out to be described as zany. However, while this is fundamentally a horror-comedy, it is one that is so competently put together that it deserves a little more respect. This is not to say that the film is anything more than a ludicrous romp, packed with some stupid sight-gags and, yes, chock-full of sheep-shagging jokes, but it’s well-executed and, crucially, very funny. In terms of mindless cinematic entertainment in recent months, ‘Black Sheep’ is definitely the best baaa none.
I’m sorry for that. I’m very, very sorry.