Black Sheep (2007)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/09/07 11:26:02

"Angry, hungry sheep. Beautiful."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: "Black Sheep" is a whole ton of fun. It's not really scary in the least, of course, but it's got more genuine laughs than most comedic "horror" films, and is well-polished to boot.

Nathan Meister stars as Henry Oldfield, who is phobic about sheep - no wonder, considering what happened to his father when he and brother Angus (Peter Feeney) were kids. Henry is selling Angus his interest in the family farm, but while that's happening, Angus is preparing to debut a genetically engineered uber-sheep created by controversial scientist Dr. Rush (Tandi Wright) to foreign investors, while environmentalists Grant (Oliver Driver) and Experience (Danielle Mason) are looking to gather evidence that Angus and Rush are doing something highly unethical. Between Rush's lax protocols for waste disposal and Grant's being an idiot, this research makes its way into the wild, turning sheep carnivorous and turning those that they bite (but don't devour) into mad were-sheep with a similar taste for human flesh.

The basic absurdity of the concept, of course, is that sheep are some of the most docile herbivores on earth; they're fuzzy and lack even what might be considered useful aggression. Imagining that the flocks of sheep which I believe outnumber human beings in the film's setting of New Zealand could turn on their masters is an easy idea to come up with, but might be difficult to sustain over even ninety minutes. Writer/director Jonathan King and the visual effects team at the WETA workshop manage it in part by letting their sheep more or less be sheep - they don't have faces permanently contorted into anthropomorphic rage, and they don't appear to be bigger or more muscular. They look like regular sheep until they get close, narrow their eyes, open a mouth full of blood-soaked teeth and strike. A stampeding herd of sheep looks comical because it's so incongruous.

Just because there's a general feeling of silliness doesn't mean that this is a cute PG-13 spoof. The filmmakers consistently and gleefully go for the gross-out in all its myriad forms. There's the comic gross-out as King cuts from a killer sheep about to attack its victim to the, um, hardy fare the Oldfields' longtime housekeeper (Glenis Levestam) is preparing. There's the times the film doesn't cut away and a bit rends flesh, with veins, intestines, and other stringy things being tugged at. And, of course, there's the inevitable scene where we must ponder where the line between "odd" and "really, really disgusting" falls where were-sheep and sheep with human DNA are concerned. The were-sheep transformations also do a nice job of straddling the line between funny (people noticing fur on their bodies) and kind of gross - there's one sequence that recalls the great transformation scenes in An American Werewolf in London.

Meister is entertaining enough as Henry - he's equally funny whether being frightened of sheep is supposed to be ridiculous or reasonable. Peter Feeney is amusingly snotty, playing a jerk without making the character a complete caricature. Oliver Driver gives the impression that Grant is doing the activist thing as much to impress cute young girls as to actually make a difference. It's the cute young girl who maybe makes the best impression, though: Danielle Mason gives Experience a daffy sincerity that is unwavering, no matter what New Age-y thing she's espousing at the time, and she's kind of adorable doing the fist pump at taking out a monster sheep when her character might be acting smug about humanity getting screwed over by their tampering with nautre in other films. Also a kick is Glenis Levestam as the unassuming housekeeper who is equally casual about her vegetarian-repellant cookings and handling firearms.

King keeps things moving at a fast pace, with something funny and/or gross happening every couple of minutes. The film still feels laid-back, never feeling like it has to step up or lurching from horror mode to comedy mode; that consistent tone makes the movie fly by. As much as the film is breezy and good-natured - it's the kind of monster movie where you suspect things can be fixed - it never acts like it's above its genre by breaking the fourth wall or winking too hard at the audience.

"Killer sheep" is a goofy concept, and goofy concepts can go wrong when filmmakers think that's enough or try to make things too grim. Fortunately, the people who made "Black Sheep" are inventive and charming from start to finish.

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